Professional cheerleading isn’t all pompoms and team spirit — sometimes it’s also $2.85 an hour. With lawsuits being filed, the public is learning about a darker side to the sidelines.
LOS ANGELES — For professional cheerleaders, it can hardly get much better than a job with an NFL team. The glitz, glamour and national television exposure attract thousands of women every year to audition for the prized spots, with only 30 to 40 per team being chosen to hold the pompoms.
Some, including actresses Teri Hatcher, Sarah Shahi and Charisma Carpenter, have parlayed NFL cheerleading into Hollywood stardom.
But three former NFL cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders and the Cincinnati Bengals are now alleging their exposure came at too high a price.
In two wage-and-hour class action lawsuits, they say they were paid less than the minimum wage, their gyrations on the sidelines of football games systematically exploited by employers with no regard for state and federal labor laws.
A former Raiderette identified only as Lacy T. filed the first suit on Jan. 22 in Alameda County, Calif., state court. Former Cincinnati Ben-Gal Alexa Brenneman followed with a federal suit in Ohio on Feb. 11. Both women performed during the 2013 season and both claim they were not paid for all the hours they worked.
Ben-Gals work well over 300 hours a year for the organization, Brenneman says in her suit, but she was paid a total of only $855 for 10 home games, amounting to less than $2.85 an hour. Lacy T. claims her compensation came to around $5 an hour.
The minimum wage is $7.85 an hour in Ohio and $8 an hour in California.
Lacy T. — who has been joined in her suit by Sarah G., another former Raiderette — also alleges that the Raiders fine cheerleaders for, among other things, forgetting to bring the correct pompoms to practice, wearing the wrong workout clothing to rehearsals and turning written biographies in late. Those fines are deducted from the cheerleaders’ compensation, which they receive in a single payment at the end of the season.
Raiderettes rehearse two to three times a week but, according to Lacy T., they are only paid for games — not for rehearsals and promotional or charity appearances. Brenneman says she was not compensated for any of the practices that the Bengals required her to attend.
Both Lacy T. and Brenneman have said there is nothing inherently problematic with professional cheerleading. But their allegations have struck a chord with commentators and others concerned about gender issues and sexism in sports.
“This case is not about gender discrimination, and our clients would not agree that cheerleading is, in and of itself, a form of sexism,” Darci E. Burrell, an attorney for the former Raiderettes, told MintPress in an interview. “That being said, does the fact that cheerleaders are being so significantly underpaid reflect sexism to some degree? I would suggest that it does.”
Twenty-six of the 32 NFL teams currently have cheerleading squads. In 2003, Forbes magazine estimated that they gross more than $1 million a season from cheerleader calendar sales, corporate appearances and clothing lines. Unlike TV royalties, Forbes noted, that money is not included in the NFL’s revenue-sharing program, salaries range from only $200 to $1,000 a month and sponsors can pick up the tab for operating expenses.
Lacy T., 27, signed on as a Raiderette in April after spending two years as a cheerleader for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. The opportunity to dance for an NFL team “was a huge dream for me,” she told Salon.com.
According to the Raiderette contract, she would be paid a flat rate of $125 for each home game at which she performed, but according to her suit, she “was not paid the minimum wage for all hours worked during the course of the 2013-14 season nor was she paid all overtime compensation to which she was entitled.”
Typically, the suit says, Raiderettes work about nine hours on a game day, making them eligible for an hour of time-and-a-half overtime.
The Raiderette contract also provides that cheerleaders waive their right to sue over any matter “arising out of or in any way related to” their employment.
“It has to be one of the most surprising contracts I’ve read in terms of the number of illegal provisions in it,” Burrell, a veteran labor litigator, said.
In her suit, Brenneman says Ben-Gals are paid $90 per home game and when “they are not cheering on the team, they are spending countless hours practicing, exercising and volunteering for community and charity events.”
The team charges around $300 an hour for a cheerleader to appear on its behalf, but Brenneman alleges she made only one paid appearance, lasting several hours, for which she was compensated at the “charity” rate of $75.
Both she and Lacy T. say they had to pay out-of-pocket for expenses, including travel to appearances, hairstyling appointments, cosmetics, yoga mats and skin tanning. Unreimbursed expenses cost the former Raiderette $650 last season.
At Golden State, cheerleaders were paid for every hour worked, Lacy T. said, and had no out-of-pocket expenses. “So I kind of knew off the bat that this was wrong, and very different from what I was used to,” she told Salon.com.
Cheerleaders are also required to comply with strict codes of conduct. The “Cincinnati Ben-Gal Rules,” which cover six pages, forbid cheerleaders from wearing panties under practice clothes uniforms, having “slouching breasts” and being seen in hair curlers.
“Hair must be neat and out of face on every occasion. Glamour is a priority!” the rules say.
The Raiderette guidebook advises cheerleaders that they “need to learn to deal with attention you receive from the public (and especially the players) without it getting out of hand and going to your head.”
Lacy T. is seeking to collect California Labor Code penalties and back wages on behalf of every woman who has been employed as a Raiders cheerleader since January 2010; Brenneman sued under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which also provides for an award of back wages, and is seeking to represent every woman employed as a Ben-Gal since February 2011.
According to the Raiderettes’ lawyers, the damages in their case could be as much as $10,000 to $20,000 per cheerleader. Multiplied by 40 cheerleaders a year over four years, the total sum would be at least $1.6 million.
With the 2013-14 season barely over, NFL teams are already preparing to audition cheerleaders for next season. Cheerleaders must “represent the Cincinnati Bengals organization by actively supporting the team, values and goals of the Club,” the team says on its website.
There may, however, be a shadow looming over those auditions. Not only have the two class actions been filed, but the U.S. Labor Department has opened an investigation into the Raiders’ cheerleader policies and a petition posted on Change.org calling on NFL team owners to pay cheerleaders a living wage has so far collected 100,000 signatures.
“I thought this was the NFL, not Wal-Mart,” one signer of the Change.org petition wrote, while another complained, “This is blatant sexism.”
Lacy T.’s lawyers say unfair compensation is an “NFL-wide practice,” with virtually every team they’ve heard of following practices similar to those of the Raiders.
“It is a bunch of women that are living our dream, and they’re taking advantage of us, and they have all of the power in the world to change it, and the men in the office have just chosen not to,” Lacy T. told Salon.com.
Neither the Raiders nor the Bengals have so far responded to the lawsuits. One former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader has risen to their defense.
“Do they pay a lot? No, they don’t,” Starr Spangler Rey told Time. “But there are women who would continue to do it if they paid even less. It’s really not about the money. It’s about the opportunity, and the prestige, and loving the sport and the game.”
According to Rey, every NFL cheerleader knows the job doesn’t pay well and they should be working another job to pay their bills. “Do I agree with it? Not really. But at the same time, it is what it is,” she said.
But Sarah G., who is a flight attendant, said she wasn’t aware of any possible illegality until she read Lacy T.’s suit. “I felt cheated,” she told Salon.com. “I felt used, betrayed by an organization that I gave my heart and soul to for the past four seasons.”
“This isn’t something I wanted to have to do,” Brenneman said. “But … someone needs to take a stand for us as athletes.”
Burrell argues that the “honor and privilege” of being a Raiderette does not “outweigh the need to be paid in accordance with the law.”
“There are certainly a lot of jobs that lead to great opportunities,” she told MintPress. “But they still get compensated for them. There isn’t any reason why this team that makes a significant amount of money can’t pay these women.”