Every game day Alexa Brenneman , 24, a Ben Gal cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals, woke up at 4 a.m.to get ready. Her hair and make-up had to be perfect before she reached the stadium at 8 a.m. for two practices and autograph signing before the game started. After that, it was four straight hours of cheering, dancing, and smiling.
And she loved it.
Until she did the numbers on what she was being paid and realized she was being exploited.
Then she took action. Brenneman filed suit against the Bengals franchise on Tuesday. She is the second NFL cheerleader to take legal action against her team alleging that her hourly wages are so low, they’re less than minimum wage. In January, Lacy T. (her full name is not disclosed) filed a class-action lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders for wage theft. And just last week, another fellow Raiderette, Sarah G., 29, joined her.
Lacy T.’s lawsuit—which was the first to make waves in the cheer community–is on behalf of the current 40 Raiderettes and former cheerleaders, and states that the Raiders are in violation of California labor laws, which require a minimum wage of $8 per hour—even for part-time workers (all cheerleaders are fully informed it’s a part-time gig). The Labor Department in San Francisco confirms it is investigating the case.
The Raiderettes are paid a flat fee of $125 a game, which the women say is a nine-hour commitment. That’s about $1,250 for a 10 game season, which the lawsuit says breaks down to around $5 an hour if you include the unpaid hours in practices, events and photo shoots. And they don’t see a paycheck until the end of the Raiders’ season—in January.
On the Ben-Gals squad, Brenneman was paid a total of $855 for her time as a Ben-Gals cheerleader, and says she spent over 300 hours performing, practicing and attending events. (The one week she missed a game for a funeral, she wasn’t paid.) Minimum wage in Ohio is $7.85, but Brenneman’s pay comes to about less than $2.85 an hour.
Similar payment for cheerleaders is common across the NFL—although Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, pay minimum wage and overtime for their cheerleaders, the Sea Gals. “We have been doing this for years, and I have never seen a contract like this. This women don’t understand that this is illegal,” says Leslie Levy, one of the cheerleaders’ lawyers.
If the numbers alleged by the plaintiffs are correct, NFL cheerleader wages are at something close to or less than those of unskilled minimum wage workers. But advocates say cheerleading is a profession that demands specific skills and not everyone can land the job. It’s considered a sport in of itself and requires significant training that’s intensively competitive and physically demanding. It’s also one of the most injury prone activities in which a high school or college athlete can participate. The American Academy of Pediatrics says football cheerleading accounts for 70.8 percent of injuries to female college athletes.
Cheerleaders are not the primary money-makers for the NFL, but they are an important and arguably essential part of the draw for many teams. Having a squad is evidence of a successful franchise. A famous squad like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders can still rake in about $1 million per season for their franchise. And as a whole, the NFL is the most lucrative sport in America. In 2012, the Oakland Raiders were valued at $825 million, with revenue of $229 million. The NFL, a tax-exempt organization, brings in about $9 billion in revenue annually, and hopes to bring in $25 billion by 2027.
Lacy says she realized she wanted a pair of legal eyes to look at her contract as she was getting ready to shoot the annual Raiderettes swimsuit calendar. “We were traveling a lot for mandatory events. After a while, I realized I was spending so much money and I wasn’t getting paid until the end of the season,” says Lacy. She was used to better conditions when she was a cheerleader for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. They paid her $10 the hour and reimbursed her for expenses. She spent $650 of her own money on Raiderette expenses.
According to the Raiderettes’ contract, they’re required to attend a minimum of 10 “charity” appearances without any form of compensation. The women do not get any cut from the promotional merchandise. The calendars they pose for? The only perk is they can buy the calendars at cost. They’re required to use special stylists so their hair and appearance is up to snuff—all of which is paid out of pocket. If they wear the wrong outfit to practice, they are fined $10.
Mascots on the other hand, make much more. Although their salaries are not public, the Raiderettes lawyers say that from their research, mascots make $30 to $60K a year. Whether the mascots have other jobs within the team that adds to that amount is unclear.
So if these women are working for a very lucrative franchise, and they think they are underpaid, why haven’t they demanded better wages before? Part of it is the sense that they are “lucky” to get the chance to be NFL cheerleaders. Lacy and other cheerleaders report that they’re told that there are hundreds of women who would take their place. “I didn’t feel comfortable complaining about my pay. They would probably just kick me off the team,” says Lacy when asked why she didn’t talk to her superiors about a pay increase right away.
The culture to keep quiet and not complain about pay is common across squads. Even current NFL cheerleaders I know personally declined to talk to me about their treatment or the Raiderettes’ case. “This isn’t something I wanted to have to do,” says Brenneman. “But I have a great respect for my squad and myself and this craft, and someone needs to take a stand for us as athletes.”
Reactions to the lawsuit among the Raiderettes and the cheer community are mixed. Some women tell Lacy and Sarah to keep up the fight. Others feel they’ve betrayed an unwritten code. Lacy received several emails she chose not to read for fear that they’d be negative about her suit.
“Do they pay a lot? No they don’t. But there are women who would continue to do it if they paid even less. It’s really not amount the money. It’s about the opportunity, and the prestige, and loving the sport and the game,” says Starr Spangler Rey, 27, a former three-season Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader—now a management consultant. “I’ve seen women manage families, children, full-time careers. People make it work because it’s something that they love to do.”
According to Rey, everyone knows the job doesn’t pay well, and the women are told they should be doing something else to move towards their career goals. Lacy T. is a stay-at-home mom, Sarah G is a flight attendant, and Brenneman is a fitness instructor. When Rey was cheering for the Dallas cowboys, she was an undergrad at Texas Christian University, and was financially supported by her parents. She describes the time management as “intense.”
“There are many reasons girls end up cheering, and I don’t think money is one of them. Is it unfortunate? Yes. Do I agree with it? Not really. But at the same time, it is what it is,” says Rey.
And what it is is a profession where the participants are subject to rules that extend past the playing field and include guidelines that stipulate their beauty maintenance routines and their behavior. A Raiderette guidebook that was released to the Los Angeles Times listed behavior demands like: “There’s not a female alive (or male either) who doesn’t like attention. But you need to learn to deal with attention you receive from the public (and especially the players) without it getting out of hand and going to your head.” And it made more than one mention of being careful at parties–evening citing a formerly popular annual Halloween party hosted by a player: “This same player was suspended from the team for drug use but also arrested for date rape. For you on the squad who have attended those parties, just think how narrowly you missed having your photo in all the local papers and/or being assaulted.”
While cheerleading is much more recognized as an athletic endeavor nationally ( there’s even a push to make it an Olympic sport), in the NFL, it’s often discussed in terms closer to a beauty pageant and without much regard to the physical skill needed to do the job. Both Lacy and Sarah started dancing competitively in very early childhood, and Lacy even had a scholarship to dance in college. They are serious about their craft.
Yet, the women (who refer to themselves as ‘girls’) are not quick to call their situation sexist, although Lacy says that as she’s stepped back from the culture, she sees the women were taken advantage of, when they were just trying to keep part of their dancing dreams alive. Something both Lacy and Sarah admit family and friends saw long before they did.
“I had sleepless nights [when I was deciding to go public]. I was sick to my stomach. I was having a blast and making great friends,” says Lacy. “But I knew this was something I had to do for myself and all my friends on the team. I knew many of these girls would never talk to me again, and it’s hard when friends turn their back on you for something you did for their rights.”
The Cincinnati Bengals sent TIME the following response to the lawsuit: “The Ben-Gals cheerleading program has long been a program run by former cheerleaders and has enjoyed broad support in the community and by members of the squad. Yesterday’s lawsuit appears to be a copycat lawsuit that mimics the one filed last month in California against a different NFL club. The Bengals will address the litigation in due course.”
The Oakland Raiders and the NFL declined to comment for this piece.