What's Behind NFL Cheerleader Lawsuits?

As we move through 2014, more NFL cheerleaders are suing their teams. Why are they taking legal action?

Jake Mann
Jake Mann
Apr 29, 2014 at 8:35AM
The Business

There's a labor battle brewing in college football, but don't overlook what's happening in the NFL. Last week, a group of ex-Buffalo Bills cheerleaders filed suit against their former team. They join cheerleaders from the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders, who earlier this year, announced similar lawsuits. Why are they taking legal action? 

The first to act
The first to act was a camp of Oakland cheerleaders, the Raiderettes, in January. Their case centers around allegations of unfair pay. One member of the squad, known as 'Lacy T.' in the lawsuit, shared her experience with the San Jose Mercury News: 

The club controls our hairstyle and makeup, and we have to foot the bill. We also have to pay the costs for traveling to all kinds of events, including photo shoots.... I love being a Raiderette, but someone has to stand up for all of the women of the NFL who work so hard for the fans and the teams.

In addition to uncovered work expenses, the Raiderettes also claim they're paid just $1,250 each season. Given practice and performance time, that amounts to an hourly wage of less than $5. California's minimum wage, by comparison, is $8.

Oakland Raiderettes (performing with Junior Raiderettes), Broken Sphere, Wikimedia Commons

While the U.S. Department of Labor ruled against the Raiderettes last month -- it deemed them "seasonal amusement" not entitled to a minimum wage -- that isn't the end of their story. The case should go to arbitration, according to Time, a process the Raiders want the NFL to oversee. Because this could be a conflict of interest -- the league has a close relationship with each of its teams --  exact arbitration terms will be determined in court next month.

The 'Ben-Gal' who followed
Citing a similar wage issue, next to follow was Alexa Brenneman, a member of the Cincinnati Bengals' Ben-Gals. In February, the cheerleader filed a suit claiming she was paid just $855 for 300 hours of work last season -- a mere $2.85 an hour. Like the Raiderettes, the Ben-Gals are expected to pay for transportation and clothing costs.

By far the most interesting part of Brenneman's lawsuit is its mention of the Seattle Seahawks' Sea-Gals. The team pays its cheerleaders the Washington State minimum wage of $9.32 for every hour worked, plus overtime -- more than three times what the Ben-Gals reportedly earn.

A bigger issue
In the newest suit, five ex-Buffalo Jills, who worked for the Bills, detail a laundry list of unfair working conditions. In addition to a pay rate below the minimum wage, complaints range from "jiggle tests" -- to gauge if a woman is fit for game day -- to groping at an annual golf tournament. The Jills were given instruction on how to walk, talk, eat, and even clean themselves that "far exceeded what they signed on for," the women told the Associated Press.

One example, Deadspin reports, tells the Jills not to use slang in conversation. Another asks them to avoid talking about politics, religion, and "strong opinions." Instructions on hand-washing frequency and deodorant usage are also given.  While leaked documents reveal the Ben-Gals -- like most NFL cheerleading squads -- are subject to stringent rules of their own, the Jills' are particularly callous.

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The business side of things
Of course, NFL cheerleaders don't come close to generating the billions of dollars in revenue the league makes, but you might be surprised by the size of their financial footprint. The Dallas Cowboys' squad, for example, pulls in an estimated $1 million annually, and Brenneman's lawsuit mentions the Ben-Gals also likely make close to this amount. 

A 2010 report from Darren Rovell estimates sponsorships and event fees are responsible for much of this revenue, though no details are publicly known. Assuming each of the league's 26 teams that boast squads earn around seven figures per year, the entire NFL cheerleading industry could be worth over $20 million. That's close to what some franchises make from ticket sales during the course of a full season.

Most amazingly, though, it'd cost each team just $300,000 to $450,000 to pay each of its 20 to 30 regular cheerleaders a yearly salary of $15,000. That amount, in total, would still be cheaper than the $35 million Roger Goodell made as commissioner last season.

The bottom line
The future is uncertain, but with the Seahawks serving as a beacon of how teams could treat their cheerleaders, more may join the fight. In a sport that generates billions each year, it wouldn't be that expensive to pay its squads more. And with all luck, the league will consider adopting standards to govern how invasive team rules can be. The level of control imposed on the Jills, as mentioned above, is borderline inhumane.

Sure, some will likely argue: Thousands of other girls would give anything to be an NFL cheerleader, so what's the problem with paying them next to nothing, and giving them little to no respect? I've heard the defense before. But it's one that's ultimately flawed. In what other profession does a labor surplus allow an employer to treat its employees so poorly? The Fair Labor Standards Act, that's stood for over 70 years, was literally created to prevent just that.