Is Pro Cheerleading a Scam? Raiderettes Say Yes and Sue the NFL [And why I agree with them]

by Charlotte on January 29, 2014 · 30 comments


 Athlete? Or just worst texting posture ever?

Still looking for a theme for your Super Bowl Party? You might want to consider “lawsuit” – at least if you’re an NFL cheerleader or someone who loves NFL cheerleaders. (Or someone who loves lawyers.) After years of putting on their game faces – both on and off the field – some of the Raiderettes have decided to break ranks and open up about the awful way the NFL treats their girls by suing the Oakland Raiders and the NFL for illegal contracts, loss of pay, unfair employment contracts and a host of other smaller indignities that have shocked all of us who still think of cheerleaders as the high school girls who Had It All.

Sharon Vinick, the lawyer representing the Raiderettes, explains that the Raiders cheerleaders are contracted for an annual salary of $1,250, which amounts to an hourly wage of less than $5 per hour. Not only are they payed an abysmal salary but they only get it at the end of the season, after all their “fines” are deducted. Here are just a few of the things you can be penalized for if you’re a Raiderette:

Forget to bring (including but not limited to) correct pom(s) or props to practice? $10.00 fine

Wear wrong designated workout wear and/or footwear for two-piece Wednesday rehearsals, special rehearsals and/or game day rehearsals? $10.00 fine

Not able to get bios in on time? $10.00 fine

Forget all or part of the official uniform, boots, and or poms for any event or game day? $10.00 fine (per item) and/or benched from game (-125.00)

Boots not clean and polished for game day? $10.00 fine

Failure to follow point #1 under Etiquette or Appearances (Game Day Ready)? $10.00 fine

FINES WILL CONTINUE TO DOUBLE IF INFRACTIONS CONTINUE. Example: a $10 fine will go up to $20 if you forget to wear the proper attire for a second time, etc.

Vinick adds dryly, “I have never seen an employment contract with so many illegal provisions.”

In addition to all the fines, NFL cheerleaders are also expected to maintain their assigned makeup and hairstyles, keep up their tans, buy gym memberships and even pay for some travel, all of which can add up to thousands of dollars. One Ravens cheerleader estimates each girl on her squad pays about $2000 out of pocket for hair and makeup alone over the course of the season. There is a vaguer list of reasons a girl can get “benched” from a game – deviating more than 3 pounds above her baseline weight is one as is “fraternizing” with the players – which results in losing the entire $125 salary for that day. Even worse, they are still expected to show up and dance pre-game and during half-time. So they’re there, still doing their job, but not getting paid.

It’s that whole “doing their job” that seems to be the crux of the issue. The NFL apparently views cheerleading as a “hobby” and therefore not covered by employment law but of course the cheerleaders themselves (and I’m guessing the majority of the fans) see it as a job. But it’s clear that if you screw up just a few times, it’s not a job or a hobby but rather volunteer work. And while it’s the Raiderettes suing, the problems are endemic in the NFL system.

Here’s where I admit two things that make me not an impartial viewer:

1. I detest watching American football. There aren’t enough O’s to tell you how boooooring I find it. According to the Wall Street Journal, they only “play” for 11 minutes out of a 4+ hour game and the rest is watching people have heated conversations with each other that you can’t hear and flash hand signs that could just as easily mean “I have lice and I’m not afraid to show it” as “throw a Hail Mary.” Plus, do you know how much prime seats to the Super Bowl cost? $25,700!! To watch some people move for 11 minutes! And, for those of us at home, 100+ advertisements! Although I do kind of dig the ads. I may be the only person who wanders out of the room during the actual game and then comes running back in when I hear the ads start. (Did I just offend all the NFL fans? I’m sorry. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy it, only that I don’t. Really, really don’t.)

2. I have a real soft spot for the cheerleaders. Not only do I find them the most entertaining part of the game (after the ads!) but I actually really like them as people. Because, if you recall, I was one.


 Seriously how could you ever get bored watching this guy??

Okay no I wasn’t. I got to “be an NFL cheerleader for a day” as part of a story I was writing for Shape and for the Star Tribune about how cheerleaders work out. So I showed up with my notepad and recorder and photographer in tow -which obviously made it a totally legit and authentic experience – and worked out with the squad. I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect to like them going into it. (I didn’t expect to hate them either. I just figured they’d be kind of bland.) But it ended up being one of the most interesting stories I’ve done. 

Sure there was a lot of talk about reps and glutes and training frequency and all that good stuff but the best part was talking to all the girls as we lunged, caterpillared and booty-banded our way across the field. While they’d obviously all had a lot of media training (and no one is going to go rogue with the reporter while their coaches are watching), I found them all to be really great women. They came from all walks of life, professions, races and ages. But one thing that stood out to me the most was that even though they’d ostensibly reached the pinnacle of the cheerleading pyramid, they didn’t consider themselves “pro cheerleaders”. They were teachers, nurses, car mechanics, graduate students, moms, waitresses, school counselors and scientists. Pay was not discussed but as they told me about their grueling routines and rigid schedules and all the requirements that went with their position, it became apparent that they couldn’t afford to be pro cheerleaders. Cheerleading was a second job. Or a third or fourth job. And yet it was a job they loved.

I was also impressed with how hard they work. Say what you will about the fact they are required to wear fake eyelashes, a mouthful of red lipstick, dance tights and (the worst part for me) their hair down at all times, even during gym workouts, but those girls are just as much athletes as the NFL players. And I’m pretty sure they are moving way more than 11 minutes during each game. Plus they train hard. It’s true I’ve done tougher workouts but considering the hours they put in, the days they actually have to dance and how much energy it takes to be “on” all the time, I’d say they are pretty darn tough. Not to mention the fact that they have to do it all without making it look tough.

There were a few cracks though. The head coaches tightly controlled which girls I had access to and what they said. They checked what I was writing and asked for quotes to be struck from the record. They glossed over the parts they knew I’d find sketchy – like when one of the trainers told me the girls have to stay between 11- and 14- percent body fat or they’d be benched or possibly fired and the coach interrupted to say that that wasn’t true, they just wanted all the girls to be “their healthiest.” The dozens of e-mails they sent me trying to refine and perfect their message into the most media-perfect package they could. I knew I was being fed a sanitized version of pro cheerleading. But even so, those girls were some of the kindest, most willing subjects I’ve ever talked to. What they couldn’t tell me about cheerleading they told me about their lives in general and there were some really beautiful stories in there. I found myself forgetting to take notes about the workout as I was so caught up in what had got them to this point in the first place. Yet there was enough left unsaid that when this latest scandal broke I wasn’t at all surprised.

The former Ravens cheerleader calls NFL cheerleading “a scam” and I’m not sure she’s wrong. On the surface it looks glamorous with the calendar shoots and paid appearances but she says the girls were each forced to buy 100 calendars with their own money to sell for what they could and that many of their public appearances are done for the NFL body or for charity and are therefore not compensated. But don’t even think about complaining about the “constant pressure, scant pay for tons of work, and the requirement that you build your entire schedule around a seasonal part-time job with the omnipresent threat of being kicked off the team” because, she says, “If you don’t fall in line and suck it up, there’s someone else dumb enough that would replace you.”

So why does anyone choose to do it? I’ll freely admit it’s not a job I’d pick. But just because they choose it doesn’t mean they deserve to be taken advantage of. This week I’ve read a lot of internet commentary along the lines of “Well no one is holding a gun to their head forcing them to be cheerleaders” and while that’s true I think it grossly oversimplifies the issue. Yeah they could choose another job. Inevitably they will have to as cheerleaders typically have a career that lasts 1-4 seasons. But no one is forcing me to do my job or forcing the bus driver or the teacher or the caterer to do theirs either and we still demand (and deserve) a fair wage.

Plus, and I think this is the real issue, society tells young women that their sex appeal, their body is their only power. And then we judge them and mock them for believing it? That’s a very very hard message not to internalize. If I am allowed to make one over-generalization of all the pro cheerleaders I’ve had the chance to meet it’s that they’re by and large people pleasers. They are the girls who want to do everything right, who need that public acclaim. So they seek out a field where there are very specific rules about how to earn people’s approval. And as a girl who is a consummate people-pleaser herself, I can’t blame them for simply wanting to know the rules of the game they’ve studied their whole lives. (No, it’s not football.)

And yet the rules keep changing and what once seemed like attainable perfection is now fraught with uncertainty and even danger, as evidenced by this Raiderette’s memo:

“Excessive and/or improper fraternization with CLUB players or personnel will be grounds for dismissal…

…Let’s discuss what excessive means to the Raiders. There have been a few relationships between the two groups that have resulted in a few happy marriages and lovely children. HOWEVER, we have also had more situations where, quite frankly, the Raider organization and the Raiderettes narrowly escaped ruined reputations.

One such example concerns a player who gave Halloween parties every year and many of the Raiderettes attended. This same player was suspended from the team for drug use but also arrested for date rape. For you on the squad who have attended those parties, just think how narrowly you missed having your photo in all the local papers and/or being assaulted.”

These girls are working for an organization that just used rape as a scare tactic to make them follow the rules. And not just rape but also being publicly shamed for it. No repudiation of the players who, you know, did the raping. Just shame and fear for the girls who dodged the bullet (and probably some who didn’t). So yeah, I’m on board with this lawsuit. If you’re going to have cheerleaders then they need be worked fairly, paid a living wage and treated like human beings instead of interchangeable dancing props.

And in the meantime we really really need to figure out how to teach our daughters that they are so much more than beautiful and that sometimes you have to make people unhappy and that’s okay.

What do you think of this lawsuit – about time the NFL reforms its cheerleading business or should the cheerleaders just shut it because they know what they signed up for? Are/were any of you pro cheerleaders?



{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

kfg January 29, 2014 at 3:18 am

Not just the cheerleading, but all professional sports are to one degree or another, a “scam.” The major sports are barely even sports these days, but are rather a carefully constructed form of reality television show, the rules and play carefully crafted to make a “good show” rather than a good sport.

American league sports cannot even operate without a congressional exemption from a number of laws. Otherwise they would be illegal monopolies that are abusive to their employees. Most of the players are indentured servants, something that a civil war was fought to render unconstitutional.

The only sports I find worth paying attention to are those that focus on providing a good experience for the participants.


Rachel January 29, 2014 at 8:30 am

I don’t want to sound too patronizing here, but I think you’ve confused indentured servitude with slavery. These things are NOT the same. The latter was one of several preconditions leading to the American civil war, not the former.


kfg January 29, 2014 at 8:44 am

I have made no confusion. Many early Americans, including the Pilgram Fathers (and Mothers) came to the New World as indentured servants, which is the Biblically approved form of slavery for people “of your own kind.” They went to Plymouth rather than Jamestown to escape it and the Compact was a denial of it.

All forms of slavery, including indenture, were an issue and banning that form of slavery is one of the post conditions of the Civil War and why felons in prison must be paid for their labor, however nominally.


Carla January 29, 2014 at 5:45 am

Im a diehard steelers fan.
I HAVE ALWAYS LOVE THEY REFUSE TO HAVE CHEERLEADERS and yet their female fan base is the largest of the NFL.


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Azusmom January 29, 2014 at 7:56 am

I’m with you, Charlotte! I think it’s another case if devaluing hard work that is done, for the most part, by women. And we’re seeing this attitude more and more: For writers, artists, even teachers, the question becomes “Well, if you love it so much, why don’t you do it for free?”. As if a job that is enjoyable cannot also pay the rent. BTW, many times, those services ARE given away for free. But at some point We have to start valuing people for their time and hard work.
I applaud these cheerleaders. I really hope it changes the way things are done in professional sports.


Caitlin January 29, 2014 at 7:58 am

Great post. I have nothing to add because I agree with everything you said.

And that memo against fraternizing because it might mean they get raped? Good lord, I don’t even know what to say about that.


kfg January 29, 2014 at 8:11 am

That isn’t just football. That’s all sports. Cyclist George Hincapie married a woman he met because she was a trophy girl on a stage he won. She was fired over it.

The causality is actually being reversed by the PR flacks. The real worry is that the girls will file harrasment charges against the commercially valuable athletes and damage them as a property.


Caitlin January 29, 2014 at 8:16 am

That’s crazy! It’s the definition of objectified. “Stand here and look pretty and let the winner kiss you on the cheek, but don’t have any emotions about it!”

I love sports so much but the culture that surrounds them depresses me endlessly.


kfg January 29, 2014 at 8:32 am

And yet cyclist Peter Sagan got in a heap of trouble last year when he had emotions about it and pinched a trophy girl’s ass.

That is the simple legal reality of things and the prohibition works both ways. There is nothing more objectified than a professional athlete, sometimes at the cost of their very lives.


Stephanie January 29, 2014 at 8:02 am

Oh my, that is shocking! I had no idea they were basically unpaid. Thanks for writing about this, Charlotte. It was certainly an education.

And, BTW, I’m totally with you on American football. Snooze city…


HappinessSavouredHot January 29, 2014 at 8:09 am

Everything about this is outrageous.

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of cheerleading in the first place, because of the way it’s done, but this makes it even worst!


Renée January 29, 2014 at 8:51 am

I rarely stay in the room when my hubby watches football….too many other things that are way more fun to do! By the same token, I don’t watch the Super Bowl….not even for the ads. Now this is ALL IMHO….I find most ads to be bordering on juvenile potty humor (kind of goes with my impression of football, I guess) with a very few sentimental “let’s cater to the women watching” ads thrown in occasionally. OK, end of rant.

As far as pay goes…..yes, they should be paid at least minimum wage, the same as any job. They receive no tips, as wait staff do, therefore that little caveat doesn’t apply for lower than minimum wage. They must adhere to an unreasonable list of demands, with the ever present realization that they can, and will, be replaced. And being forced to do charity work? So sorry, charity work is something we should all do, but not as a stipulation of employment. OK, end of second rant.


Melissa January 29, 2014 at 9:13 am

As a person in the arts, very little “grinds my gears” as much as the concept that work in the arts is just a hobby and therefore doesn’t deserve a fair wage!

This, plus all the information on how the Superbowl is one of the biggest human trafficking events of the year, just reminds me how far professional sports still need to come in order to be truly friendly to women.


Melissa January 29, 2014 at 9:14 am

Oh, I should add, I’m referring to cheerleading as “work in the arts” because of the dancing. Which is not to say that the cheerleaders aren’t also athletes. What they do kind of spans both categories–an art and a sport.


Darwin January 29, 2014 at 9:37 am

I am astounded. But…not surprised. As in another “duh” moment for me.

I SHOULD have realized this.

But I did always know that the cheerleaders were the best athletes on the field. AND the most creative.

The basic game plan of football is to score more points that the other team. Every game boils down to that, and every team tries to achieve that with three tools:

They throw, run and collide. (Kind of makes you think of preschool playtime a person can get paid for.)

The BEST players are the ones that successfully throw, run OR collide (rarely can one player manage all three) THE MOST CONSISTENTLY…

While the other team tries to stop them by colliding, running and throwing.

Boooooooooooring. (To quote and agree with and high five Charlotte).

When broken down to its basics, its the TEAMS that are interchangeable: same thing, different uniform.

The cheerleaders, however are VERY creative with more variety.

Although the Ads are the MOST creative. But I watch those after the game on the internet

I am 210 pounds with fantastic cardio, and in high school the coaches/gym teachers told me I was the best athlete and begged me to go out for every team and dangled the athletic scholarship potential under my nose, but I choose not to devote my life to throwing, running and colliding and misogyny and I got an academic scholarship after I left high school, scoring high on a test.

I knew back then that the sports mentality treated females as objects of desire to be used and discarded interchangeably to boost ego.

Professional sports organizations know this, so instead of penalizing the players for this attitude, their moral compass is firmly set on “cover thy butt” so they fine the LADIES for fraternizing…and NOT the players…because they give the players what they want but they want an out when the girls get raped because they know it will happen.

The whole “not an employee” mentality for cheerleaders is to distance the organization itself from responsibility: because then they can say the cheerleaders VOLUNTEERED to be there, whatever happens is not their fault.

In other words they KNOW the entitled mentality inherent in sports and they KNOW females should be protected and valued…but that would take effort and resources and might upset the players and cut into their paychecks.


smac-a-roo January 29, 2014 at 10:11 am

wow (picture), wow (guy doing uber cartwheel) and wow, WHAT? Uncool! (to use nice words)

I had no idea and yet not that surprised… I am so scared of the message my kids are getting – boy or girl, the message is messed up… wow… I supprt this lawsuit hands down!


BT January 29, 2014 at 10:18 am

I’m a woman and all for women’s rights and equal pay, but they are the ones taking these jobs. Hello?! No one is forcing them to do this. If they want better pay/treatment then all the cheerleaders should just quit/strike. Like they’d really be losing $$ anyway after what women pay out of pocket for vain appearance costs, like makeup, waxing, hair dye, etc.


Darwin January 29, 2014 at 10:44 am

I think this quote explains that aspect nicely: “If you don’t fall in line and suck it up, there’s someone else dumb enough that would replace you.”

In that circumstance…quitting/going on strike would be wasted effort, so the lawsuit would definitely be the way to go.

I remember reading a long time ago that Roy Rogers, (cowboy/singer/movie star) when he first began to be popular, the studio was making him pay for the stamps to reply to his fan mail. Now stamps way way back then were VERY cheap, but…the amount of fan mail he was getting was HUGE…mountainous…and the cost of stamps soon exceeded his paycheck.

And also back then the money from Roy Rogers own public appearances was also going to Republic Pictures. When he renewed his contract in 1940 he included a clause that stipulated that he would have the right to his likeness, voice and name for merchandising.

Prior to this, he got a dump truck and “delivered” his mountain of fan mail to the head office. They realized his value, kicked in for the stamps and got him help to attend to it all.

But…Roy Rogers was not considered interchangeable and he was a contracted employee.

Lawsuit is the way to go for the cheerleaders.


KDA January 29, 2014 at 10:39 am

Football is good for one thing: to nap to.
No one deserves to be treated the way NFL treats the cheerleaders.


Amanda January 29, 2014 at 10:56 am

I thought MOST women left the game and ran back only for the ads. That’s what I do.

Or, even better? Don’t watch them live at all and get them on Hulu later.

I hate football. It’s an extraordinary waste of money, talent, national resources, etc. I, too, saw the story about each game only *really* lasting for 11 minutes. I could get a cheaper 11-minute massage and be much happier with it.


Joemama January 29, 2014 at 2:38 pm

My girlfriends are RABID football fans. They get going and I just nod and smile because I don’t follow it really, but man are they heated about it. They all root for different teams, too, so sometimes it’s friend’s team vs. other friend’s team and it gets kinda ugly…


Cindy January 29, 2014 at 11:38 am

I knew that cheerleaders basically don’t get paid. It shocked me that you can sell their pictures for profit and not give them a cut. I know a few people in the film industry and some of them have been interns for years never collecting a paycheck. Then we have all these scandals with big businesses hiring university students as unpaid interns and then using them for menial labor that has nothing to do with the training/job offered. It is hard to understand how somebody can go so morally wrong that they would do this to another person.


cheri January 29, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Sue baby sue… The whole enterprise of football is disgusting. Homophobic, violent, exploitative nastiness.


Abby January 29, 2014 at 1:50 pm

I don’t know. I’m not in favor of anything taking advantage of people so good for them for suing. I guess my confusion comes from, why now? I remember reading an expose about this 10+ years ago I believe. I thought this was just kind of a know issue that some women were willing to put up with. And I think the question comes down to, is this something that is considered a job or something more like volunteer community theater? I’m not sure.


Kim January 29, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Ummm…all I know is that picture of the girl stretching is creepy!!!
I love watching cheerleaders and I also totally enjoy the show about the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. As far as the scam or not – I don’t know – I have my head in the sand most of the time!


Heather January 29, 2014 at 5:23 pm

Great article. Just wish it would have referred to the women as “women,” rather than as “girls.” It would help accent the point that these are adults doing a job.


Megan @ Meg Go Run January 29, 2014 at 7:14 pm

Well it definitely sounds like it needs an overhaul! But… they signed up for it knowing how it was. I mean, if they KNEW how it was going to be, why do it? I think the good news is (and maybe their motivation) that maybe if they don’t win the lawsuit, it at least opens the public’s eyes to how horrible their pay/contracts are and it will sort of bring the issue to light and force the NFL to pay them more?? A “do it for the future cheerleaders” type thing..


Nicole February 26, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Thought I’d add that if you are a Canadian cheering for the Buffalo Bills (and probably any NFL team) you receive NO PAY. If you decide to be apart of the team you do it solely on a volunteer basis (This includes game day, and all other events the Jills are asked to do) while still adhering to all the same criteria as the rest of your teammates.


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