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?