Maria Pinzone thought she had landed her dream job when, in 2012, she successfully auditioned for the Jills, the cheering team for her beloved hometown NFL team, the Buffalo Bills. Pinzone had long dreamed of cheering in the NFL, but as the season progressed, parts of the job began to trouble her. The job required hours upon hours of practice and dozens of community events, all unpaid. The Bills made more than $ 250 million as an organization that year, but Pinzone had to pay $ 650 for his uniform and was only paid $ 105 for 840 hours of work.
Pinzone left the team in 2013. When another Jill confided the same doubts about their compensation, Pinzone took her contract to a lawyer. The meeting in late 2013 “almost felt like a prayer confession,” he told the Guardian. Something was wrong with the contract: The Bills’ mascots, dealers, janitors, and housekeeping staff were all paid for the work and time, but the cheerleaders in the same stadium every week weren’t. But doubt crept in. “I’m crazy?” I think. “Here I was signing up to be an NFL cheerleader – such a high prestige [job],” he said, “it just never occurred to me that there could be anything wrong with that contract.”
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, a documentary completed in 2019 and now available on request, explores the context of Pinzone’s cause and traces the protracted and hard-won efforts of cheerleaders across the league to force the NFL to compensate fairly. its most visible female employees. Since Pinzone, one of two former cheerleaders followed by director Yu Gu as they sought compensation for the minimum wage and legal fees, and four teammates filed a lawsuit against the Jills, their managers and the Bills in 2014, the The NFL, which generated over $ 15 billion in revenue in 2019, has come under increased scrutiny for widespread underpayment, restrictive contracts, and mistreatment of its cheerleaders. Ten of the 26 NFL teams with cheerleaders have since faced lawsuits for alleged wage theft, sexual harassment, body shame, hostile workplaces, criminally low pay (some as low as $ 2.85 an hour) and “blatant discrimination”.
But in 2014, few talked publicly about fair pay for cheerleaders, an NFL staple for decades whose traditional 1960s ‘volunteer’ stance barely suited the league’s growing wealth, visibility and professionalism. . Highly competitive NFL fan clubs have developed their own dispositions justifying maximum training and minimum pay – talk or challenge football team loyalty and you’re on the bench. “It has been happening for so long and this culture of fear has really been instilled in cheerleaders from day one,” Gu told the Guardian. “It was such a huge barrier to overcome.” That was, until Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, an Oakland “Raiderette” originally from Sulfur, Louisiana, and the film’s other subject, filed a class action lawsuit in early 2014.
Like Pinzone, agile and extraordinarily bubbly Thibodeaux-Fields had long dreamed of becoming a professional cheerleader: when she joined the Raiderettes in 2013, Thibodeaux-Fields had spent 10,560 hours in 18 years of dance training, a calculated job on the screen in a woman’s work. The NFL didn’t reward that skill, and the terms of the job were unsustainable – the Raiderettes weren’t paid until the end of the season, nine months after training began. Thibodeaux-Fields would have to pay for the necessary hair, nails, and spray tan at $ 225 a pop, and all in all, she was being paid less than $ 5 an hour for her work, including eight-hour shifts.
Gu first heard about the Thibodeaux-Fields lawsuit in the Los Angeles Times while he was a graduate student at the University of Southern California. Born in China and raised in Vancouver, Gu knew the stereotypes of cheerleading, but was baffled by American football-obsessed culture. Stripped of the American myths used by teams to justify low pay – which was a privilege to cheer in the NFL, that sisterhood and prestige were worth more than money, which offered visibility and had always been – the Thibodeaux-Fields case seemed simple, “a path to understanding some of the fundamental mythologies of American culture,” Gu told the Guardian.
A Woman’s Work observes Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone over five years, as the causes and their echoes: the offensive gossip about Facebook groups, the recognition of widespread problems throughout the league, the slow unlearning of gaslighting “lucky to be here “, the way they recognize it reformulates the whole worldview, weaving into their daily, sometimes extremely personal, lives. Gu’s camera finds Thibodeaux-Fields on the floor with her children, overwhelmed with childcare and too exhausted to commit to her husband after work. We stare at Pinzone from the passenger seat, days after losing his mother – his best friend and greatest cheerleader – to cancer, as he melts in tears in his car.
The unpainted, un-cause-related footage of the film shows “the consequences, the repercussions, of being mistreated in the workplace, of being underpaid or undervalued,” Gu said. Without a Raiderette salary, Thibodeaux-Fields depended on following her husband’s job and providing childcare for their growing family. Maria balanced the stress and time of the cause with her career as an accountant and primary care for her mother.
Thibodeaux-Fields eventually struck a deal with the Raiders, but the case of Pinzone, a collective action that was joined by 73 other Jills (another 60 excluded) that ultimately included the NFL as a defendant, dragged on and is still in a tense stalemate. Days after the lawsuit was filed, the Bills shut down the Jills, unceremoniously ending a nearly 50-year-old program. “I couldn’t believe they did it and turned us upside down, so we became the bad guys,” Pinzone said. “It was really difficult to navigate. At one point in the film, the defendants offer a low settlement deal rather than paying a fairly back salary. “The fact that they thought we would accept something so low shows what they think of us: that we are nothing,” Pinzone says in the video of her accompanying her father to a medical appointment.
The NFL, despite all its recent work to tackle sexism and racism within the league, and its 2016 “Women’s Summit” held in the wake of the league’s domestic violence scandal, has aimed to address the compensation of league-level cheerleader. Contracts and compensation for cheerleading teams are still at the discretion of the individual teams and their owners. From Gu’s point of view, the league is “not justifying” the practical approach to a safe and fair work environment for cheerleaders, “I think because they feel they don’t have to justify it,” he said. Cheerleader or not, fair pay or not, people will continue to watch football. “Since the league position is that it is the responsibility of each team, there is only a lack of consistent rules and guidelines between the different teams and there is a lack of transparency and communication between the different teams,” explained Gu.
However, he added, it was “encouraging” to see the teams change their policies in the wake of several lawsuits: the Raiderettes changed their contract to comply with labor laws, and California lawmaker Lorena Gonzalez, who appears in the film, has introduced legislation specifically aimed at protecting professional cheerleaders.
Some teams have “realized [d] that these women are an asset to their organization and should be compensated for it,” Pinzone said. Although he “had no idea when we signed up” how long the lawsuit would go on, delayed by the bankruptcy of a defendant and the pandemic, Pinzone is hoping for a resolution this year. “We will keep moving forward,” he said, “and hopefully once everything is set up, they too will bring the Jills back and do it right.”
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem is now available for digital rental in the US with a UK date yet to be announced