On Thursday evening, nearly 70,000 fans gathered at Gillette Stadium to rejoice the kickoff of the 96th NFL season. The deafening crowd in Foxborough, toasting over foamy Boston brews, comprised just a droplet in the sea of spectators; after months of waiting, 26 million fans tuned in for the season opener. Football, and its concurrent gush of imbibed comradery, post-game debauchery, drama, distractions and ever-patient fanatics, has emerged from the teasing haze of pre-season competitions.
The boys are back.
But, hey, the girls are back too, and this season they’re playing in unconventional roles. Jen Welter assumes the honor of first female coach in NFL history, while Sarah Thomas forges new ground as the first full-time female official. According to a Scarborough survey, women currently comprise 45 percent of the NFL fan-base and one third of the television viewers. The girls are indisputably back — as coaches, referees and fans — but most noticeably, as beaming, applauding and back flipping dancers on the sidelines.
Cheerleading, a traditionally gendered form of fan integration with men’s sports teams, consists of high-intensity training, nationwide media campaigns, choreographed gymnastics and boundless volumes of eye shadow, self-tanner and hairspray. As visual entertainment, cheerleading embodies the raucous fun, sex appeal and commercial value in NFL culture. Cheerleader themed calendars, publicity appearances and game day performances thrust cheerleaders into a highly visible, commercial role.
Yet despite the hyper-visibility afforded to the lustrous imagery of NFL cheerleaders, their salaries, working conditions and contract stipulations remain suspiciously out of sight. Last year, a slew of legal battles foregrounded the paltry compensation cheerleaders receive; squads in California, New York, Ohio and Florida have filed lawsuits against the assumption that cheering is free labor. In addition to game day performances, cheerleaders accommodate a packed schedule of training, appearances, charity events, beauty maintenance and travel — most of which goes uncompensated. Even when contracts guarantee wages, women generally earn lower than the state minimum (sometimes less than $5 per hour), receive compensation erratically or collect less than the promised amount.
Lacy Thibodeaux of the Oakland Raiderettes contends that the Raiders never offered to offset the cheerleaders’ travel expenses; women were expected to finance their tickets and accommodations. The Buffalo Jills allege that managers required women to pay $50 to try out for the team and an additional $650 charge for the uniforms if selected. The cumulative $700 is nearly seven times the total compensation given to some Jills for their 800 hours of labor during the season. Several squads cited pressure from managers to engage in expensive cosmetic regimes, including breast augmentation, hair coloring and artificial tanning — procedures that can cost thousands of dollars — with no mention of reimbursement. Fees for offenses ranging from gaining weight, failing to tan “sufficiently” and wearing unapproved underwear can rack up extra surcharges in some squads. Furthermore, fines for missing practice, games and charity events complicate the possibility of maintaining secondary sources of income.
The manifold exploitations of NFL cheerleaders exceed deprivation of pay. Grievances include strenuous hours without breaks, training in unhealthy temperatures and widespread sexual harassment. The evidence released in Deflategate illuminated commonplace nonconsensual filming of Patriots cheerleaders. A plaintiff in the Jills’ case discusses a mandatory golf tournament in which cheerleaders were required to perform back flips for sponsors who bid to choose which woman would accompany them in their carts. However, the carts held a solitary seat; the bikini-clad Jills confronted the option of gripping the back of the vehicle or accepting the pointed offer to recline in the sponsor’s lap. Women cited the persistence of harassment in many spaces of their work, voicing outrage at men’s crude ogling, grabbing and objectifying commentary.
Organizational orders further reiterate this climate of disrespect for the cheerleaders. The Buffalo Jills disclosed their “Agreement & Codes of Conduct” which mandates workplace habits such as “Do not be overly opinionated about anything,” “ALWAYS shower after a workout and change undergarments” and “When menstruating, use a product that’s right for your menstrual flow. A tampon too big can irritate and develop fungus.” While some of these decrees could conceivably pass for well-meaning medical advice, a corporation that does not offer sick days or workers’ compensation hardly earns the benefit of the doubt.
In fact, cheerleaders face higher risk of catastrophic injury than any other female athlete; since the 1990s, the rate of cheerleaders in the ER has risen by more than 200 percent. Cheerleaders undergo unparalleled risks to support their teams, but without contractual protection, many women end up without coverage for hospital bills, lost wages or future disability costs.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (naturally) claims “no knowledge” of the cheerleaders’ compensation; his own signature on the Jills’ contracts appears to be a non-issue. Goodell’s lawyers further assert that NFL cheerleaders are contracted vendors and their wages fall to the jurisdiction of individual teams. However, the NFL capitalizes on the marketing and elite performances of the cheerleaders through which they aggregate millions of dollars every year. As a league that rakes in $10 billion annually (an ample $44 million of which ends up in Goodell’s pocket), the NFL does not operate on a shoestring. In fact, to pay every cheerleader a measly $10 per hour, the NFL would spend $7.6 million — less than a fifth of Goodell’s salary. Mascots, concessions workers and other stadium employees are paid; why not cheerleaders?
This summer, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law mandating at least minimum wage for cheerleaders associated with professional teams in the state. New York legislators introduced a bill with similar provisions, arguing, “Sports teams and owners should not continue to capitalize without providing the most basic workplace protections.” A Change.org petition garnered more than 150,000 signatures to pressure the NFL into recognizing cheerleaders as employees and issuing them a “living wage.” The activism of lawyers, journalists, fans, politicians and cheerleaders has begun to unsettle the NFL’s dismissal of cheerleaders’ labor rights. But if Goodell doesn’t rethink his disregard, Football Sundays may continue without the tradition of cheerleading.