Poor Pay, Jiggle Tests And Rules About Changing Tampons. Why This Woman Is Leading The Cheerleaders Revolt

We speak to the NFL cheerleaders who are sick of being paid less than £3 an hour and are taking their employers to court


by Sarah Shearman |
Published on

Cheerleaders are normally known for their dazzling enthusiasm, athletic dance moves, bodacious bodies and whiter than white smiles. But right now, the women who are quintessential part of any American sports experience are seriously pissed off. In fact, cheerleaders are so pissed off about their working conditions, humilating practises like 'weigh-ins' and – crucially – being underpaid that they're taking legal action against their employers.

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'We love to perform, and dance is our talent and passion. People think cheerleading is such a glamourous job, but it is so hard to make the elite team – you would automatically assume we'd be paid accordingly and that is a big misconception,' Lacy T. (whose full name cannot be disclosed to protect her identity), a cheerleader for the American football team Oakland Raiders, tells The Debrief. 'People didn't know that we were underpaid or not paid at all.'

In January, Lacy, 28, became the first cheerleader to sue a National Football League (NFL) team over failure to meet minimum wage salaries. This kick-started a string of similar legal complaints against four teams, with the latest filed against the New York Jets last week. Sinisterly, some cheerleaders are alleging they have been victims of sexual harassment and demeaning treatment, such as 'jiggle tests' – where cheerleaders' bodies are critiqued to ensure no wobbly bits are on show when they jump around.

This wave of legal action has been dubbed the 'cheerleader revolt'. But it's far from what the glorious image of high-kicks and pompoms being thrown through the air that might conjur up. Because in America, cheerleading is a multi-billion dollar sport, where American football players get paid millions for a season. No wonder, then, that cheerleaders are angry about their shitty pay.

Cheerleaders say 'jiggle tests' – where their bodies are critiqued to ensure no wobbly bits are on show when they jump around - are humiliating

It wasn't a movement Lacy expected to be leading. Dancing the for NFL – which is considered the top league for cheerleaders – was always her dream since she started dancing at a young age. But when she joined the Oakland Raiderettes, one of the top brass NFL cheerleading squads, she was astonished to discover she would be paid just $125 (about £75) per game. Plus, despite the fact each game is typically nine hours of work, they are not paid until the end of the season, or for additional time spent rehearsing (three three-to-four-hour sessions a week) and compulsory marketing events. Fines are imposed too, for anything from forgetting pompoms to gaining weight.

What's more, Lacy claims that cheerleaders were not compensated for travel or accommodation when traveling to these marketing events, nor their beauty up-keep, such as hair and nails, which is a strict stipulation for cheerleaders.

Lacy is a stay-at-home mother, and a lot of the other cheerleaders have part-time jobs to support themselves, which is hard to juggle with their training schedule. With all the additional hours factored in, Lacy's pay worked out at less than $5 (less than £3) per hour, below the state of California's minimum wage, and less than hotdog and beer sellers earn at the games. 'When I first found out this was illegal, I felt angry and cheated,' says Lacy. 'I felt like they had been taking advantage of girls for the past 50 years and it was time for someone to stand up to and make a big change.' At the moment, the Raiders themselves have had no official comment on the lawsuit.

So why have the cheerleaders stayed silent for so long? Well, while many believe cheerleading is a hobby or a bit of fun, it is an athletic dance that is highly competitive and requires rigorous training to stay in shape. 'The way they get women to be quiet is to say that if you have a problem with anything, there are 50 women behind you willing to take your place,' explains Leslie Levy, the attorney representing Lacy who is also involved with the New York Jets case.

'The way they get women to be quiet is to say that if you have a problem with anything, there are 50 women behind you willing to take your place.'

It has also been suggested that in cheerleading, there is a sisterhood code that has prevented women from coming forward earlier. But, despite the criticism she's got from some team members, Lacy does not see it that way. 'I have four sisters and true sisterhood means you want your sisters to be treated fairly, and this clearly wasn't happening,' she says. 'So I think I did the right thing for my team, even if they say I have broken the sisterhood bond. I don't think they understand what true sisterhood is and maybe value their role as a cheerleader rather than their rights as women in the work place.'

But some have, slowly, joined her cause. Sarah G (again, full name not disclosed), a 29-year old Oakland Raiderette co-captain, who was with the squad for four years, added her name to the case a few weeks after Lacy. 'After it came out we got emails and texts from few a girls, still wanting to remain anonymous, but wishing us luck,' she says. 'Overall we have been getting a lot more support when people realised it wasn't just a rookie who didn't understand the “sisterhood” speaking out.'

While Sarah and Lacy insist their only issue is equal pay and say they were never subjected to demeaning treatment or sexual harassment, other troupes of cheerleaders are making those sinister allegations. Earlier this year, five cheerleaders from the Buffalo Jills squad, who sued their team over pay, claimed they had been auctioned off at a golf tournament and forced into taking rides in golf buggies sitting on men's laps.

The Buffalo Jills squad claimed they had been auctioned off at a golf tournament and forced into taking rides in golf buggies sitting on men's laps

According to the Buffalo Jills guidebook, which was leaked to American sites, cheerleaders were told that they must use the right-sized tampon for their menstruation flow to prevent fungal infections, under the section 'lady body maintenance'. The guide, that reads like something taught in a Swiss finishing school in the 1950s, gives detailed instructions on subject areas such as 'appearance etiquette' to 'etiquette for formal dining' and 'communicating with people with disabilities'. Included in the long list of absurdities are 'Always say "excuse me" when you burp, sneeze or cough. Even if you think there isn't anyone around,' and 'Use: “Oh my goodness" rather than "Oh my GOD,”' and 'Never debate politics, religion or any other sensitive issues while dining.'

Despite the allegations, Buffalo Bills insist that they are not at fault. A spokesperson told *The Debrief *that they are 'confident in our position in this matter and look forward to presenting our defence to any allegations as part of the legal process.'

But one entrepreneur and ex-NFL cheerleader Danetha Doe definitely identifies with the allegations. 'You want to hold up this idea that everything is glamorous. There are definitely parts of it where it is, but there are parts of it that are not okay and need to be addressed. So many women will feel slighted and exposed now one woman is saying this experience isn't as amazing as you are painting it.'

During her two years as a cheerleader for the Indianapolis Colts, she says she was never subjected to humiliating practises, but did find the weigh-ins 'stressful'. Cheerleaders who increased or dropped below the weight they started out would get benched for the game – in some teams this means not getting paid. ‘Our squad promoted being healthy, but we were also in revealing uniforms, so we had to maintain some sort of look,' she tells The Debrief. 'There should be an expectation of our appearance, just like athletes who have to be physically able to perform. But it is down-right demeaning the way they treat the women when it comes to losing weight – there should be support.'

Doe describes the 'incredible' rush she would feel when she would run through the tunnel to perform at a game in front of her home crowd. 'I always looked at it as more than being a pretty girl that happened to dance in short skirts on the field,' she says. She is glad of her experience as a cheerleader, but agrees they should be paid more.

Lacy believes that more women will come forward and hopes the action will result in better pay and work conditions for cheerleaders across the NFL. 'I've been told by many people I was brave, but I was scared and stressed – I have had my ups and downs,' she says. 'I wish this was done several years ago and I didn't have to experience this, but I thought it was worth a try and I hope we accomplish the end goal.'

But with hundreds of girls clamouring to take the spot of anyone who complains about their treatment, that will remain to be seen.

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Follow Sarah on Twitter @Shearmans

Picture: Getty

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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