Cheerleaders, a mainstay of the National Football League, may be nearly as essential to the viewing experience and commercial brand as the players themselves. But a new lawsuit from five former Buffalo Bills cheerleaders adds to the mounting evidence that the women glamorized in calendars and ogled at halftime shows also can fall prey to financial exploitation and sexual harassment by their teams.
In the suit, filed Tuesday in New York State Supreme Court, the Buffalo Jills allege minimum wage violations, unlawful kickbacks and deductions, uncompensated mandated travel and cosmetic costs, and even menstrual hygiene rules. The other two defendants are Stejon Productions Corp., which assumed management of the Buffalo Jills in 2011, and Citadel Communications Co., the prior manager.
The Buffalo Bills are the third NFL franchise this year to face allegations of employment violations from their cheerleaders. Current and former Oakland Raiderettes sued their team in January, alleging wage theft and failure to meet minimum wage salaries. And in a suit filed against the Cincinnati Bengals in February, Ben-Gal Alexa Brenneman claimed she was paid less than $2.85 an hour for her work that season.
The Buffalo Jills alleged similar financial exploitation and entrapment through hidden costs and personal expenses while multimillion-dollar businesses squeezed them for hundreds of hours of unpaid labor.
While the Buffalo Bills generate $256 million in annual revenue, the five Buffalo Jills each made made at most $1,800 and as little as $105 during a single season over the past four years, according to the suit. Each woman was forced to sign a contract classifying her as an independent contractor to exempt her from employee rights, the women allege.
The Buffalo Jills say they did not receive payment for attending Buffalo Bills football games, practice time, and “sponsor appearances.” Each woman also was ordered to make 20 to 35 community appearances, the majority of which were unpaid, they say.
In addition, all Buffalo Jills were mandated to teach 300 to 400 little girls the basics of cheerleading over multiple days, according to the suit. Parents paid $250 for their young daughters to spend time with the women they idolized and admired. The Buffalo Jills say they were paid nothing for their time.
In total, the suit says each Buffalo Jill worked 840 unpaid hours a year.
But the alleged exploitation was more than just unpaid labor. The Buffalo Jills allege that Stejon and Citadel essentially ran a racket, forcing the women to buy calendars and other Bills-related items out of pocket and then sell them on their own time. They even imposed damages if they failed to sell their quotas, according to the suit. Each woman was required to buy 50 to 75 Buffalo Jills swimsuit calendars at $10 each and sell them. If she did not sell them, she was left in the red and “subject to further penalties at the discretion of defendants.” The same went for Jills golf tournament tickets and gift baskets, which could cost each woman $590. Other out-of-pocket expenses included travel and hotel accommodations for the events they had to attend and $650 in uniform costs, the suit says.
That’s not all. From exposure to sexual harassment to menstrual hygiene instructions, the alleged physical appearance rules paint a deeply disturbing picture of archaic, invasive, and manipulative requirements.
According to the lawsuit, the Buffalo Jills were given a list of 17 rules governing “general hygiene and body maintenance.” They included “how to properly wash ’intimate areas’ and how often to change tampons.”
The lawsuit alleges that the physical appearance requirements on the Buffalo Jills were not only onerous but enforced at a financial loss to the women. Hair and nails had to be maintained as employers saw fit, without any reimbursement to the cheerleaders. The lawsuit also notes that “Each Jill is subject to mandatory gym, hair, and makeup consultation with vendors selected by defendants.”
At the same time, the women allege that they were left completely vulnerable to sexual harassment at mandatory unpaid events.
At the Calendar Release Party, Buffalo Jills were required to wear only a bathing suit in a nightclub where “there was no stage or security provided,” according to the suit. As a result, many of the women “were groped or inappropriately touched during the performance.” At the Jills annual golf tournament, women were “auctioned off” as prizes and also exposed to “degrading sexual comments and inappropriate touching.”
So far, the team isn’t saying much about the suit, noting only in a statement: “We are aware of this lawsuit, and it is our organizational policy not to comment on pending litigation.”
Although all the women in the lawsuit are identified only by their first name and last initial, they are exposing themselves to repercussions from the Buffalo Bills and the larger NFL community. Comments on ESPN.com about the story offer a glimpse of the hate the women will face if (really, when) their identities are revealed.
“Five bimbos had decided they were gonna take the easy way out in life by relying on their looks and cheerleading and found that their fantasy was not a reality, so now they can sue?” read one comment. “Bunch of airheads are attempting to take the easy way out for the SECOND time now by suing.” Another wrote: “The skanks were lucky someone would hire them to begin with just for carrying pom poms on a sideline.”
That is what the Buffalo Jills are up against—well, that and a business valued at $870 million. Maybe someone should start cheering for them instead.