Another group of NFL cheerleaders is suing their team for wage theft claiming that they’ve worked hundreds of unpaid hours training and performing, as well as appearing at events where they were at risk for catcalls and groping.
Five former Buffalo Bills cheerleaders filed suit on Tuesday, and they are the third group of cheerleaders to do so. As TIME reported in February, cheerleaders for the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders have filed similar suits for poor pay and demeaning treatment.
Buffalo Bills cheerleaders, called the Buffalo Jills, say they are wrongly classified as independent contractors and are therefore not paid the state’s $8 minimum wage. One of the cheerleaders, Alyssa U. told the Associated Press that she estimated she was paid only $420 for the 2012-13 football season, and another cheerleader, Maria P., says she only got $105 for the season.
Previous cases have had mixed results. Cincinnati Bengals’ Ben-Gals cheerleader Alexa Brenneman, 24 filed that suit was paid a total of $855 for her time as a Ben-Gals cheerleader. She says she spent over 300 hours performing, practicing and attending events–she missed one game for a funeral and wasn’t paid. The minimum wage in Ohio is $7.85, but Brenneman’s pay equates to less than $2.85 an hour. Brenneman’s case is still pending. And unfortunately for the Oakland Raiders cheerleaders who brought the complaint, the Raiderettes, the U.S. Department of Labor announced in March that it had closed its investigation of the case, concluding that the Raiders are exempt from paying their cheerleaders minimum wage, since they are considered “seasonal amusement.” The suit may go to private arbitration. Some of the Raiderettes still want to go to court.
Beyond the surprisingly low pay for a job in this very profitable industry, these women say they are subjected to treatment and demands that are unfair and degrading. The calendars the women pose for? They don’t get any free copies. The Oakland Raiderettes, for example, got to purchase their calendars at cost. All the women have highly specific and sometimes costly physical standards they must maintain, which includes mandatory trips to nail and hair salons. And according to the Buffalo Bills’ suit, their cheerleaders are forced to participate in what are called “jiggle tests” so their coach can assess the firmness of their bodies. According to the complaint documents which were procured by Deadspin, the women were also given a rulebook with demands like: “how to properly wash “intimate areas,” and how often to change tampons.”
“Everything from standing in front of us with a clipboard having us do a jiggle test to see what parts of our body were jiggling,” cheerleader Alyssa U. told the Associated Press, “and if that was something that she saw, you were getting benched.”
These policies aren’t isolated cases. A Raiderette guidebook that was released to the Los Angeles Times listed demands like: “There’s not a female alive (or male either) who doesn’t like attention. But you need to learn to deal with attention you receive from the public (and especially the players) without it getting out of hand and going to your head.” When it comes to parties, the women were told to be on their best behavior, with the manual citing a popular annual Halloween party that had been hosted by an NFL player: “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.”
Cheerleaders are not bringing in all the money for the NFL, but they are a necessary draw for many teams as they are evidence of a franchise’s success. For example, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders still bring in about $1 million per season for their team. Not to mention that overall, the NFL is the most lucrative sport in America. As TIME reported, in 2012, the Oakland Raiders were valued at $825 million, with revenue of $229 million. The NFL, a tax-exempt organization, brings in about $9 billion in revenue annually, and the group hopes to bring in $25 billion by 2027.
The argument the women hear constantly, is that there are hundreds of women who would gladly take their spot if given the chance. “Do they pay a lot? No they don’t. But there are women who would continue to do it if they paid even less. It’s really not amount the money. It’s about the opportunity, and the prestige, and loving the sport and the game,” Starr Spangler Rey, 27, a former three-season Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader—now a management consultant, told TIME.
The women hope for policy changes in how they are treated and paid. Given the immense wealth of these franchises, it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for.
When asked to comment about the lawsuit, Scott Berchtold, senior vice president of communications for the Buffalo Bills, said in an email response to TIME: “We are aware of this lawsuit and it is our organizational policy not to comment on pending litigation.”
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