AS the National Football League starts a new season, millions of Americans will settle in for the next five months to enjoy the thrill of pro football. Forty-five percent of those fans are female, and the league has spent millions of dollars in recent years trying to increase its appeal among women.
And yet, one high-profile group of women in the multibillion-dollar N.F.L. is still waiting for fair treatment. Cheerleaders are often paid well below minimum wage and aren’t given the most basic protections that every employee deserves.
The issue is gaining traction. In just the last two years, professional cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals have filed wage theft lawsuits against their respective teams, alleging labor violations including misclassification, meaning that some cheerleaders were treated as independent contractors, not as employees, and therefore didn’t receive the wages or benefits they deserved. (So far, the Raiders and Buccaneers have settled lawsuits by agreeing to pay more than $2 million in back wages.)
These recent complaints reveal a pattern of abuse, including failure to pay in a timely manner or at all, failure to reimburse for mandatory expenses or to adhere to basic requirements under state labor laws, and unlawful deductions from earnings, including penalties for minor infractions such as forgetting pompoms.
According to the complaints, the cheerleaders often worked hundreds of hours for less than minimum wage and without overtime, workers’ compensation coverage or lunch breaks. Women reported cheering while injured for fear of being kicked off the squad. Many teams required them to go to approved vendors for out-of-pocket expenses, often amounting to thousands of dollars. Teams mandated specific hairstyles, nails, clothing and makeup, and strictly monitored weight. Minor slip-ups could result in fines.
Meanwhile, teams marketed their cheerleaders at live events and on calendars and other merchandise for profit.
That’s why we introduced legislation in California and New York to address the rampant misclassification of professional cheerleaders as independent contractors. Misclassification of employees has become an increasingly widespread and pernicious tool to undercut basic labor protections. In July, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California bill into law, designating cheerleaders as employees entitled to minimum wages and other benefits. Lawmakers from Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas have signed a letter voicing their support for cheerleader equity.
But we shouldn’t have to pass special laws and file lawsuits to get the N.F.L. to do the right thing.
In 2014, the N.F.L. had estimated revenues of more than $9 billion, and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, has a stated goal of reaching $25 billion by 2027. Most of that revenue goes to the teams, which now have a combined estimated value of $46 billion, according to Forbes. The league’s least valuable franchise, the St. Louis Rams, is worth well over $900 million.
And many of those teams benefit from public largess. Even the Dallas Cowboys — at $3.2 billion, the nation’s most valuable sports franchise — got $325 million in tax-exempt public money to help build its new stadium, which opened in 2009. Nice work if you can get it.
Compared with those numbers, the cost of paying N.F.L. cheerleaders even a minimum wage would amount to little more than a rounding error.
However, the problem goes beyond wage theft to reveal a more insidious sexism that seems to be part of the culture of the N.F.L.
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