Robin Abcarian: New contract an extraordinary win for NFL cheerleaders

Los Angeles TimesJuly 15, 2014 

On July 1, about six months after being hit with a wage theft lawsuit that generated worldwide attention, the Oakland Raiders shipped out a new contract to the 40 members of its Raiderettes cheerleading squad, who call themselves "football's fabulous females."

The two-page document represents something almost revolutionary in the world of NFL cheerleading: a guarantee that the Oakland Raiders will no longer rip off the women who enliven its sidelines and work as team ambassadors when they are not performing.

The cheerleaders will now be earning $9 an hour.

Yeah, hardly a pretty penny, but a whopping raise.

In past seasons, Raiderettes earned $125 per game for 10 games, and virtually nothing for the hundreds of hours they put in for mandatory practices, rehearsals and public appearances. (Although cheerleaders can earn extra money at sponsored appearances, the money does not come from the team and such assignments are often doled out as favors to preferred members of the squad.)

The paltry raise also means the team will no longer be vulnerable to allegations that it has violated a laundry list of state labor laws including failing to pay minimum wage, illegally deducting wages for minor rules infractions like tardiness, failing to reimburse mandatory business expenses and issuing paychecks only once a year.

Starting this season, Raiderettes will be paid for all their work, which can add up to about 350 hours in a season. Their annual compensation should rise from about $1,250 to about $3,200. They will be entitled to overtime, and, significantly, they will also be reimbursed for some mandatory business expenses and mileage, which they have previously paid out of their own pockets.

One cheerleader advocate was unimpressed.

"Going from nothing to minimum wage is not a major victory, it's the law," said Diane Todd, a Santa Monica, Calif., health company project manager whose change.org petition asking NFL teams to pay cheerleaders a living wage has garnered more than 130,000 signatures since she posted it in December.

On June 3, Paula Abdul tweeted a link to the petition. Last week, retired football great Jerry Rice signed it, and retweeted a link as well. "It doesn't take a brainiac to figure out cheerleaders are just being exploited," Todd said. "It's the NFL, for crying out loud."

Still, one labor law expert was encouraged by the new Raiderette contract.

"This should be considered a victory for the workers," said Catherine Ruckleshaus, legal director of the National Employment Law Project. "But minimum wage is still not very much, even if you double it for overtime."

I've been writing about the abominable wages of professional cheerleaders since January, when a former Raiderette, who has been identified only as Lacy T., filed the first class-action lawsuit against the Raiders. Her lawsuit focused strictly on labor law violations, but I was appalled by other conditions of the job as well.

The Raiderettes handbook, for instance, is a document right out of a pre-feminist past, with patronizing instructions about staying away from married men in the front office, not dating players and avoiding parties where their "reputations" could be "ruined" if they were sexually assaulted by players. (I am not making this up.)

A few weeks after Lacy filed her lawsuit, she was joined by a second plaintiff, Sarah G. And then, it seemed, the dam broke. Similar lawsuits were filed by former cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills, the Cincinnati Bengals, the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In 1995, the Buffalo Jills had a brief, shining labor rights moment when they won the right to organize the first professional cheerleaders union. Their union collapsed a year later when they could not find a sponsor willing to take them on.

Nowadays, they have to pass a "jiggle test," and their handbook instructs them how often to change their tampons and how to properly wash "intimate areas." (I am not making this up, either.)

Last month, a Raiderette named Caitlin Y. filed a second, separate wage theft lawsuit against the Raiders. Unlike other lawsuits, she included the NFL as a defendant. (A league spokesman told me the NFL has nothing to do with cheerleaders.)

Unlike all the other cheerleader plaintiffs, Caitlin is still a Raiderette. That, she told me last week, has made for some awkward moments, as workers don't always appreciate someone who rocks the boat, even on their behalf.

"It's been a tough experience," she said. "I understand that change is not always well-received. People don't necessarily know how to interact with me right now, and that's OK. I am here and believe in my cause."

I had assumed that Raiderettes, upon receiving their new contract, would go out of their way to thank Lacy T., who courageously started the current wage revolt. After all, even though the Raiders have declined to talk to me, it's pretty clear the new contract was developed in direct response to her lawsuit.

"I seriously doubt I will ever hear a thank-you," Lacy told me. Some cheerleaders in her "line," she said, texted her that the contract is "awesome." They were especially happy to be paid twice a month instead of only once per season. "That was a hardship for everyone." But many felt her lawsuit made the team look bad.

Attorneys for Lacy and Sarah were scheduled for their first mediation session with the Raiders.

Technically, the new Raiderettes contract has no legal bearing on their case. "But you could argue that it's good psychologically for our mediation," said the cheerleaders' attorney Leslie Levy. "Have you ever read Malcolm Gladwell's 'The Tipping Point'? It feels like that's what happened here.

"Lacy came forward, and Sarah joined her and between the two of them, they tipped the scales. It's almost a domino effect. We had two great clients willing to risk what they love, which is to dance, to be spokespeople for the rest of the cheerleaders and say 'This is isn't right.'"

These ladies may like to shake pompoms for a living, but don't ever call them powder puffs.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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