Ex-NFL Cheerleaders Speak Out Against Sexism and Abuse: ‘We Deserve to Be Respected’
‘A Woman’s Work,’ a new doc chronicling the NFL’s exploitation of cheerleaders, premiered at Tribeca. The film’s whistleblowing subjects open up about their fight for fair pay.
In 2014, former Oakland Raiders cheerleader Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields sued the team, claiming that she had been paid less than minimum wage for her work at practices and games—not to mention work-related expenses like transportation, clothing, and beauty upkeep.
Her lawsuit launched a movement.
A new documentary, A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, reveals that a third of NFL teams with cheerleaders have since been sued for wage theft, illegal employment practices and discrimination. The film, which was directed by Yu Gu and premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, closely follows Thibodeaux-Fields and former Buffalo Bills cheerleader Maria Pinzone as they take legal action against their ex-employers.
The arc of Thibodeaux-Fields' and Pinzone’s journeys is one of rejecting patriarchal edicts both overt and unspoken. Their lawsuits are an outright violation of their grooming as NFL cheerleaders, who are consistently told that they should be grateful for the opportunity to perform alongside players for a pittance. Lacy and Maria reject the narrative that they owe their teams and the NFL for everything they’ve given them, instead laying outright claim to what they are owed—to the disapproval and censure of many, from football fans to other former cheerleaders.
“Oh she’s a cheerleader, she shouldn’t be upset about not getting paid,” said Thibodeaux-Fields, impersonating a dismissive response to the cheerleaders’ complaints during a recent interview. “Like, no, she’s working for an organization. She’s providing a service. She deserves to be paid. Period. It’s not even a question of what you do, what you’re wearing, how you’re dressed, how you dance, where you dance. If you’re making money for someone, it should be for yourself.”
Pinzone and Thibodeaux-Fields, as well as director Yu Gu, sat down with The Daily Beast in New York to talk about the film and reflect on their (largely successful) legal battles. The lawsuit against The Raiders resulted in a $1.25 million settlement, and ensured that future Raiderettes will earn $9 an hour, to be paid every two weeks (when Thibodeaux-Fields was a Raiderette, they were paid less than minimum wage, and only at the end of the season). Pinzone told The Daily Beast that they’re currently at a standstill and are hoping to get back into negotiations with the Bills soon: “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to settle the case and come to a conclusion, and get what we ultimately went in seeking.”
When Gu first started filming Thibodeaux-Fields, the issue of fair treatment and wages for NFL cheerleaders wasn’t the massive story it is today. Nonetheless, she was immediately attracted to the idea of following these women as they attempted to take on a thoroughly American institution. “Football to me is such a microcosm of the values of the United States,” Gu told The Daily Beast. “And then there are the optics of it as well in terms of the 32 owners who are all old white male billionaires and the players who are predominantly African-American, and then the women who are on the sidelines cheering them on and providing this endless enthusiasm and support and loyalty for the team. So when I first found out about Lacy’s lawsuit, I was like, this is an opportunity to be able to see in an intimate way how this all comes together. What are the contradictions and the tensions within this world, and what does it tell about the larger world that we live in?”
Both Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone grew up with football, nurturing lifelong desires to cheer on a professional level. For Thibodeaux-Fields, her path seemed almost pre-ordained: “Growing up as a young girl who’s from a small town that shuts down for football, cheerleading and dance was always my first love and passion.” When it came to cheerleaders, “I looked up to those girls. I wanted to be one of those girls that people looked up to.”
“I spent every day in college on my treadmill thinking about one day I was going to audition for the NBA, one day I was going to be an NFL cheerleader,” she continued. “I wanted it so bad.”
She had a great experience dancing in college, where she was awarded a scholarship and compensated for her time. “I got to the NBA, the Warriors took great care of us, and I was paid for my time and given all these opportunities. And it wasn’t until I reached the Raiderette organization when I started being like, wait, what?”
“You know, we were in this big room,” she recalled, “And this was after we made the team, this was after our calendar was shot. This was after we formed relationships and we were in our lines for the season when we finally sat down and got all the rules and got the contract. And it wasn’t until that moment I realized: this is so different. Like, you’re not going to pay me ‘till the end of the season? You're only going to pay me $1,250 for the whole season?”
“Nobody was questioning it. I kept bringing it up at practice, like does it bother you guys that we don’t get paid? That’s just how it is in the NFL—that’s what I was told over and over again.”
Pinzone, who auditioned for the Buffalo Jills cheerleading program three times before making the team, expressed a similar disillusionment. “It just didn’t sit right with me going through the whole season. There were a few red flags and things that just kind of kept popping up. So I questioned a lot of things… So I went and talked to the attorneys about it. It was really more or less, I just wanted to get my story out there and what I had experienced and what I had went through and like, am I crazy to think these things?”
One particularly striking moment in the documentary cycles through a number of rules that NFL cheerleaders pledge to abide by. The rules range from physical appearance to comportment with the players. “Make a point to find out if a player is married,” The Raiderette handbook reads. “In most cases he will not tell you. Just think, how narrowly you missed having your photo in all the local papers, and/or being assaulted.” The Jills handbook orders them to “not be overly opinionated about anything,” and includes edicts on table manners and feminine hygiene products.
Pinzone told The Daily Beast, “For me, seeing that information presented to me, it was a little bit insulting. Like I needed to be told these things or they thought they needed to go over these things with me or something. It was just very bizarre. It took you back almost, to like the ‘50s.”
Legal docs allege the following: “The Jills were subjected to weekly ‘physique evaluations’ during which defendants’ representatives tested the Jills’ bodies for ‘jiggling.’ During the ‘Jiggle Test’ defendants scrutinized the women’s stomach, arms, legs, hips, and butt while she does jumping jacks. The physique evaluations largely determine whether or not any particular Jill would be allowed to perform at the Bills’ next home game.”
Gu said that she was struck by “the total imbalance of the control and the rules that [the cheerleading programs] had versus what the cheerleaders were getting compensated.” She added, “And also, it’s a double standard with the team in terms of like, you have to be perfect at all times, otherwise we’ll just get rid of you. But the football players, oh you can just do whatever you want.”
For Lacy and Maria, coming forward against their former employers came at a cost. They faced backlash both from other former cheerleaders who felt betrayed, and from outside critics who were dismissive of their fight for compensation. Pinzone explained that right after they filed the lawsuit, the Buffalo Bills shut down the Jills. “So that was really hard to deal with in the beginning because everyone was mad—there was a team picked out for the next season to start cheering and, you know, these girls wanted to cheer so bad. I know what it took for me to get on the team, three times trying out, and all the work and effort I put into making the team, so to take that away from them—I felt horrible that the Bills had made this decision to do that.”
As of publication the Jills program is still inactive, but Pinzone is hopeful that this film will help pressure the organization to “do it the right way,” noting, “Because they can, clearly, they did with the Raiderettes.” Thibodeaux-Fields chimed in, “It takes one person’s salary to pay 40 women the amount of money, minimum wage. One person in the office’s salary will employ 40 women; and instead they said, ‘We’re going to punish you for standing up for your rights.’”
She also felt isolated at times, recalling, “It did hurt, you know, when everyone disappeared, and were kind of like, ‘Oh no, I can’t believe she did that.’ But at the end of the day I was doing it for [other former Raiderettes] and I knew that it would be worth it. And whether they ever say it to me or not, I know they feel it.”
The film doesn’t shy away from drawing connections between the NFL’s treatment of its cheerleaders and a larger perceived “gender problem” between players accused of domestic violence and misconduct allegations within the organization. Documentary footage shows NFL commissioner Roger Goodell talking about a recent “women’s summit” and expressing their aim to get young girls participating in athletics, and to support female executives. A reporter asks about the apparent hypocrisy when “your largest and most visible group of women working for the league are the cheerleaders, who complain of pay inequity.” Goodell fails to recognize the “mixed message,” and insists that the NFL has always encouraged fair compensation.
While neither Lacy nor Maria were shocked to learn that other cheerleaders were also suffering, they had no idea that the labor violations were so widespread. “I had a suspicion,” Thibodeaux-Fields offered, “but as they were coming out, even [Maria’s] experience compared to my experience, that was devastating to learn what they actually did to them, like circling body parts…I would’ve walked out, honestly. That was so offensive to me and the fact that that was happening and she’s the first one to bring it up, and by herself, I was amazed.”
She went on to describe it as “disrespectful, bullying, and degrading.”
Speaking on the prevalence of these issues, Pinzone remarked that, “There’s really no way to find out. Every organization was run differently, did their own things. So it was not like there was this standard across the NFL—which they really need.” As if to illustrate their point, Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone revealed that they had only just met in the process of premiering the film.
“You see the isolation that they both felt on different levels, and the other women, too, who filed other lawsuits,” Gu commented. “It’s almost like we’re all struggling in these silos, but at the same time they’re sharing in the same fight. I would love for everybody to meet each other—not just in this film but in general, in terms of women fighting for women.” Thibodeaux-Fields emphatically agreed, recalling a thought she had during her flight to New York—that “women are so much more than the uniform that they wear.”
“Like, OK, I wore a skimpy little cheerleading outfit, right?” she began. “And then there’s women who are nurses in their scrubs and there are swimsuit models, exotic dancers, and Hooters girls. We’re all so much more than the uniform. And if we’re working, we deserve to be paid and we deserve to be respected and we deserve to feel safe, like all women.”