The strange demands of life as a cheerleader
- 5 May 2014
- From the section Magazine
Three lawsuits have shed a light on some of the pitfalls associated with professional cheerleading. And behind the pom-poms and razzmatazz, life can be hard.
This year, there have already been three lawsuits filed against professional football clubs in the National Football League (NFL) arguing that the scantily-clad, well-trained dancers who work the sidelines aren't compensated fairly for their work, at best, and are subject to degrading work conditions and unwanted sexual contact at worst.
Cheerleaders from the Oakland Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills have all filed lawsuits claiming the teams don't pay them a fair wage.
The lawsuits have shone a light on the hazards of what's traditionally been seen as a fun, glamorous job for female football enthusiasts.
PERK: A national stage. For many women who grew up taking dance lessons, it's a chance to both continue to learn and to show their skills in front of a national TV audience.
"Think of what you might pay out of pocket for the training you'd receive and what you'd pay to take advanced dance training," says Flavia Berys, a former NFL cheerleader and author of Professional Cheerleading Audition Secrets.
PROBLEM: Every inch is scrutinised. According to the Bills lawsuit, women are subjected to "jiggle tests," where they are judged on their physical appearance in their outfit and told which problem areas need work. Too many warnings for an out-of-shape body could lead to sitting out a game.
PERK: Clubs bring in hair stylists and makeup professionals who serve as team sponsors and provide touch-ups on game day.
PROBLEM: The team can make demands about how the cheerleaders look. According to a copy of the Baltimore Ravens' rulebook, "All fair-skinned cheerleaders must have a warm skin colour tone for every game day. This is provided through tanning and/or spray tanning."
A discount is provided, but the cheerleaders ultimately end up paying out of pocket for the rest. Members of the Buffalo club, where cheerleaders are called the Buffalo Jills, allege that they were forced to use the sponsor services, with discount, rather than seek out a cheaper alternative.
PERK: The teams often pose for calendar shots, which are then sold as fundraisers. Cheerleaders are able to pocket the profits from their personal sales.
PROBLEM: In several cases, the cheerleaders are required to buy the calendars outright, and then keep whatever they make only after they've recouped their costs. If the calendars don't sell, that's money they don't get back.
PERK: Cheerleaders have special significance in the US, where they stand for wholesome beauty and all-American charm.
PROBLEM: Heckling and groping. "Let's be honest. You're an NFL cheerleader and you're standing in front of 10,000 drunk guys all the time," says Gabrielle Montemage, a former Buffalo Jill. She says she never felt like the sexual attention "went too far." Some of the Jills, however, allege that they were forced to work events without proper security and were touched without permission.
PERK: Cheerleaders are considered ambassadors for the team within the community. Montemage considers it a point of pride that she was able to work closely with the Make A Wish Foundation, and that she got to travel to Iraq to entertain US troops
PROBLEM: A certain number of volunteer gigs are often required, and as the name implies, unpaid.
PERK: A chance to be part of the NFL action. "You get something from cheerleading that you don't get in any other stage type of dance, and that is the tens of thousands of fans who are all rooting for their team," says Berys. "You get to lead that energy, feel that energy thunder over you. It's so exciting. You don't get that high from anything else."
PROBLEM: Most Raiders and Jills cheerleaders make around $100 (£60). Bengals cheerleaders get $90. They receive no compensation for time spent practising or working at events. Only one club, the Seattle Seahawks, has said they pay cheerleaders an hourly wage and overtime.
In the end, says Sharon Vinick, the lawyer representing the Raiderettes, it doesn't matter that there are thousands of women lining up to do the job or that they get perks associated with the NFL.
The NFL isn't just about football. It's about pageantry and spectacle, and above all, commerce, bringing in $9bn (£5.3bn) last year. The cheerleaders, she says, should get their share.