The shameful exploitation of NFL cheerleaders

Cheerleaders have been part of NFL games for nearly 70 of the league’s 100 years. Beginning with the Baltimore Marching Colts in 1954, scores of women have suited up to cheer for players and entertain fans during games, and represent franchises at events throughout the community.

The 26 teams who have currently have cheer squads have long found ways to profit off them, whether through calendars or appearance fees. The league has featured select women at the Pro Bowl annually and has made photo galleries of them at games for its website.

But until a few years ago, only those on the inside of those teams knew that those beautiful faces were masking often terrible conditions, from working for little or no money to harassment and shocking exploitation.

On Monday night, a documentary will premiere on PBS as part of its “Independent Lens” series that exposes some of those conditions, thanks to one brave woman who said she’d had enough in 2014, filed a lawsuit against the then-Oakland Raiders, and saw numerous lawsuits follow from cheerleaders with other teams.

“A Woman’s Work,” which debuted at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, primarily follows Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, a former Raiderette cheerleader who brought suit against the team in 2014 alleging wage theft, and Maria Pinzone, who is the lead plaintiff in a suit against the Buffalo Bills and the NFL.

The then-Oakland Raiders settled with nearly 100 women who worked as Raiderette cheerleaders as part of a lawsuit over working conditions. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
The then-Oakland Raiders settled with nearly 100 women who worked as Raiderette cheerleaders as part of a lawsuit over working conditions. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

A lifelong dancer, Thibodeaux-Fields said she had her room and board covered as a member of Louisiana Tech’s spirit team, and was also a member of the Golden State Warriors dance team, whose members were paid hourly.

But when she was selected to cheer for the Raiders, it didn’t take long for her to realize that there were many demands put on Raiderettes but little in the way of compensation for the commitment. She had to travel to Napa Valley for appearances at the team’s training camp, and wasn’t reimbursed for the cost of gas. There was over $200 for a manicure, tanning session and a specific hairstyle for the calendar shoot, which also came out of her pocket.

Weeks went by and Thibodeaux-Fields and her husband realized she’d yet to get a penny from the team; at the time, Raiderettes made just $1,250 for the entire season, or $125 per home game. They were not paid for mandatory rehearsals, team charity events, or photo shoots, and were paid at the end of the year. When she totaled up the hours she put into the job, she realized the team was paying its cheerleaders less than $5 per hour.

“It was crazy to think they were getting away with this,” Thibodeaux-Fields says in the film. “Forty women a year for 50 years signing this contract.”

Director/producer Yu Gu approached Thibodeaux-Fields not long after she’d filed her lawsuit to gauge her interest in allowing Gu to follow her for a film.

“When I approached her lawyers and met Lacy for the first time ... I made it clear I wanted to do a longer-form documentary that was not just about what’s happening right now in this moment but I was interested in following her story and her evolution, her growth, the challenges throughout this journey,” Gu said last month. “At the time I thought maybe it would take a year; I had no experience with making films about lawsuits and I didn’t realize this was going to drag on.”

During the course of “A Woman’s Work,” we see Thibodeaux-Fields pregnant twice, with her second and third children, and her family move from Oakland, Calif., to London to Florida.

“But that’s part of the documentary journey, because you don’t really know what’s going to happen, and life happens,” Gu said. “Life happens all around you. It was just an honor for us to be there alongside her, to be a partner in her journey.”

(Left to right) Former Buffalo Jills cheerleader Maria Pinzone, director Yu Gu and former Raiderette cheerleader Lacy Thibodeaux Fields are the driving force behind the film "A Woman's Work: The NFL's Cheerleader Problem." (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
(Left to right) Former Buffalo Jills cheerleader Maria Pinzone, director Yu Gu and former Raiderette cheerleader Lacy Thibodeaux Fields are the driving force behind the film "A Woman's Work: The NFL's Cheerleader Problem." (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Lawyers at Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLC, the firm which handled Thibodeaux-Fields’ case, said they were shocked when they saw the details in the Raiderettes’ contract, which specified that they were team employees but did not provide the level of compensation entitled to employees by law.

Pinzone described not just wage violations — the Bills’ cheerleading squad, the Jills, were not paid for anything except corporate appearances — but also an atmosphere of humiliation established by former Jills director Stephanie Mateczun. “She put fear into us,” Pinzone says. She describes a humiliating “jiggle test” that would determine whether women would be allowed to perform at the coming game.

Not surprisingly, one of the threads in the documentary and in reaction to the lawsuits is victim-shaming and victim-blaming. In footage shown of Mateczun from a news interview she gave after the suit was filed, she says, “I don’t know why they decided to be an NFL cheerleader.”

At a reunion of Raiderettes in Las Vegas after Thibodeaux-Fields’ allegations, one woman said she was “hurt personally” and “felt sorry” for those bringing the lawsuit (Thibodeaux-Fields was joined by another woman) because being a Raiderette was not about money, it was about sisterhood. As one unidentified Bills fan notes in the film, “They pay $10 an hour to shovel snow out of the stadium, they [the Jills] could at least get that.”

“When I heard about the older Raiderettes not supporting the women who came out with the lawsuit, that was something that really drew me to dig deeper, because it’s fascinating,” Gu said. “I wasn’t necessarily surprised because I feel like it’s just a product of the systems, the values, the way we all have been indoctrinated ... For me it’s part of the fear that we have: for the women that were older and for the alumni, they felt like they had a beautiful experience — but to have someone else tell them, ‘wait that was actually not a good deal, you got a raw deal out of it’ and in some ways were exploited, for them it was like, ‘oh wow now I have to question everything about myself, my identity’ because it’s not just a job, it’s also an identity.”

“This kind of exploitation is because of the indoctrination that every, all minority, marginalized, underrepresented groups go through and it was exacerbated because it’s on this grand stage of the NFL, right?,” said Elizabeth Ai, a producer-writer of the documentary. “I feel like this is one large problem among so many problems, it’s a national conversation, it’s a global conversation about how trying to victim-shame, to keep you in a lesser position in society is to shame these people so they don’t have the courage to step up again.”

But Thibodeaux-Fields did step up, and the Raiders reportedly settled with 100 cheerleaders for $1.25 million, and agreed to an increased wage for Raiderettes going forward.

As soon as Pinzone brought her lawsuit, the Bills suspended operation of the Jills and they have not returned. Though Pinzone filed in April 2014, there still has not been a decision rendered.

In an interesting twist, the NFL is also one of the defendants in that case. Lawyers found commissioner Roger Goodell’s signature on an agreement between the Bills and Citadel Broadcasting, which used to be in charge of the Jills before Mateczun’s production company took over. In essence, Goodell signed off on women doing dozens of hours of work on behalf of the team for no pay.

“It’s a product of careless indifference, both to a worker and to a woman, and I think part of an industry that perceives itself as being untouchable because of its popularity,” said Sean Cooney, Pinzone’s lawyer.

“There’s more than enough money to go around, but why do you find it necessary to take a group of women, in a sport that’s wildly popular, and make a decision to pay them far less than minimum wage? Because they can,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith says with a shrug. “And until somebody stops them, they will.”

Regardless of how any of us might feel about cheerleaders, the warped power dynamic and exploitation is what matters — it shouldn’t happen in any industry.

“Cheerleaders themselves as cultural phenomenon, as an American icon, it’s a very interesting space to inhabit because on the one hand they’re in a way very powerful, they have social capital,” Gu said. “But when Lacy’s lawsuit first came out I was shocked that they were paid less than minimum wage and sometimes not at all.

“It’s this weird combination of being hyper-visible, hyper-exploited in terms of their image and yet completely devalued at the same time, and to us that was a fascinating look at how all women are treated in the workplace in many ways.”

“A Woman’s Work” will air at 10 p.m. ET Monday on PBS stations.

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