For years cheerleaders have been underpaid and mistreated by their teams. But a wave of lawsuits could change things for the better
One dollar. That’s the amount former NFL cheerleaders Bailey Davis and Kristen Anne Ware offered to settle for in exchange for a four-hour sit down with Roger Goodell, the commissioner of their league. Both athletes have accused the NFL of discriminating against women. Last season, Davis claims she was fired from her position cheering for the New Orleans Saints after sending a private Instagram photo of herself in a one-piece bathing suit. Ware alleges she lost her job with the Miami Dolphins when she showed up to work wearing a ring that signified she was a virgin. Both were underpaid, subject to extreme control over their lives, and expected to adhere to anti-fraternization rules that applied to them but not the players they devoted their lives to cheering for. Accounts like theirs are surfacing frequently, bubbles of scandal rising in fast succession: markers of a rolling boil.
Since 2014, five other NFL teams – the Raiders, Buccaneers, Bengals, Jets, Bills, and one NBA team, the Bucks – have faced lawsuits from their dancers, each alleging severe labor violations, and offering glances into the secretive and manipulative world of professional cheerleading: mandatory diets; forced beauty regimens paid out of pocket; countless hours of work for which the super-rich teams they cheered for refused to pay them. Perched atop of this mountain of alleged mistreatment, and riding the rocky aftermath of a recent New York Times story that revealed that in 2013 Washington cheerleaders were required to pose topless and act as unpaid escorts to the team’s sponsors, Goodell chose not to meet face to face with Davis and Ware. He sent his lawyers instead.
“I really do believe that they want to work together in a cooperative manner and that they have good intentions,” Sara Blackwell, attorney for both Ware and Davis, told the Guardian of her recent call with representatives for the league. “If they’re playing me, or patronizing me, that’s fine, too. We can deal with it though the legal process.” Blackwell has filed a suit on behalf of her clients against the league but is not actively pursuing it for the time being.
While it remains unclear whether Goodell is playing the cheerleaders, he has, in the past, given lip service to treating them fairly. At a press conference ahead of Super Bowl 50 in 2016, Goodell told reporters that underpayment of cheerleaders in his league, was “Not a new issue for us … I think the cheerleaders perform a very valuable function for us … I think they should be properly compensated, and I am encouraging that and discussing that with our clubs on a regular basis.”
Goodell’s belief in the importance of compensating cheerleaders had not been evident in previous years. His own signature appears on this 2009 contract between the Buffalo Bills and its broadcast affiliate, Citadel Broadcasting, in which it was stipulated that the team’s cheerleaders would not be paid for the eight-plus hours they spent working game days. They would also be subject to intensive control of their behavior and appearance by the Bills. They would additionally be subject to the rules and regulations of the NFL. They would not hold the league or the team responsible for any harm that befell them while working for the team. They would not be, as Goodell claimed in his Super Bowl 50 press conference, employees of the team. The NFL is also named as a defendant in the ongoing suit against the Bills.
While much of the focus has been on NFL cheerleaders, rampant mistreatment of dancers appears to be endemic to the NBA as well. “I know the NBA has the same problems because I hear from them,” said Blackwell. NBA cheerleaders, like their NFL counterparts, are often required to sign arbitration agreements, which force employees claiming damages into highly confidential settlement talks. Often, said Blackwell, when employees settle in arbitration “they have to sign a gag order saying ‘You can never tell anyone about your story; that we settled. Nothing.” Blackwell noted that the same week Davis lost her job with the Saints, the New Orleans Pelicans fired three cheerleaders for allegedly dating a player. (At the time, both the Pelicans and Saints were owned by late billionaire Tom Benson.)
Lauren Herington, the lead plaintiff in a recent class suit against the Milwaukee Bucks, which settled in 2017 for $250,000, believes that the issue of cheerleader underpayment spans far beyond the Bucks. Herington’s nightmarish experience working for the 2013 Bucks, as detailed in her contract, notes, and emails with her then-coach and trainer, included extreme diets, countless hours of mandatory exercise that left her with stress fractures, and anti-fraternization policies that included a ban on making eye contact with players.
Though the Bucks settled with Herington, she does not believe the team made any amendments to their policies as a result of her suit. “I feel like [the Bucks] just thought it was a joke,” Herington told the Guardian. “They really didn’t have any respect for us. They didn’t have any regard to whether they paid us or whether they didn’t. They thought that they didn’t do anything wrong.” (The Bucks did not reply to a request for comment on their current policies.)
“If I was standing before [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver, I would ask, ‘If this was your daughter, would you be happy that somebody is degrading her, or that she’s having to work four jobs, and not eat because she can’t afford it? It might seem like like, ‘OK, these are just other girls.’ How would how would you feel if that was your family?”
In the case of the Buffalo Bills, Russell Brandon, the team’s then-CEO, repeatedly insisted while deposed that the team’s dancers, the Buffalo Jills were “inconsequential from a business standpoint to [him].” Though Brandon was one of two people on the Bills’ team responsible for drafting the agreement with Citadel, he insisted that the Jills meant so little to him that he hadn’t reviewed the portion of the contract pertaining to them before signing alongside Goodell. “If I spent one collective hour in 20 years thinking about the Buffalo Jills,” Brandon said, while under oath, “that would be about 58 minutes more than I have.” This month, Brandon was released from his position at the Buffalo Bills over alleged inappropriate relations with his female co-workers.
Manoucher Pierre-Val, who was the lead plaintiff in the case against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which settled for $750,000 in 2015, was surprised to hear about Brandon’s statements. She cited a juniors camp, as an example of the way she and her team-mates brought in revenue for her own team, the Bucs. The camp was typical throughout the league, in which aspiring cheerleaders can train with the team’s dancers. Pierre-Val was not paid for the eight-hour days she worked as an instructor at the camp. “Those [aspiring dancers] pay $100, if not more each. If you have 300 people, that’s $30,000. I didn’t get a paycheck. So if it’s not benefitting them, I’m not sure who it’s benefitting.”
Teams often make dancers feel worthless. “The girls I hear from, every single one of them, live in a world of fear,” Blackwell said. “They’re told ‘There’s a million girls who will do your job. You’re not special. You can be fired.’ That’s why no girls are speaking out. They’re terrified.” Pierre-Val believes that these sentiments kept her own squad members from negotiating a better rate. “I do think a lot of the cheerleaders don’t see themselves as assets to the team so much as, ‘I’ve been given a chance.’ In actuality, you are bringing money and other assets to the team. I think it’s the culture.”
Both Pierre-Val and Herington reported that over the course of their suits, women who originally wanted to act as co-plaintiffs dropped out over fear of publicly addressing their grievances. After a notice was sent out to members of the class in the Jills’ case, one plaintiff testified that she felt pressured via texts and Facebook messages to opt out of the suit.
Just as individual cheerleaders are led to believe firmly in their own irrelevance, so too, are dance teams threatened with the specter of annihilation. In an email to Bucks Dancers five weeks after the regular season ended, Herington’s then-coach reminded dancers that they were “still employees of the Milwaukee Bucks” and told them to show up to mandatory unpaid appearances because they had “no idea what changes the new owners would bring.” In Buffalo, the threat was followed up two weeks after the Jills plaintiffs filed their suit, when then-director Stephanie Mateczon indefinitely suspended the team.
According to Herington, the same Facebook and Twitter trolls who argue that cheerleaders aren’t real athletes or should be done away with are “also the people paying $50 extra a ticket to have VIP passes to come hang out with us. The people who are paying for the calendars. The people who are there to take pictures with us. It’s all about the team experience. And if you’re going to get rid of us, then you better get rid of the popcorn stand or the alcohol.”
Accusations of the uselessness of cheerleaders come at a time when the sport has recently attained provisional approval for inclusion in the Olympic games. In popular culture, dancers are increasingly recognized for their athletic merits. American Ballet Theatre’s principle dancer Misty Copeland is sponsored by Under Armour and the ballerina Dusty Button is endorsed by Red Bull.
Cheerleading requires intensive exercise and mental acuity. NFL and NBA dancers perform for crowds of tens of thousands of people at a time. Professional dancers in unions, who perform for audiences of this size or smaller, bring home exponentially higher salaries than their cheerleading counterparts. Working as a Rockette, for example, earns dancers around $1,500 a week.
It hardly seems sufficient for hands to be dusted off and “Mission Accomplished” banners to be raised over the settlements of suits that award dancers with what usually amounts to around $2,000 in back pay, and may compel some teams to cease their practice of violating basic labor and minimum wage laws. In order for cheerleaders to work in a safe environment, and to earn what truly amounts to fair pay, the women will have to organize. While Blackwell says she would be happy to help cheerleaders unionize, she does not foresee that happening in the near future, while the athletes remain in an insular, fear-based culture.
For the time being, Blackwell is focusing her efforts on her individual cases against teams, as well as where she sees the solution: at the very top of the NFL. She believes that coming to an agreement about changes is necessary for the protection of her clients, but also for the NFL and its teams. In reference to the recent Washington cheerleaders story, Blackwell asked: “What happens if a girl got raped in that situation? And they were well aware of the situation? Of the risk? Because they are.”
- The NFL and the NBA did not reply to requests for comment on this story.