On Sunday, an estimated 117 million viewers will watch Super Bowl LVI. Many will tune in to see the Cincinnati Bengals face off against the Los Angeles Rams, others to watch $7 million 30-second commercials or the Pepsi-sponsored halftime show. Fans fortunate enough to score tickets in what is predicted to be the most expensive contest in the history of the Super Bowl, with the average single ticket price currently ranging from $4,900 to almost $9,000, will also enjoy performances from the Ben-Gals and the L.A. Rams cheerleaders.
The reportedly low pay and poor treatment of NFL cheerleaders is simply shocking, especially given the billions the NFL garners.
Those cheerleaders won’t exactly be sharing in the mammoth profits that make the Super Bowl the world’s most profitable annual sports event, however. By many accounts, NFL cheerleaders are paid barely minimum wage, and some have said they make only several thousand dollars a year, though they might work 30 to 40 hours a week when rehearsals, workouts, charity events and attending games are factored in.
Moreover, cheerleaders can reportedly be required to pay out of pocket for their equipment, uniforms and hair and nail treatments. In other words, they can even lose money from their work as representatives of the team and entertainment for the fans. In response to such allegations, an NFL spokesperson told BBC Sport in March, “For teams that have cheerleaders, the league has no role in their selection, duties, hours or wages.” The spokesperson also told the BBC that there hadn’t been any discussion of changing that structure.
The reportedly low pay and poor treatment of NFL cheerleaders is simply shocking, especially given the billions the NFL garners from selling the television broadcast and streaming rights alone. A real Super Bowl victory would be one that sees cheerleaders get the compensation and respect they deserve.
The paltry amounts the cheerleaders do receive have frequently come only after battles hard fought. Of the 26 NFL teams with cheerleaders, at least 10 have been sued by cheerleaders for wage theft, unsafe working conditions, harassment or discrimination. The cheerleaders who filed these lawsuits often made less than minimum wage. In at least one case, a cheerleader claimed she was paid significantly less than her team’s mascot, who made more than $60,000 a year.
In a landmark case against the Oakland Raiders in 2014, the team paid out $1.25 million in back wages. Raiderette cheerleaders were subsequently paid $9 an hour, minimum wage at the time, for mandatory events, which they said was double what they had been paid prior to the lawsuit. In another instance, two ex-NFL cheerleaders suing for discrimination offered to settle for $1 in exchange for a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The NFL later issued a statement that it would work with teams “in sharing best practices” for supporting cheerleaders.
NFL cheerleaders play significant roles for teams that extend well beyond the stadium. Off the field, they frequently serve as the face of the franchise at community and private corporate events. And teams often issue annual cheerleader calendars, some photographed on tropical locales with the cheerleaders in bikinis lounging on beaches and frolicking in the ocean.
In performing these duties, they can encounter sexual harassment along with the poor pay. In one trip for a calendar shoot in 2008, a Washington Post investigation revealed, staff members of the Washington Football Team circulated “lewd cheerleader videos” taken without the consent or knowledge of the women while they posed for the team-endorsed calendar shoot.
The Washington Post also reported that women, both cheerleaders and others who have worked for the team, “say they have been marginalized, discriminated against and exploited” and that “bullying and demeaning behavior by management created a climate of fear that allowed abusive behavior to continue unchecked.” Team owner Dan Snyder provided no comment before The Washington Post ran the story in 2020, but he subsequently denied knowledge of the videos after it was published. (NBC News has not independently verified these claims.)
When six former women team employees met with members of Congress last week to share their experiences, new allegations of sexual harassment against Synder emerged, including former cheerleaders’ accusations of sexual advances against Snyder himself. Snyder released a statement calling the allegations “outright lies.” However, a member of Congress read a letter from a former team vice president corroborating at least one of the cheerleader’s allegations.
Full equality cannot be achieved when jobs that involve cultural expectations of femininity, and those who perform them, are belittled, devalued and denigrated. The low pay and sexual harassment of NFL cheerleaders sends the not-so-subtle message that there are some forms of sexism our culture is willing to tolerate and justify.
The solution is not to dissolve cheerleading squads, or to integrate cheerleading squads with men, as several teams have — although men should certainly be allowed to be cheerleaders, just as women should be allowed to play professional football. Instead, the NFL needs to release the full findings of the investigation into the Washington Football Team (recently renamed the Washington Commanders) and the former employees’ sexual harassment claims, which it has until now refused to do. Until the findings are made public, those responsible will not be held fully accountable, justice will not be possible, and it will be difficult to advocate for change.
Next, NFL cheerleaders should be classified as employees of the NFL, and not as employees of individual teams (or independent contractors as they are in some cases). They should be paid a salary commensurate with their experience and talent, and be recognized for their contributions to the team and the league. While not perfect, NFL players have a labor union. As employees of the NFL, it would be easier for cheerleaders to unionize as well.
Some have suggested moving away from stereotypes of cheerleaders that sexualize, objectify or trivialize, and instead address the obstacles cheerleaders encounter in doing their job. Changing the uniforms, changing the choreography and dance styles, emphasizing the athleticism of cheerleading and including male cheerleaders are each designed to move away from these stereotypes.
Yet given these changes have largely been suggested after the NFL cheerleaders’ lawsuits, sexual harassment allegations and advocacy for better workplace treatment, they only serve to reinforce the devaluing of femininity and shaming of those women adhering to feminine cultural norms and expectations. Instead of changing the uniforms, we need to change the underlying culture of sexism and misogyny.
For too long, women were told they should simply be thankful for the opportunity to be an NFL cheerleader regardless of their pay or treatment. Many were. But having a job that fulfills a lifelong dream for which you have worked hard does not justify low pay and poor working conditions. By that standard, the players taking the field Sunday should just be grateful for their chance to play, no compensation needed.