Cheerleaders make the world a better place. That much can’t be disputed, right?
And being a cheerleader has to be pretty sweet, too, right? I know several CFL and NFL cheerleaders, and I’m always astounded by how freaking satisfied they are with their part-time jobs. They love the camaraderie. It’s an extremely strong sisterhood — an exclusive club. You rarely hear a professional football cheerleader complain, at least publicly.
But being an NFL cheerleader isn’t a three-hour-a-week job, as many of us might assume. And there’s a murmured concern that the 26 groups of ladies who complement the action on NFL sidelines are being cheated by their employers.
Take Catherine K. Ruckelshaus, the legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, who told TBD.com’s Amanda Hess that the employment situation of a cheerleader sounds “horrible.”
When you do the math — and Hess did in an eye-opening piece entitled “Washington Redskins Cheerleaders: All work, (almost) no pay” — it’s hard to disagree with Ruckelshaus.
Hess calculated the approximate total financial investment an aspiring cheerleader has to make. When you take into account the total cost of makeup, hair, tanning, gym memberships, audition fees, attire and prep classes, you have a number in excess of $500.
Hess focused on the Redskins’ squad. In Washington, the ladies are paid $75 dollars per game, which works out to $750 per year if the ‘Skins fail to make the playoffs (as they usually do).
The hours, pay and benefits obviously differ from city to city (and league to league). Jessica, the captain of the Argos cheerleaders, tells me that her gym membership is taken care of (so remove that payment from the above list of investments) but that the commitment is pretty intense. During the season, the unit spends at least five hours a week practicing together, but “because we learn so many routines throughout the season, we are responsible for taking home the material that we have learned and practicing.”
Throw in game days — Jessica says each game requires about a seven-hour commitment while Hess claims the ‘Skins cheerleaders put in up to 10 hours every Sunday during the season — and you have quite the busy schedule. Including work in their own time, it’s a lifestyle that requires anywhere between 10 and 30 hours a week. In Washington, that pays $75. In Toronto, the cheerleaders “receive a small honorarium for each home game but (are) not compensated for rehearsals,” according to the auditions FAQ.
(They do have opportunities to make paid appearances throughout the season and offseason, but many are voluntary. Teams don’t typically reveal what cheerleaders are paid for appearances, but Hess did discover that the Redskinettes do not have the ability to set their own fees.)
So it’s obvious that professional cheerleaders don’t net much, if any, money.
There’s a belief that if cheerleaders consider their “job” to be more of a hobby, then their lack of income is justifiable. If my friends and I sign up to play in a recreational volleyball league, we pay a registration fee. Jobs make you money; hobbies usually cost you money.
The concern here, though, is that cheerleaders make their teams and related businesses money while partaking in their craft. From the TBD.com article:
Each year, the Redskins make each cheerleader available for more than 20 official appearances, where they dance, sign autographs, and pose for photos at private parties and corporate events. Unlike Redskins players, the team’s cheerleaders can’t set their own appearance fees, and the team won’t disclose its price tag of a Redskinette at your doorstep. But across the league, NFL teams charge outside organizations an hourly rate that far outstrips the women’s game-day pay. The Baltimore Ravens, for example, charge appearance fees of $150 to $250 per cheerleader per hour. The Tennessee Titans charge up to $300 an hour. And the Oakland Raiders rent their cheerleaders at a $400 hourly rate. It’s not clear what portion of those appearance fees actually trickles down to the talent.
Hess goes on to list about a dozen other organizations that benefit financially from the presence of cheerleaders.
“I don’t think dancing half-naked is exploitation,” Gregg Easterbrook, who has for years banged the cheerleader pay drum in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column at ESPN.com, told Hess. “But the teams are keeping all the money for themselves. If that’s not exploitation, what is?”
So why isn’t a caped crusader of feminism swooping in to save cheerleaders? As Easterbrook points out, “feminist groups are uncomfortable with really good-looking women who want to dance around in bikinis.”
And then there are the benefits, which sweeten the gig. Typically, the ladies are paid to offset the aforementioned costs of being a cheerleader. But that’s not the end of the story. As Hess points out, Redskins cheerleaders receive two season tickets and are rewarded with an all-expenses paid trip to an exotic location to take part in a calendar shoot each year.
Throw in the mild fame, the exposure that could lead to careers in modeling and related fields and the lifetime memories made and being a cheerleader doesn’t exactly sound like sweatshop work.
Are some cheerleaders essentially working for those benefits in lieu of cash? Absolutely, but that’s nothing new. Earlier in my career in media, I did all sorts of work for free, especially as a television host and reporter. Friends and family thought that was crazy, but I rationalized it in two ways: 1) I was being paid in experience, which trumped dollars, and 2) If I didn’t do it, there were hundreds of ambitious people waiting to take my place.
That’s the thing about being a cheerleader for a pro football team: it’s friggin’ cool. There are thousands of women who try and fail at cheerleading auditions around the NFL and CFL each year. The position is in high demand — the employee is not.
That doesn’t make it okay for teams to exploit the cheerleaders who do make it, but it makes it significantly harder for the ladies to speak up.
Pro football cheerleaders don’t generally feel they have to speak up. They’re content, because the majority of them aren’t doing it for the money. Instead, it’s all about those seemingly ancillary factors like the friendships, the sorority, the glamor and, most importantly, the dancing.
“Our time on the team is something we are all so grateful for,” Jessica told me. “Life-long friendships are made. We train hard, dance hard and have fun while we’re doing it.”