Earlier this week, Josh Eidelson published a eye-opening interview with two cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders — or “Raiderettes,” as they are called — about why they are suing the team for wage theft. The NFL is a vast corporate enterprise that makes billions of dollars a year, and considering how enormously profitable it is, I was shocked to learn how little the cheerleaders are paid. Consider these facts from the article:
— The cheerleaders get paid a miserable $125 per game. Since their work days last approximately 10 hours, that comes to only $12.50 an hour. They have been illegally denied the time and half pay for overtime they are due under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
— They are not paid for practices or charity appearances, which add up to countless additional work hours.
— The Raiderettes are forced to pay for their own out-of-pocket expenses, which, due to the travel requirements of the job, can be large. One of the cheerleaders interviewed reports that she spent up to $500 a month on such expenses.
— Unlike most workers, the cheerleaders don’t get paid on a biweekly basis. Instead, they receive only one paycheck at the end of the season in January, even though the season begins in April.
— Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, there’s this: the mascots for professional football teams work far fewer hours than the cheerleaders, are virtually all male, and make between $30,000 and $65,000 a year.
One of the many reasons I don’t enjoy football is because cheerleading, at least as it is performed during professional football games in the U.S., reinforces sexist narratives of women as sexual objects whose function is to support men. So clearly, I’m going to disagree with the answer Raiderettes Sarah G. and Lacy T. give to this question:
Do either of you believe that there’s anything inherently problematic or sexist about cheerleading as it exists now in the U.S.?
Sarah: Absolutely not. I’ve never felt that way with the Raiders.
Lacy: I don’t think so, personally …
But you don’t have to believe that cheerleading is unproblematic to support these women in their quest to be compensated fairly and treated like that hard-working, highly skilled professionals that they are. The fact that the L.A. Raiders are nickel and diming Sarah, Lacy, and their sister Raiderettes, and that they appear to be breaking labor laws right and left, stealing their wages, and forcing them to sign an illegal contract, is shameful.
Since it certainly seems as though the Raiders are breaking the law, their suit may well be successful. But if the Raiderettes want to lock in decent wages and benefits, they might want to think about stirring up even more trouble by organizing a union. Historically, forming a union was the only way professional football players could amass enough power to challenge exploitative labor practices and demand a fair share of the enormous profits that had been accruing to the owners. In the same way, a union might be the most effective institutional mechanism to ensure decent labor conditions for the cheerleaders over the long haul. The obstacles to organizing such a union would be formidable, of course. But sometimes, even just the threat of a union can cause an employer to clean up its act. Besides, wouldn’t it make a great movie?