Concession workers can often do more than cheerleaders for the National Football League.
That pay gap is the subject of a new documentary called “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem.” The PBS Independent Lens film airs Monday.
The pay disparity came to light in 2014 after a series of lawsuits brought by cheerleaders who said they were underpaid and sexually harassed. Filmmaker Yu Gu follows the stories of former Buffalo Bill Jills cheerleader Maria Pinzone and former Los Angeles Raiderettes cheerleader Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields.
Gu, who was born in China, says he came to the United States as an immigrant with high expectations about equality in democracies.
So when Gu arrived as a student at the University of Southern California and heard about Thibodeaux-Fields’ “mind-boggling” lawsuit claiming the cheerleader was paid less than minimum wage, Gu was perplexed. She says she was immediately drawn to the story.
“Just seeing that kind of extreme inequality was something that really piqued my interest,” he says. “I wanted to go deeper.”
Thibodeaux-Fields filed his lawsuit a week before Super Bowl XLVIII, Gu says. The NFL tried to make a distinction about cheerleader pay, saying that individual teams are responsible for paying the cheerleaders, not the league. The move was an attempt to “shift responsibility away,” says Gu.
In 2014, the average salary for an NFL player was around $420,000 per year, and a mascot could earn up to $65,000 per year. A Raiderette cheerleader averaged just $1,250 a year, according to the documentary.
The pay doesn’t match the work done: Soccer cheerleaders can spend 60-70 hours a week working on behalf of the team.
NFL teams act as if the cheerleading role is an “invaluable benefit” and “women should feel blessed to have this opportunity to cheer [and] be a part of such a meaningful organization,” says Gu.
Teams use cheerleading as “not really a job,” but more of a charitable act to give back to your team and community, Gu says. Many fans feel the same way, he says.
Ultimately, the battle for fair pay has illuminated the perception of what cheerleaders stand for. One fan of the documentary said that cheerleaders are not a good role model for young girls, especially when it comes to body image.
“I don’t agree with the image that a lot of these NFL cheerleaders are portraying,” the fan said in the film.
Throughout “A Woman’s Work,” Gu shows the connection between low wages and how society views cheerleaders. While the lawsuits spurred some to question the relevance of cheerleaders, Gu says they remain a big part of these sports teams.
“I think part of it is if these teams employ women, employ these cheerleaders, they need to be treated fairly,” she says. “And also, I think women themselves need to be empowered to really evolve their roles, to evolve their industry and even the creative side of who they are and how they market themselves.”
She argues that the problem goes back to how society views sexuality and women’s bodies as well.
“I think right now, in terms of rape culture [and] toxic masculinity, I think there’s this idea that men are only entitled to women’s bodies and their affection, and their beauty should be given [and] should be free,” Gu. he says
The documentary also explores gender roles and work that women are often not recognized for, such as caregiving. Gu hopes the film’s look at the invisible work many women do can help “reinvigorate” respect and dignity for what “women’s work” means.
So far, there have been current and former professional cheerleaders who have seen the film and felt it was a reflection of their experience, she says. They feel empowered to change the narrative about who they are and what they stand for.
“They’re not just there to be seen and not heard,” he says. “They have a voice. They have opinions.”
Some former cheerleaders are still critical of the lawsuits and the fight for fair pay. But Gu hopes that after watching the film, they will rethink their position and find that “it’s not impossible to love your experience as an entertainer and be treated fairly, get paid fairly, and have a safer workplace “.
Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.
This segment aired on January 1, 2021.