NFL Cheerleaders Make Less Than Minimum Wage -- And A Lot Of People Are Okay With That

The good news? A few cheerleaders have filed suits claiming they're vastly underpaid. Because they are.
Publish date:
April 29, 2014
nfl, fair pay, nfl cheerleaders

I think I was in my early 20s when I learned that NFL Cheerleaders basically do their jobs for free. I was shocked to find out that even the iconic Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders only made $50 a game and weren’t paid for practices or appearances. That means if the Cowboys don’t make the playoffs (which they haven’t since the 2009 season), the women on the squad are only making $500 per season for a job that can easily require 300 hours of practice and performing.

A mascot, on the other hand, makes anywhere from 23K to 65K.

I remember being upset when I learned this and that some guy tried to reassure me that they made tons of money from their calendars and appearances. I now know this isn’t true (they are required to purchase those calendars at cost with their own money and then sell them on their own time), but even then it bothered me.

“What about the women who cheer for teams that aren’t popular?” I wondered. I mean, after all, how many people are doling out cash for a ticket to Buffalo Bills game, much less a calendar featuring their cheerleaders?

But that was their choice, I figured. They knew what they were getting into and it was their decision. I suppose I saw it a bit like the time I did an internship for credit in college. While I was there, I looked at it as valuable experience. Years later, I realize I actually paid a LOT of money so that a company would let me work for them -- thanks NYU! Yes, it was an amazing opportunity that led to a (crappy) job offer, but it’s totally ridiculous that only someone in a privileged situation like mine would even be able to afford that situation and regardless, I shouldn’t have PAID someone to work for them.

(Once you factor in all of the money the cheerleaders have to spend on hair, makeup, attire etc., they’re effectively paying to do their job.)

People -- most likely wealthy men who have jobs in the NFL -- would argue that being a cheerleader comes with a lot of perks, namely the fame and exposure that can end up landing an NFL cheerleader a modeling or hosting gig. Sure, they say, they’re working for free, but they’re getting an experience that is not only extraordinary, but will likely help them down the line.

Again, I’m not defending that position, but if you think about it, isn’t that something a lot of us do? I can’t even count the amount of times people have asked me to write either for free in exchange for links to my social media. In fact, years ago, I wrote my very first online column for free because I knew it would give me the exposure I needed to get more writing jobs. I wish that weren't the case, that people valued what writers do enough to pay them, but for every "job" I turn down because it pays in "exposure," there's another writer who takes it.

And that’s the problem. These cheerleaders are told that if they don’t want the job, there are plenty of girls out there who do. Starr Spangler Rey, 27, a former three-season Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, says sure the job doesn’t pay a lot. “But there are women who would continue to do it if they paid even less. It’s really not amount the money. It’s about the opportunity, and the prestige, and loving the sport and the game.”

But just because someone will do something for little to no pay doesn’t make it right to not pay her. And now the cheerleaders are fighting back. It started in January when rookie Oakland Raiders cheerleader Lacy T. filed a class action lawsuit against the team “alleging that the Raiders fail to pay their cheerleaders minimum wage for all hours worked, withhold pay until the end of the season, require cheerleaders to cover their own business expenses, don't provide lunch breaks and impose fines for minor infractions -- all of which, according to the suit, constitute violations of the California Labor Code.”

A month later, a Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader filed a similar suit. And last week, five former Buffalo Bills cheerleaders filed a suit alleging they were required to perform 20 hours of unpaid work a week, including “submitting to a weekly “jiggle test” (where cheer coaches “scrutinized the women's stomach, arms, legs, hips, and butt while she does jumping jacks”); parading around casinos in bikinis “for the gratification of the predominantly male crowd;" and offering themselves up as prizes at a golf tournament, where they were required to sit on men’s laps on the golf carts,” etc.

On one hand, it seems crazy to me that it took this long for someone to actually do something about the poor pay of NFL cheerleaders. But on the other hand, I know I shouldn’t be that shocked. These women are doing a job where they’re valued for looking pretty and supporting the team (of men). It shouldn’t be shocking then that men think it’s just fine if they do that for free. It’s not much different from what was expected of women in the 1950s, after all.

No, the only people who could ever bring change to this situation are the cheerleaders themselves. And they aren’t exactly put in a position of empowerment. It’s hard enough to speak up when you know you may lose your job. It’s even harder if you know you won’t have the support of those you’re speaking up for. Instead of applauding Lacy T. for her efforts after she filed the suit, former Raiders’ cheerleaders scoffed at her actions. One alumna said, “We are horrified that this Bitter Betty is suing the organization where we created lasting friendships and a Sisterhood, a *family bond,* that only another Raiderette can fully understand.”

The Buffalo Jills have, unfortunately, suspended all cheerleading activities as a result of the lawsuit and their alumnae are also speaking out against the women who are bravely standing up for what they deserve, calling their lawsuit "petty, self-serving and a mischaracterization of the reality of cheerleading." Isn't it great when women support each other? Ugh.

Still, the good news is that the suits are being filed. These cheerleaders are realizing that, yes, they have highly coveted jobs that some women would do for free, but regardless, they still deserve fair pay and good working conditions. Which, call me crazy, means that how they “care” for their vaginas shouldn’t be up for debate. Sigh.