Justice for the Buffalo Jills

NFL cheerleaders are entitled to fair pay and treatment.

The Buffalo Jills cheerleaders entertain during the second half of an NFL preseason football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars in Orchard Park, N.Y., Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011.

The Jills' grievances are legitimate.

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Cheerleaders don’t get a lot of respect – or sympathy. For many of us, cheerleaders represent those girls in high school who either wouldn’t consider dating you, or were too cool to let girls like you sit at their table in the lunchroom. They seemed to live charmed lives, a true rarity in secondary school. And while those of us in the Honor Society and Drama Club might have derisively referred to them as the “rah-rahs,” there was undoubtedly a little jealousy involved over the social status that came with a flippy pleated skirt and shiny long hair.

Cheerleaders on professional sports teams take the elements of a high school squad and amp them up on steroids. There’s no real cheering anymore, no chanting of go-team slogans accompanied by a gymnastic routine and human pyramids. The squads are extremely sexualized, wearing outfits that make some of them look more like pole dancers than athletes, and not doing much more at the games than flipping their long hair around and shaking their behinds. There’s something a little anachronistic about cheerleading squads, anyway – the stadium is way too loud to hear anyone lead a cheer, and the function of the cheerleaders (at games, anyway) seems mainly to serve as a racy cutaway for networks trying to keep the viewers (well, the heterosexual male viewers, anyway) from changing the channel.

Then there’s the message the modern-day cheerleading performances send to modern-day girls and young women. With so many females participating in competitive sports, what kind of statement does it make to show women serving the male team this way, as if the job of men is to do the real work, and the job of women is to cheer them on?

[ Read more from blogger Susan Milligan.]

Still, the grievances of the Buffalo Jills, the cheerleading squad attached to the Buffalo Bills, are legitimate and they are long overdue for some kind of justice.

Several members of the Jills have filed suit, complaining that they are not even paid minimum wage. The women are not paid for games or practices, and are required to make public appearances – almost all unpaid – 25-30 times a year. They must pay for their own uniforms at a cost of about $650. Their personal lives are controlled to an absurd and patronizing extent, from what they write on Facebook to what color nail polish they wear. Further, the lawsuit contends the women were subject to "demeaning and degrading treatment." That included being forced to appear at a golf tournament in bikinis and be “auctioned off like prizes” to the (male) participants. They have been groped, subject to inappropriate sexual comments, and, perhaps most offensive, forced to take a “jiggle test” to determine if too much of their bodies shook during the jumping they do on the sidelines.

And what do they get for this? One of the cheerleaders said she made just $105 for the last season. Another who sued said she made $420. That’s not remotely minimum wage, let alone a decent salary to be part of a Sunday show that makes billions for the league and owners and millions for the players. The whole scenario is two steps away from being forced prostitution.

[ Views You Can Use: College football players win the right to unionize.]

No, the women don’t have to be cheerleaders. They can choose professions that pay more and in which they are treated with more respect. But that still does not make it acceptable to treat these women this way. Perhaps the cheerleaders enjoy the attention of being a Jill; perhaps they are aspiring dancers or TV personalities and know that being a Buffalo Jill is something useful to put on an entertainment resume. But that doesn’t make it OK to demean and exploit the members of the squad, anymore than it’s OK to force college graduates to work unpaid “internships,” simply because you can find someone else who will do it willingly. Labor and wage laws are there for a reason, and that’s to prevent employers from abusing workers who, for whatever reason, really want a particular job.

The Jills have suspended operations since the lawsuit, perhaps to intimidate the cheerleaders or create a pretext for replacing them. That’s no different from other companies that have threatened plant closures or other retaliation to force workers into line. Ideally, we’d abandon this backward idea of professional team cheerleaders (the exception being the genuine athletes and gymnasts, female and male, who now so impressively perform at college games). The second best thing would be for these women to unionize, league-wide, and demand not only payment for practices and games, but workplace standards that don’t make sexual harassment a part of the job. The NFL players have a union, so why not the cheerleaders?

Eleanor Roosevelt may not have been the image of an NFL cheerleader, and may not even have endorsed their existence. But the cheerleading squads can take a powerful lesson from her: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Several of the Jills are making that point right now. Their colleagues elsewhere in the league should follow.