After a deluge of negative headlines about the treatment of NFL cheerleaders, we wanted to hear from the women who have actually done the job. In 2014, the Oakland Raiders settled a class-action lawsuit alleging wage theft for $US1.25 million. This year, the New York Times has released myriad reports of alleged harassment and discrimination among the NFL cheerleading ranks, including an alarming account from a group of Washington Redskins cheerleaders who described a trip to Costa Rica where they were allegedly ordered to be “personal escorts” for a group of V.I.P. sponsors and fans at a local nightclub.
We talked to four former NFL cheerleaders about the recent headlines alleging discrimination, harassment, and lack of proper compensation. The women we talked to appear to have had overwhelmingly positive experiences during their time as cheerleaders, and they spoke candidly about the questions surrounding compensation, social media, and rules about interacting with players causing controversy throughout the league.
If you have worked as an NFL cheerleader and you want to share your story, please email [email protected]. Following is a transcript of the video.Narrator: Most NFL teams have cheerleaders. You see them on the sidelines during games, and sometimes during half time. Looks like they’re having fun, right? But recent reports of harassment, lack of compensation, and gender discrimination has shined a light on the treatment of cheerleaders in the NFL. The New York Times reported on some alleged details of the job that are sketchy to say the least. We talked to four former NFL cheerleaders who shared their experiences.Rachel Swartz: My experience was very positive. I really felt empowered by the entire experience.Narrator: The first team to have cheerleaders was the Baltimore Colts in 1954. Since then, getting a highly-coveted spot on the squad has become super competitive. Every year, thousands of women try out for the job. That’s right, it’s a paid position, which is officially considered to be part-time, and each team sets the guidelines and pay scale for it’s respective squad. Not only do the cheerleaders have to be on-hand for games, they also have mandatory practices and appearances. But as it turns out, they’re not always getting properly compensated for their time. In 2014, the Oakland Raiders paid a $US1.25 million dollar settlement to former cheerleaders after a class action lawsuit alleging wage theft.Sharon Vinick: I think that the women are intimidated.Narrator: Sharon Vinick is an attorney who worked on the 2014 class action lawsuit against the Raiders.Sharon Vinick: The women are told that they’re really really fortunate to be dancing, and if they don’t want to dance, they don’t have to. And they should be grateful for whatever opportunity they have. But compare that to the guys who are the quarterbacks. I mean, they’re very lucky to be quarterbacks, but they’re still paid millions of dollars. And there’s this sense of equity that some of the women just don’t perceive.Narrator: But this spring, thousands of women still showed up to try to make the cut for next season. We wanted to find out what the job is really like, from the women who’d actually done it. Twin sisters Dresdynn and Schuyler Warnell cheered for the Houston Texans from 2010 to 2014.Schuyler Warnell: If I do have a daughter in the future, I would definitely allow her to cheer for the Houston Texans. –Narrator: Jennifer Omohundro cheered for two teams over the course of six seasons. She started with the Tennessee Titans in 1999, and finished with the Atlanta Falcons in 2005.Jennifer Omohundro: I’m sad to hear that there’s actually this really negative press that’s going around. It’s a wonderful experience, I think it’s for everyone, kind of how you treat it and how you take it.Rachel Swartz: These are my pom poms.Narrator: Rachel Swartz cheered for the Philadelphia Eagles for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Rachel Swartz: My experience was very positive, I really felt empowered by the entire experience. It is really unfortunate to hear a lot of the other stories about women who have not had the same positive experience I had.Narrator: We asked these former cheerleaders to address the issues raised in the recent headlines, and we started with compensation.Graham Flanagan: Can you give me an idea of what you were paid, or what you could take home in a season on average?Rachel Swartz: I mean, would you feel as if it were appropriate if I asked you how much you made? So, no. We were paid for every hour we were in uniform, or in practice.Jennifer Omohundro: It would not be something that you would live off of. It’s been a long time, I don’t remember. But I can tell you it was definitely minimal.Dresdynn Warnell: I think we got $US200 a game?Schuyler Warnell: Yeah, $US200 a game, so, with that $US200 a game, plus practicing, plus the appearances, we got paid for practicing, we got paid for appearances, if we had to drive to the appearance, we got reimbursed for. They paid our mileage. I read articles about like, the Oakland Raiders, and I’m just like, in shock, I’m like, how does this happen?Sharon Vinick: The cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders, for example, got $US1,250 per season. We understand from reports that mascots get paid between $US40-$US60,000 per season, plus benefits. And the least played NFL player, someone who’s a benchwarmer and doesn’t play in a game gets paid $US100,000. So $US1,250 is less money than someone who’s selling hot dogs in the stands gets paid.Narrator: NFL cheerleading squads have strict social media restrictions. So strict, in fact, that a former New Orleans Saints cheerleader was fired over an Instagram post. She’s currently suing for discrimination. According to the former cheerleaders we talked to, these restrictions are common.Rachel Swartz: I know it’s a bit different in other organisations, but we did not have Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. We weren’t allowed to have any of those, and that was mainly for our protection. I think there had been situations in the past where security measures had to be taken, and I think this was just one of them, and this was just one of the rules they had in order to make sure everyone felt safe and protected.Dresdynn Warnell: Personally, I always thought the rule was kinda stupid. I mean, to be quite frank, you know, it’s just like, how are you going to tell me that I can’t post part of my life? – Like, it consumes your life. – It consumes your life for the most part, so for the organisations telling, you know, you personally, that you can’t post what you do most of your days, I thought was really, really dumb.Schuyler Warnell: But I think it’s so funny when people like kind of, retire, we’d say, or don’t make the team, and you see their Instagram or Facebook and it’s like, pictures.Narrator: While the no social media rule is common, some teams, like the Denver Broncos, allow their cheerleaders to post from social media accounts officially affiliated with the team. One of the most common rules for NFL cheerleaders is that interaction with players is strictly prohibited, and violation of this rule can result in immediate termination.Jennifer Omohundro: There were general rules of no fraternization, meaning like, no dating the players. Even though they run passes on the field, sometimes that would be the only time we were really around them. I mean, they’re professionals, they’re doing their thing as athletes, and we were doing ours.Dresdynn Warnell: They make it very clear. Once you make the team, you know, they give this big speech, that you cannot be associated with a player.Schuyler Warnell: Because we will get fired and they won’t.Dresdynn Warnell: Yes. They would even go as far as saying if, say you’re at a restaurant, and a couple of the players come in. You know, we would have to leave, because they don’t even want us in the same room.Rachel Swartz: I think it’s sort of like a rule that you would see in any other business, don’t date your co-workers. I think it’s the same type of principle.Dresdynn Warnell: There’s still some players that reach out to cheerleaders and the cheerleaders reach out to them, so obviously we signed these contracts, but not everyone abides by the rules, it’s just, I think, human nature.Rachel Swartz: I would say there were some uncomfortable situations, but the organisation did everything to really protect us and you know, really preempt any of those situations, whether that’s by having security with us at all appearances, or you know, when you’re in the suites taking pictures, having somebody hold a football instead of putting their arms around us. I do think again, as these situations come up, the organisation really took the right steps in making sure we felt safe at all times.Dresdynn Warnell: I think that comes with the territory, you know, with anything, if you’re gonna put a bunch of girls together, there’s gonna be some, mostly male interaction, or male attention that you really don’t want. So because of that, we always had a police escort that would walk.Schuyler Warnell: Yes, the Texans are very good at security.Dresdynn Warnell: Yeah, they were good at making sure that we felt safe. Our second year, a few girls had like, stalkers.Schuyler Warnell: The Texans organisation was like, right on it. They never had us worry or question our safety. Every time we practiced, we had a police officer with us. We never were like, alone.Narrator: So, the women we talked to seemed to have experiences that were overwhelmingly positive. But every team is different, and only time will tell if the ones under scrutiny will actually change for the better.Graham Flanagan: What would be your advice to a cheerleader, an NFL cheerleader who is on the fence about seeking further help about a possible injustice?Sharon Vinick: My advice would be that you should think hard about whether you want to be part of a system that allows this to happen, or whether you wanna change that system, because it’s only by women like our brave clients Lacy and Sarah standing up and advocating for a change that you’re gonna see differences as you go forward. So I encourage all women to stand up for the world they’d like to see.
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