NFL cheerleader: New documentary reveals the underbelly of the seemingly glamorous activity

NFL cheerleader: New documentary reveals the underbelly of the seemingly glamorous activity

(CNN) For decades, cheerleaders have been synonymous with the NFL.

Dance teams across the United States add a touch of glamor and entertain thousands of fans each week, representing their franchise in the local community.

But behind some of the smiles and perfectly choreographed routines lies a world of painstaking work and alleged unequal pay.

A new documentary, “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem,” exposes the underbelly of a seemingly glamorous pursuit and follows the lives of two women who say they decided enough was enough.

Former cheerleader Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields was the first to speak out, filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the Raiderettes against the then-Oakland Raiders in 2014, alleging wage theft and illegal employment practices.

That led to several other cheerleaders following suit, including Maria Pinzone — a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Buffalo Bills and the NFL in 2014.

The Raiders settled for $1.25 million in September 2014, paying the cheerleaders from 2010 – 2014 what they were owed back wages.

Individual payments ranged from $2,000 to $30,000, depending on the number of seasons the women danced on the team, according to Sharon R. Vinick, an attorney at Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams, who represented the women in the case.

Thibodeaux-Fields also received an additional $10,000 for acting as lead plaintiff.

In 2014, after the lawsuit was filed, it was reported that the Raiders more than doubled cheerleaders’ pay for mandatory events, amounting to about $9 an hour — minimum wage at the time.

CNN Sport reached out to the Las Vegas Raiders, formerly the Oakland Raiders, for comment, but has yet to receive a response.

Meanwhile, Pinzone’s case against Bills is still ongoing, nearly seven years after she filed the lawsuit.

The film, directed by Yu Gu and free to stream on the PBS Video App, follows both Pinzone and Thibodeaux-Fields as they navigate their legal battles and deal with the consequences of their decision to stand up to their teams.

Gu had no idea the project would last this long when she started it in 2014, but says it has been a window into the vast inequality in the NFL and society at large.

“It’s really a microcosm into what all women are facing right now in the workplace, fighting these stereotypes and these hypocritical standards that we’re faced with,” Gu, who was born in China and raised in Canada, told CNN Sport.

“It’s definitely looking at something bigger through this very specific lens, and even though the main participants, the main characters, they’re women, I think this disparity affects men.

“It’s that mix of hypermasculinity and toxic masculinity that’s the source of this misogyny, but it’s also something that affects all genders.”

From an early age, Thibodeaux-Fields had dreams of cheerleading for one of football’s greatest teams, and after years of hard work, she fulfilled her ambition by joining the Raiderettes cheer team for the then-Oakland Raiders.

Thibodeaux-Fields had previously danced in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors. She looks back on the two seasons with pleasure and says that she was treated very well. ?

But when she joined the Raiderettes, she says, things were different.

She told CNN Sport that she was not paid minimum wage for the countless hours she put in. There would be more joint performances and training sessions, she said, which were unpaid. Equipment, uniforms and treatments required to live up to the expected image of a cheerleader all came out of her own pocket, she told CNN Sport.

The Raiderettes were making just $1,250 per season and the salary would come at the very end of the year, Vinick told CNN Sport.

Thibodeaux-Fields, who works as a dance teacher, calculated it to be less than the then-minimum wage, given the number of hours she worked.

With a young family to support and her husband questioning the contract she signed, she sought the advice of a legal expert and in 2014 filed a lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders alleging wage theft.

“There are a lot of jobs that people would do for free, but they shouldn’t have to just because it’s their passion or their dream,” Thibodeaux-Fields told CNN Sport.

“Yeah, there are some girls who would probably dance for free, but they’re not going to be the caliber of [dancer] that I am. They’re not going to have the experience or the drive.

“That’s why I’m here. You pay me for what I’m worth. That’s the point I’m making.”

Vinick told CNN Sport that she was shocked when she first read the cheerleaders’ contract because “it had more illegal provisions than any contract I’ve read in almost 30 years of practicing law.”

Although she was pleased with the final settlement from a legal standpoint — securing minimum wage for the Raiderettes — Vinick says she was disappointed with the overall outcome.

“It didn’t end up that the cheerleaders really got paid their value. They just ended up getting paid minimum wage if they continued,” she added.

“Instead of arguing about whether these women should be paid minimum wage, we should be talking about paying these women their fair value for what they contribute to the game day experience.”

Like Thibodeaux-Fields, Pinzone told CNN Sport that she “worked her butt off” to be drafted by the Buffalo Bills’ Jills.

She had previously failed twice in her bid to make the team, but on her third attempt she said she was “over the moon” to be selected. However, things quickly turned sour.

Pinzone says she was expected to spend $650 on the team outfit and another $500 on treatments to be ready for the team calendar shoot. She would then participate in hours of unpaid appearances, she said, some of which were mandatory, and sponsor events, representing both the NFL and the Bills.

At the time, Pinzone did not want to speak out in case she was fired from the team, saying the topic of money was always too taboo to approach.

“I felt I was taken advantage of,” she told CNN Sport.

“I felt like I was going to these performances and […] supporting everything around it, and on the back of that, someone else was getting paid for it.”

After one season, she decided not to return, but still had friends on the team who were going through similar experiences.

In 2014, Pinzone and five other women decided to file a lawsuit against her team over the way they were paid, a case that later included the NFL (which was named on the contract they signed).

The central legal issue in the dispute was whether the cheerleaders were properly categorized as independent contractors, who are not subject to certain rules such as minimum wage, or should have been considered employees.

Pinzone and Jills won a summary judgment confirming their employee status, but the case remains unresolved. Pinzone says the trial was most recently delayed after one of the defendants filed for bankruptcy, and the Covid-19 pandemic is also complicating the proceedings.

Stejon Productions, the company that manages the Jills, ceased operations in the wake of the lawsuit, and the Bills have been without a cheerleading team ever since.

CNN has reached out to the Buffalo Bills and the NFL for comment, but has yet to hear back.

CNN has also reached out to the attorneys representing the owner of Stejon Productions for comment, but has yet to hear back.

Gu says the fact that Pinzone’s case is still ongoing shows the lack of understanding and the need to talk more about gender equality.

“It’s kind of disheartening to think that they can just say we’ll pay these women instead of spending so much money to actually fight this case,” she said.

“[The sport] really needs to look at changing the way they handle cheerleaders, the way they treat them.

“Obviously there’s a resistance to change. There’s a resistance to honest accountability for the wrongdoing, and you see that across so many different industries.

“That’s why I feel like this movie is not only relevant to cheerleading, you see a lack of accountability across the board.”

The documentary shows the backlash the women received for speaking out, both from within cheerleading and the wider NFL community. They say some current and former cheerleaders ostracized those who supported the lawsuits.

Despite the countless days in court and the disruption it caused to their lives, both women say they are proud to have spoken out and encourage others to come forward. But in retrospect, Thibodeaux-Fields would think twice about ever joining the NFL.

“If I would have seen this documentary before I decided to invest all my time and energy in these auditions, I wouldn’t have done it,” she told CNN Sport, admitting that she misses the feeling of performing on that stage .

“I would have taken my talent elsewhere. If I had known what I know now, I would never have set foot in the NFL, and I would probably encourage other girls not to either.”

For Pinzone, the experience shows how far large companies will go to save money, but hopes the documentary will encourage women from all walks of life to fight for change.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s about money. I mean, these businesses, they’re just so greedy.

“They want more and more and more and they don’t care who they put down in the process. I feel like it’s just so crazy. It really is.

“I think [the documentary] is a stepping stone, and the more people who come forward about their situation, I think it will help everyone in the long run.”

As of September 2020, 10 of the 26 NFL teams with cheerleading squads have been sued for wage theft, unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment and discrimination, according to the documentary.

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