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NFL cheerleaders deserve fair treatment

Waving pompoms shouldn’t mean waiving respect

February 21, 2016 2:00AM ET

Given what we know about traumatic brain injury, it’s getting harder and harder to enjoy football with a clear conscience. At 36, former Pittsburgh Steeler Antwaan Randle El has trouble walking down stairs and remembering things he was just told. Even legendary coach Mike Ditka now says he wouldn’t let a child of his play the sport.

The game is dangerous for players. It’s hard on their families, friends and girlfriends. And as a recent spate of lawsuits suggests, it is miserable for those whose job it is to support them: the cheerleaders.

Unlike the players, the cheerleaders, who frequently work 10 or more hours a day, earn next to nothing. Over the last two years, cheerleaders have filed lawsuits against the Oakland Raiders, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Buffalo Bills, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New York Jets and other franchises. The suit brought by a cheerleader for the Raiders claims the team violated the California Labor Code by paying her and her colleagues just $1,250 for an entire season — equivalent to less than $5 an hour.

Last year the Buccaneers were forced to pay $825,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit. The Raiders had to pay $1.25 million in 2014. But the women whose suits have succeeded haven’t become rich overnight. The Buccaneers’ payout resulted in each cheerleader receiving about $3,445 a season for up to five seasons. The Raiders agreed to pay each cheerleader about $6,000 for each season worked from 2010 to 2012 and $2,500 for the 2013 season. That’s essentially minimum wage, the absolute least that they should have made all along.

The NFL brought in an estimated $12 billion last year — 14 percent more than the year before — with the money split evenly among the 32 teams in the league. This means each team gets hundreds of millions of dollars. Players are the most important part of the game, and accordingly, they get about half of the NFL’s revenue. Cheerleaders get a fraction of a percent, usually only after they sue. By contrast, NFL mascots make a minimum of $23,000 per season for leading the fans in doing the whip nae nae.

Most teams argue that their cheerleaders are independent contractors rather than regular employees, meaning they don’t need to be paid minimum wage. This claim is belied by both the hours cheerleaders are expected to work and the conditions under which they do. Regulations related to personal appearance show that cheerleaders aren’t just grossly underpaid; they are routinely humiliated. Before the squad was disbanded, cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills, known as the Buffalo Jills, were ordered to do jumping jacks so their supervisors could see if their flesh jiggled. The team dictated the color of the women’s hair and issued them detailed instructions about vaginal freshness

Why do teams with multimillion-dollar budgets get away with being so stingy and individual managers with being so sleazy?

The Jills briefly unionized in 1995, but their union was crushed by management under pressure from a sponsor. At the time, Andrew Gerovac, the Jills’ employer and a co-owner of their sponsor, Mighty Taco, told The Buffalo News that the cheerleaders’ efforts to unionize saddened him. “I’m really hurt by this. These are my friends,” he said. I don’t know what his friendships are like, but I’ve never asked a friend to weigh in, made her do jumping jacks so I could see if her body jiggled or told her what size tampon to use.

Why do teams with multimillion-dollar budgets get away with being so stingy and individual managers with being so sleazy? The issue isn’t that cheerleaders don’t work hard or generate profits for their teams. It’s that too many people continue to think of them the way they think of Hooters waitresses: If you go to work for a place that makes you wear a uniform with “Hooters” stamped across your breasts, you shouldn’t expect to be paid fairly or treated decently, and you shouldn’t be surprised when you aren’t. That attitude is patently unfair to Hooters employees and NFL cheerleaders alike. Exploitation is exploitation, regardless of your employer and regardless of the customer you’re serving.

Similar skepticism was expressed in 1963 when feminist icon Gloria Steinem exposed the humiliating conditions under which the Playboy Club’s cocktail waitresses (“bunnies”) labored. Sympathy for women who choose degrading jobs has always been in short supply, regardless of the circumstances that lead to the choice. It’s time to recognize what truly makes a job degrading. It isn’t the work itself — there’s nothing inherently degrading about performing a dance routine — or even the uniforms. It’s the way you’re treated while you’re doing it. Just as agreeing to accept money in exchange for sex doesn’t negate the concept of consent, agreeing to wear a sexy outfit while serving drinks or performing a routine doesn’t mean agreeing to poverty wages, intrusive regulations and on-the-job harassment.

Professional athletes do a risky job for a lot of money, and many are beginning to feel that the risks outweigh the cash. Cheerleaders take on less physical risk, but the shelf life of their careers is arguably shorter, and they have zero financial security. The potential to snag a rich husband is not an adequate substitute for decent pay and a retirement fund. Working women shouldn’t be forced to treat it as such.

From concussions and cover-ups to leniency for perpetrators of rape and domestic violence to multiple lawsuits from low-wage workers, American football is a violent sport, led by a corrupt and powerful institution. Whether you’re a 300-pound man in a uniform or a 130-pound woman in a leotard, the NFL doesn’t care about its workers. Senior executives like Roger Goodell, who made $44 million in 2012, do very well. But fans should care not only about the players but also how the women on the sidelines are being treated by one of the most profitable businesses in the United States.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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