Cheerleaders call penalty on poor National Football League pay

SAN DIEGO - Former Raiderette Lacy worked roughly nine hours per NFL game and earned a flat payment of $125. The wage didn’t factor in time for practice, makeup and hair, and staying in shape.

The highest paid Oakland Raiders player, running back Darren McFadden, earns more in one game than the entire squad’s annual salary. In fact, the lowest-paid players on the same team also earn more at $405,000 annually.

The same is true in San Diego where 28 Charger Girls each earn $75 per game while the lowest-paid player earns $25,312 per regular season game.

When it comes to the numbers, cheerleaders are sidelined and some may argue their pay is too.

As audition season begins for the NFL cheerleading squads, some may wonder why women continue to work knowing the wage is low.

“It’s a dream,” said 28-year-old Lacy. “It was my ultimate dream.”

But with such a difference in salaries between the squad and the team—Lacy said it’s difficult to believe gender doesn’t play a factor.

“It’s hard to say there isn’t a gender bias,” she said. “It’s the men making the decision to not pay us fairly. It’s the men in the office. It feels like a gender bias.”

San Diego State University professor of women’s studies Doreen Mattingly agreed.

Mattingly, who studies employment, said the difference in pay is a part of a “larger trend.”

“The kind of work women do is treated differently than the kind of work men do,” she said. “That’s the challenge. There isn’t an understanding that what women do, even though it’s like what we do for fun, is for work—the same way what men do, even though it’s like what they do for fun, is for work."

The lawsuit

Lacy's belief that she was paid unfairly prompted her to file a lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders on Jan. 22. She later gained the support of Sarah, who worked as a Raiderette for four seasons.

Lacy and Sarah, who chose not to release their last names, claim the team fails to meet minimum wage requirements. The cheerleaders also allege that they weren't paid for required rehearsals, aren't reimbursed for using required hair stylists and that pay is withheld until the end of the season.

Lacy, who previously cheered for the NBA's Golden State Warriors at $10 per hour for two years, said she was stunned when she joined the Raiderettes but wanted to fulfill her "dream."

"It's always been my dream to do both in the Bay Area," she said. "I wanted to be a part of Oakland's elite squad."

Sarah, 29, said she didn't realize her wage was illegal until Lacy brought forth the lawsuit.

"I did my own research and saw exactly which labor laws they [Oakland Raiders] were violating," Sarah said.

Leslie Levy, the attorney representing Lacy and Sarah, filed the class action lawsuit. She said she received calls from about six former Raiderettes interested in joining the fight.

The team responded to the lawsuit in March with a request that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handle arbitrating the lawsuit. The U.S. Department of Labor also responded in March stating the Oakland Raiders is exempt from federal minimum wage laws because the team is a seasonal business.

Despite the federal government's response, Levy plans to file an opposition to the team's request and hopes the case will be settled in May.

"There's no way that's going to get enforced," she said. "It's clear the NFL commissioner is not an unbiased form because the Raiders pay part of the commissioner's salary. We're going to oppose and we think we have a good shot of winning."

By the numbers

Lacy and Sarah's paychecks don't stand apart from other cheerleaders in the NFL.

Five teams publicly share the cheerleaders' pay, including the Chargers (see graphic), which ranges from $75 to $150 per game but doesn't include details or whether women are paid for rehearsals. The wage is less than the average earnings of a part-time worker in the U.S. at $237 per week. A full-time worker makes an average of $776 per week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Baltimore Ravens state their cheerleaders are paid hourly for games, practices and appearances while sources say Seattle Seahawks cheerleaders are paid hourly and at minimum wage. Atlanta Falcons require their cheerleaders to have full-time jobs or be a full-time student because "cheerleading is not a full-time paying job," according to its audition information.

 The gap between working men and women is 16 cents per hour, according to the Pew Research Center. It's an improvement compared to 1980 when the gap was 36 cents per hour.

"But progress has slowed in recent years and even reversed for many women over the course of their careers," stated the report.

The gender gap debate is raging across the country as President Barack Obama lobbies to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. The proposal received widespread support from the Democratic Party, including from the three Democratic congressional leaders who represent parts of San Diego County.

Rep. Susan Davis, who cosponsored the minimum wage legislation, said "workers should be fairly compensated" in response to whether professional cheerleaders should have an increase in wages.

"Workers earning the federal minimum wage—nearly two-thirds of whom are women, forcing many into two jobs—are long overdue for a raise."

Rep. Scott Peters said he supported Obama's proposal but had "no comment" on whether cheerleaders deserve higher wages. Rep. Juan Vargas didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

The gender gap is just one issue to consider when talking about the cheerleaders' wages, said Mattingly.

She said the professional cheerleading positions, which generally have age limits, attract young women and the limited dancing/cheerleading positions force people to work for low wages.

"Younger people make choices not realizing what their future earnings will be," she said. "They don't realize there's a huge wage penalty for choosing this path. It isn't a reason to not have equity or to pay people fairly for what they bring to an organization." 

A new season

As audition season is underway, it's unknown how the former Raiderettes' lawsuit—which has been reported to be the first of its kind against an NFL team—will affect the amount of women who try out.

The lawsuit did prompt a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader, Alexa Brenneman, to file a lawsuit against the Ohio team also claiming unfair wages. A petition was also created demanding NFL teams pay cheerleaders a living wage.

In San Diego, the Chargers plan to hold their annual auditions Sunday and expect more than 400 women to try out. Questions to the team regarding the cheerleaders were deferred to Michael Olmstead, president of e2K Events x Entertainment, which is contracted to produce and manage the Charger Girls.

Olmstead said the lawsuits haven't affected the Charger Girls.

"E2k has always maintained a professional approach to the management of the Charger Girls in terms of their employment practices," he said. "While we will naturally be paying attention to the issues and results of the recent lawsuits, these cases have not impacted our policies or approach to the production of the Charger Girls."

He said the Charger Girls' $75 per home game wage was "established base on many criteria, including as part of the total compensation package that includes other tangible benefits and sources of income such as public appearances."

Audition information does not indicate payment for the twice weekly rehearsals required of the Charger Girls.

Levy and her clients are hopeful a change is brewing.

"I hope the NFL teams step up and realize that their cheerleaders bring a significant value to the team," Levy said. "They should be paid—at least pay them in accordance with the law."

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