Is it Right to Pay NFL Cheerleaders in Drool Alone?

If you shell out the $1,700 for a Super Bowl ticket, that's more than your average cheerleader makes in a year.
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With the Super Bowl just around the corner, we collectively anticipate the spectacle, from a star-studded halftime show to nearly $4 million dollar advertising spots to the beautiful and bedazzled pro cheerleaders. But behind the scenes, it's a very different story.

Last week, Oakland's "Raiderettes" cheerleading squad filed a lawsuit against the team, demanding back wages and reimbursement for business-related expenses. The suit states that the Raiderettes earn $1,250 a year, which translates into an abysmal $5 an hour. The San Jose Mercury-News reports:

The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of current and former Raiderettes, claims that the NFL team engaged in wage theft and other unfair employment practices. Specifically, the suit charges that the team withholds all pay from the Raiderettes until after the season is completed, does not pay for all hours worked and forces the cheerleaders to pay many of their own business expenses.

If this is true, the Raiderettes seem to have a case under California's Wage Theft Prevention Act. According to Sharon Vinick, attorney for the plaintiff, in addition to the back wages owed, the lawsuit states that:

The Raiderettes incur other costs, including fines levied for infractions such as bringing the wrong pom-poms to practice, wearing the wrong workout clothing to rehearsals, failing to bring a yoga mat to practice or not turning in written biographies on time.

Maybe these infractions seem silly, but more importantly, they are petty. Considering the already low wages versus time invested -- time that could otherwise be spent at a part-time job -- asking the cheerleaders to pay these additional expenses is outrageous.

And it doesn't stop with the Raiderettes. For cheerleaders, ludicrously low wages are endemic in pro football, with TheRichest reporting last year that the average pro cheerleader earns a shocking $500 to $750 per season. Occasionally, a more experienced cheerleader will earn a monthly base salary of around $1,000. So guess what? If you shell out the $1,700 for a Super Bowl ticket, that's more than your average cheerleader makes in a year.

Of course, cheerleaders enjoy -- or endure, potentially -- the attention of a vast male audience, whether it is the body-painted masses at the games or the millions of viewers at home. They have the privilege of being desired -- and objectified. The NFL would have us think that's payment enough. But let's consider for a moment what is expected of these women: to be at every game of a sixteen game season, to attend regular practices and to maintain a rigid physical standard, as documented on the terrifyingly competitive show "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team." Not only does the time commitment prevent them from holding down a regular job, but the sky-high body and beauty expectations are a constant reminder that they could be dismissed at the slightest jiggle. For example, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders' militantly perky website states that "perfection is the common goal" and that the women "subject themselves to rigorous physical conditioning, an exhaustive year-round rehearsal schedule and stringent rules and regulations that govern their part-time life."

How can teams expect the cheerleaders to commit to not only a job, but a lifestyle, and still have time to find work that pays the bills and puts (appropriately low-calorie) food on the table?

Of course, the cheerleaders are cheering, and not playing on the field, so it is understandable that their wages should be significantly lower than the players, who earn their demi-god status through blood, sweat and concussions. But the players are making obscene salaries, with Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco raking in $35.9 million last year -- not including endorsement deals -- and that only lands him at number four on the Forbes list. With that in mind, the cheerleaders' salaries go from being embarrassing to being ethically, if not legally, criminal. OK, maybe players should make 1,000 times as much as the cheerleaders. But 40,000 times as much?

Ironically, the cheerleader holds a premium spot in our collective consciousness: as the American sweetheart, the unattainable ideal, the wank-worthy dream girl. It seems the Oakland Raiders, and the majority of NFL teams, are maintaining the fantasy at the women's expense. I bet the fans would notice if the Seattle and Denver cheerleaders were missing on Super Bowl Sunday.

So when you're watching the Big Game, remember that no matter who wins, the biggest fans are losing. Not so dreamy anymore, is it?

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