Pro sports cheerleaders: Are some modern-day slaves?

‘It definitely cost you a lot more money to be on the team than what you made.’– Ceilynn Howse, former Calgary Stampeders cheerleader

When the Buffalo Bills begin their NFL season this week, their cheerleaders, the Buffalo Jills, won’t be joining them on the field.

They’ve been sidelined, because five former members have filed a lawsuit alleging hundreds of hours of unpaid work and degrading treatment, such as being forced to sit on men’s laps and even a jiggle test to check their weight.

The suit also complains that the squad was given a handbook with beauty, hygiene and etiquette rules such as “do not overeat bread at a formal sitting,” and “when menstruating, use a product that [sic] right for your menstrual flow.”

“We had always dreamed since we were little girls of becoming Buffalo Jills cheerleaders, and unfortunately it was anything but a good experience,” said plaintiff Alyssa U. back in April when the suit was filed.

The Bills told CBC in a statement that the Jills don’t actually work for them; they’re employed by an independent third-party contractor. But a judge has already refused to dismiss the case based on that argument.

The litigation centres on the compensation issue and joins four other National Football League teams facing cheerleader-led lawsuits claiming below-minimum-wage pay. The allegations are all the more disturbing when you consider that, according to Forbes, the average NFL team is currently worth $1.43 billion US,  and an NFL mascot reportedly makes between $23,000 and $65,000 a year. A cheerleader for the New York Jets estimated that the $1,800 she earned in one entire season worked out to about $3.77 an hour, taking into account all her time at rehearsals, practices and compulsory cheerleading camps, her lawyer told the Los Angeles Times.

But it may be a tough battle to boost professional cheerleading wages when many women are still willing to cheer for little or no pay, and some teams continue to take advantage of this.

The scene in the CFL

So far, Canadian Football League cheerleaders aren’t squaring off against their teams over pay. In the CFL, a much less lucrative league than the NFL, it’s largely a volunteer job.

Ceilynn Howse

Ceilynn Howse as a former Calgary Stampeders cheerleader (Stampeders.com)

Toronto Argonauts cheerleaders get a small honorarium. “Most of our girls will tell us they’d do it for free. They’re happy to find out afterword we do have an honorarium,” says Argonauts spokesman Eric Holmes.

Ceilynn Howse happily signed up as a volunteer cheerleader with the Calgary Stampeders but admits that, with demanding rehearsals and a part-time job, there were moments she wondered whether it was worth it.

Howse cheered with the squad, called the Outriders, from 2003-2010, and still does their choreography. She says that, during her time as an Outrider, there was a feeling of unfairness because some National Hockey League cheerleaders, often known as ice girls, got compensation.

 “We thought, well, not to be rude, but we practised a lot of hours, we put in a lot of time and we do a lot of games and we’re involved in the community a lot. And they get paid and we don’t get paid,” Howse said.

She says the pay issue would come up at work: “We’d been talking about it for years, ‘Oh wouldn’t that be great?’ But no one’s really seriously pursued it. We’ve asked the office before and it’s just kind of been like, ‘You guys get a lot of perks for being cheerleaders.’”

Her perks included free sunglasses and earrings, tanning deals, gym memberships, and hair and makeup deals.

Howse says her only compensation was per diems at Grey Cup games.

“It definitely cost you a lot more money to be on the team than what you made,” she says.

Expenses included Outrider-initiated activities, travel and food at regular games. But she believes meals are now covered.

Although Howse says a paycheque “would have been nice,” it wasn’t mandatory and she has no regrets.

“In the end, it was the best experience I ever had,” she says about her seven years with the Outriders. “You just do it because you love it.”

For the love of the game

That sentiment was shared by young hopefuls at a recent audition to join the National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors Dance Pak.

No one questioned by CBC knew what the job paid and didn’t care. “I’m more so into it just for the experience and to be a part of something,” said Natalia Bertok. “[The pay] doesn’t matter to me because I love it,” echoed Porsche Williams. It also didn’t matter to Kara Gabriel “just because dance is awesome and it’s really a one of a kind opportunity.”

Even though they might do the job for free, Raptors dancers are compensated. The squad’s choreographer, Amberly Waddell, wouldn’t reveal the exact amount, but said,  “All dancers are paid for all rehearsals, games, as well as appearances” and that “the girls definitely make more than minimum wage.”

Lawsuits spark controversy

The NFL cases may be sparking changes in professional football.

After being slapped with two wage-theft lawsuits, the Oakland Raiders recently announced they would start paying their cheerleaders minimum wage.

Howse says she has heard from current Outriders that the Stampeders may be considering offering its cheerleaders an honorarium. “I think it came about when all the craziness in the NFL started. Everybody thought, yeah, why don’t we get paid here?”

The Stampeders told CBC the team would not comment on a possible honorarium or other compensation issues concerning its cheerleaders, stating that it does not publicly discuss employee pay.

If the team is preparing to offer a stipend, it could be seen as a small step in the right direction, even if many women are still willing to cheer just for fun and for free.

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