It’s hard to have too much sympathy for cheerleaders. They’re pretty, perfectly proportioned and popular. If they didn’t persecute you personally in high school, a Hollywood facsimile probably at least bullied one of your favorite fictional protagonists.
Which perhaps explains why such scant attention has been paid to the plight of National Football League cheerleaders, who appear to be frequent victims of both wage theft and other, far weirder indignities (including elaborate rules about how to wash their vaginas; more on that later).
In the past few months, veterans of the Ben-Gals (who cheer for the Cincinnati Bengals), Raiderettes (Oakland Raiders) and Jills (Buffalo Bills) have filed lawsuits alleging that teams paid the cheerleaders less than minimum wage and subjected them to intrusive and belittling conditions.
Some of the allegations, like those regarding wage theft, seem pretty straightforward.
Raiderettes, for example, were paid $125 per game day but often nothing at all for the other appearances and rehearsals they were required to attend, one suit alleges. Factoring in all those time commitments, cheerleaders were reportedly paid as little as $5 an hour.
The teams say the cheerleaders are “independent contractors,” a designation that would exempt them from minimum-wage laws. The IRS says you can classify an individual as an independent contractor rather than an employee if you have “the right to control or direct only the result of the work” but the worker controls “what will be done and how it will be done.”
Yet to look at the rules and contracts required as a condition of cheerleaders’ pay, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that these “independent contractors” had control over anything, really.
The teams set the schedule and location for rehearsal and (often unpaid) promotional and charity appearances. A cheerleader’s hair color, makeup and level of tan-ness are dictated by the teams. In some cases the teams require the “contractors” to patronize specific salons to achieve the desired cosmetological results (and the cheerleaders have to pay for these services out of pocket, which the suits say cost hundreds of dollars each season). Cheerleaders say they were subjected to weekly weigh-ins or “jiggle tests” to assess whether they jiggled too much (in the wrong places, of course). Raiderettes deemed “too soft” could be benched the next game without pay — but would still be required to attend the entire game and participate in pregame and halftime activities anyway.
Then there are all the other really bizarre, often retrograde requirements that some teams have to regulate not only the cheerleaders’ professional appearances and performances but their private lives as well.
Here’s a selection of rules from the Buffalo Jills’ handbook, as published on Deadspin. It includes an entire section titled “General hygiene and lady body maintenance,” quoted here with typos intact:
“Do not be overly opinionated about anything.”
“When menstruating, use a product that right for your menstrual flow. A tampon too big can irritate and develop fungus. A product left in too long can cause bacteria or fungus build up. Products can be changed at least every 4 hours. Except when sleeping, they can be left in for the night.”
“Do not linger in restrooms having conversations and applying make up at length while other people are using the facilities.”
“When you wash, remember where your hands have been while washing, do not transfer dirt or germs to other areas of your body.”
“Intimate area’s: Never use a deodorant or chemically enhanced product. Simple, non-deodorant soap will help maintain the right PH balance.”
“When trying to ‘capture’ a small piece of food onto a utensil, it is acceptable to use another utensil for aiding it aboard. Never use your fingers.”
“Remove make-up every night before going to bed . . . Make-up left in the creases of your skin creates early wrinkles.”
“Don’t ask for cash gifts as wedding gifts (in print), Rely on word of mouth instead.”
Some of the rules read like they come from a 1950s etiquette guide; others, from Leviticus. In any case, the organization seems to have exerted a lot of control over cheerleaders’ lives, on and off the field, while still somehow classifying them as “independent contractors.”
I’m sure plenty of non-opinion-expressing, right-size-tampon-using women would kill for the chance to replace these disgruntled cheerleaders and bounce around in crop-tops before an adoring crowd. But that doesn’t mean employers are entitled to mistreat the lucky few ladies they do hire.
One of the points of labor law is to offer basic protections to workers for whom the balance of power vastly favors employers: people such as migrant farm workers, burger-flippers and, yes, pretty cheerleaders. Even workers who face great competition deserve to be shielded from abuse and exploitation by their bosses — perhaps especially so when those bosses come from a taxpayer-subsidized, multibillion-dollar industry like the NFL.
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