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NFL Cheerleaders Are Ra-Ra-Raging Over Labour Laws

05/06/2014 12:24 EDT | Updated 07/06/2014 05:59 EDT

Lawsuits describe peanuts for pay, demeaning behaviour rules

Give me an F! E! D! and a U! and a P! They're a big part of the game day experience but NFL cheerleaders are no longer keeping to the sidelines when it comes to their treatment on and off the field. Multiple former NFL cheerleaders have come forward in 2014 to tell their stories -- often in the form of lawsuits -- of harsh working conditions, peanuts for pay, and demeaning behaviour rules.

The latest case involves five ex-Buffalo Bills cheerleaders who say not only were they paid less than minimum wage, they were also given an extensive handbook on how to behave. Deadspin points out some of the most bizarre rules describe "how much bread to eat at a formal dinner, how to properly eat soup, how much to tip restaurant waiters, wedding etiquette, how to properly wash 'intimate areas,' and how often to change tampons," the suit alleges.

The Bills "exploited the women by failing to pay them in accordance with New York State minimum wage laws" for "extensive work on game day and at various community events," the lawsuit continues, per USA Today. Some cheerleaders describe working game days for no pay at all; mandatory eight-hour practices, twice a week, were also unpaid. What's more, the women claim they were subjected to "jiggle tests" to determine just how much their bodies jiggled, and were penalized if they jiggled too much.

The case of the Buffalo Bills cheerleaders, or Jills, however, is far from unique. Numerous other women who formerly cheered for the Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders, and Cincinnati Bengals have come forward with similar tales this year. One Oakland cheerleader, or Raiderette, maintains she was paid less than $5 per hour, far less than the minimum wage in California. A Ben-Gal claims she was paid $2.85 per hour, or $855 for 300 hours of work put in during the 2013 season.

Yet little attention has been paid to these women's claims -- perhaps because, as Catherine Rampell writes in the Washington Post, it's hard to pity a group that is "pretty, perfectly proportioned and popular." Still, "one of the points of labour law is to offer basic protections to workers for whom the balance of power vastly favours employers: people such as migrant farm workers, burger-flippers and, yes, pretty cheerleaders."

But Megan McArdle in Bloomberg View debates whether we should actually be upset about this kind of treatment. NFL cheerleaders "are not, after all, being forced" to dance on the sidelines, she writes. "They audition for spots on the team, and the reason that management can get away with being so obnoxious is that for every woman who makes it, many more would love to take her spot. So they must get something out of their performance: status, the joy of dancing in public, esprit de corps."

Rampell argues, however, "Even workers who face great competition deserve to be shielded from abuse and exploitation by their bosses -- perhaps especially so when those bosses come from a taxpayer-subsidized, multibillion-dollar industry like the NFL." Keep in mind a 2003 Forbes Magazine article reported NFL cheerleaders make their teams $1 million each year -- a number likely to have grown in the last decade.

Until the lawsuits are heard in court, it's difficult to imagine what the future of cheerleading in the NFL will look like -- or if there is a future at all. But one thing is for certain: cheerleaders are dropping their pom poms and clenching their fists for a fight that could have far greater implications than the clashes on the football field.

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