An Explainer: NFL Cheerleader Lawsuits (Part 2)

Published October 9th, 2014 -  - 10.09.142


Yesterday, I wrote about the background for the lawsuits cheerleaders have recently filed against the NFL and NFL teams. So far, cheerleaders have sued five NFL teams, and the NFL as a whole. The cheerleaders claim that the teams illegally pay them below minimum wage. The teams allege that the cheerleaders are independent contractors, who are not subject to minimum wage requirements.  (The whole post is here).

What do these lawsuits allege and where is the litigation now? 

Alexa Brenneman, a Cincinnati Ben Gal (as the cheerleaders for the Cincinnati Bengals are called), filed a class action lawsuit against the Bengals in February, according to the Time. Brenneman asserted that she and other cheerleaders were paid under $2.85 per hour; the Ohio minimum wage is $7.85 per hour. Manouchar Pierre-Val filed a complaint against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to the Tampa Bay Times. She alleged that Bucs (as the cheerleaders are known) were paid under $2 per hour. According to the complaint, not only were the cheerleaders underpaid for attending games and rehearsal, but they were also required to attend community appearances and charity events without any pay. Krystal C. filed a lawsuit against the New York Jets, alleging that the members of the Flight Crew (as the Jets cheerleaders are known) are paid below minimum wage, according to ESPN. While the team paid the cheerleaders $150 per game, they were not paid for mandatory promotional appearance, mandatory practices, or expenses.

Caitlin Ferrari filed a similar suit against the Buffalo Bills in April, according to Businessweek. According to her complaint, Buffalo Jills (the cheerleaders) aren’t paid for games, practices, or mandatory promotional appearances.

For the Jills, this lawsuit is only the next match in a long-running fight for better wages and working conditions: in 1995, the Jills had a successful union organizing campaign. For most of their history, the Jills have managed by third-party vendors—which Ferrari alleges is to shield the team from liability. Starting in 1985, the Jills were managed by Mighty Taco, a local fast-food company, under contract with the team. In 1995, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the Jills were employees, not independent contractors, of Mighty Taco, and therefore entitled to unionize. The Jills elected to join a union, according to the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. For a brief period, it looked like the union organizing might spread to other cheerleading squads, who had also been agitating for better pay and treatment, according to the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post. But Mighty Taco dropped the Jills after they unionized, and the new sponsor wouldn’t sign on unless they disbanded the union, according to Businessweek.

Ferrari explained that she didn’t object to her contract sooner because initially felt like an honor to be on the team, and she could be immediately replaced for complaining. An alumna of the team expressed similar sentiments, arguing that the Jills shouldn’t demand pay because it’s “a privilege to be on the field.” But, as Ferrari’s attorney stated according to Businessweek, “[t]here is no exception in the minimum wage law for loving your job. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Bills disbanded the squad after the lawsuit was filed.

In these lawsuits, the issue is whether the teams exercise sufficient control over the squads to be considered their employer, or instead, whether the cheerleaders are independent contractors. The complaints, as well as a leaked 2009 Baltimore Ravens handbook for cheerleaders, provide a window into the detailed rules that cheerleaders must follow. Mother Jones reports on the detailed dress code and grooming requirements that cheerleaders must meet, and ESPN reports on the strict physical appearance requirements. The Jills handbook contained etiquette and demeanor instructions as well, including how to properly eat pasta (“never cut it to eat. Twirl a small portion on your fork with the assistance of a spoon.”). Some plaintiffs have argued that it’s hard to square these rules governing minute aspect of their behavior and appearance with the team’s assertions that cheerleaders are independent contractors who are not controlled by the team.

The lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders was the first one filed, and the only one to settle so far. Lacy T., a Raiderette, initially filed a class action suit last winter. On September 4th, both sides announced that they reached a settlement for $1.25 million in backpay, according to the Los Angeles Times. This is on top of the new contract (agreed to in July), which raised the Raiderettes’ wages to comply with the state and federal labor laws. The July contract also eliminated several unlawful practices that the Raiders previously used, such as fines for “minor infractions” like showing up slightly late to practice, and withholding paychecks until the end of the season.

But the Raiders’ treatment of their cheerleaders spawned another, ongoing lawsuit: this one against the NFL itself. The other five lawsuits were only against the individual teams, but Caitlin Y. and Jenny C., both Raiderettes, have sued the NFL in California state court, alleging it is responsible for the Oakland Raiders’ unlawful actions, according to NBC. This lawsuit makes many of the same allegations that Lacy T. did, but it further emphasizes the unlawfulness of the working conditions, in addition to the unlawfully low wages. This suit is ongoing: here is the initial complaint, the NFL’s response, and the plaintiffs’ opposition to the NFL’s motion. This July, Slate reported that Caitlin was invited to join the Raiderettes again, making her the only named plaintiff in one of these lawsuits who is actively employed as a cheerleader at the same time.

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