“It definitely cost you a lot more money to be on the team than what you made.”
Who do you think said this? Could it possibly be a hockey player? A football player? How about a curler?
All wrong. The person who politely pointed out that she, and countless others, don’t get reimbursed for their time, effort, and energy, was Ceilynn Howse, former cheerleader and current choreographer for the Calgary Stampeders. She added that a paycheque “would have been nice.”
Five former cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills have recently filed a lawsuit, bringing the extreme discrimination they’ve experienced to the fore. The primary allegation is a lack of pay, where cheerleaders are either working for free or below minimum wage—the CBC reports that one New York Jets cheerleader estimated she had worked for $3.77/hour.
Essentially, professional cheerleaders are being paid about the same amount as high school cheerleaders—but they get treated worse. Other allegations in the suit include being given a handbook with rules like not overeating bread, using appropriate products for menstruation, and allegedly “being forced to sit on men’s laps, and even a jiggle test to check their weight.”
This is extremely similar to the notorious Lingerie Football League, where the players are not reimbursed despite the long and physically taxing hours required—even being required to pay to register. The rules for the cheerleaders also harken back to those that Gloria Steinem reported on in her renowned piece, “I was a Playboy Bunny.” The work demands that you put up with degrading treatment, as those in authority take advantage of their positions.
This treatment is particularly horrendous given the fact that teams are often all-too eager to meet their players’ demands. Even in the CFL, where the pay is considerably lower than in the NFL, the cheerleaders’ pay trails long and far behind. The salary cap in the NFL is $133-million, while the CFL’s is a comparatively puny $4.4-million; the CBC reports that even the NFL mascots generally earn between $23,000 and $65,000/year. That cheerleader who estimated she’d made $3.77/hour had made $1,800 in an entire season’s work.
These aren’t just hobbies that the cheerleaders are signing up for. They should be treated like employees, especially given the hours they’re required to put in, and the training that is often behind their dancing ability. They’re skilled performers who attend rehearsals, mandatory cheerleading camps, training, and performances. The women often have to take on part-time work if they’re to make any kind of a living, while the football players they’re cheering for demand a few more zeros on their paycheques.
Neither the NFL nor the CFL treat their professional cheerleaders as anything more than volunteers: Eric Holmes, a spokesperson for the Toronto Argonauts, says that “Most of our girls will tell us they’d do it for free. They’re happy to find out afterward we do have an honorarium.”
I’m not sure I take his statement at face value: at the very least, I think there are extenuating circumstances, whether the girls were in reality making a hyperbolic expression of delight, or whether the (likely extremely small) sample of girls don’t speak for all cheerleaders.
Regardless of the verity of his statement, the leagues are either oblivious to the fact that it is unethical as well as unlawful—hence the lawsuit—to commit wage-theft, or the leagues are accepting labour for no reimbursement with full-knowledge of their culpability. Sorry Holmes, bud, but if you’re claiming the former, ignorantia juris non excusat. I can say I’d work for free all I want, but you’re still obligated to pay me. Reimbursement through sunglasses, tanning deals, and per diems don’t count, and it’s an insult to the cheerleaders that, not only are they not paid, but they have to cheer on millionaires.
Here’s a little piece of advice, direct from me to the football leagues: instead of tacking millions of dollars more onto athletes’ salaries which are already inflated, put that money towards giving your cheerleaders an actual wage—and make sure it’s minimum wage or higher.
Originally published in the Other Press.