Full-time professional unpaid volunteer


Cheerleaders for the professional football team the Buffalo Bills are mostly unpaid.

A Jill is paid next to nothing—no money for gameday cheering, none for practice, none for the bulk of her minimum 20 personal appearances, none from the tips she receives but must turn in during the mandatory Jills Golf Tournament—and is classified by the team as a volunteer/independent contractor, though the thickness and thoroughness of the handbook makes you wonder just how independent she is.

They’re “volunteers” but they sure do have to follow a lot of rules for people who are volunteers.

The bottom document is the “NFL Buffalo Jills Cheerleaders Agreement & Codes of Conduct 2013-2014,” which is essentially the boilerplate rulebook for cheerleaders around the league. There, the basic practice and gameday rules are laid out, including how many excused absences from practice a cheerleader is allowed before dismissal, where she must get her hair done, and the scores of ways she can be fined, benched, or dismissed. It’s allprettystandard.

The more interesting stuff is in the 12-page list of glamour, etiquette, and hygiene rules. This is where we see just how much of a peppy automaton a cheerleader has to be. Shoulds and musts abound. “Hair must be worn in a glamorous style with no clips or tie-backs,” the cheerleaders are told. “A full curled or slightly bent, free-flowing style is required. Short hair must be worn full and fabulous!”

“Cheerleading” itself is actually acrobatics, and it’s quite athletic and skilled – but along with that the athletes have to be girly and pretty and perky.

There are the instructions on how to facilitate a breezy yet enjoyable conversation (everything quoted below is sic):

14. Do not be overly opinionated about anything. Do not complain about anything- ever hang out with a whiner? It’s exhausting and boring.

Well that’s me out right there. Opinionating and complaining is the sum total of what I do.

I’m kidding. It’s really because my back-flip isn’t good enough.

Always avoid:
-Politics
-Religion
-Sexual references
-Talking “about last night”
-Don’t try talk about your personal life: job, boyfriends, what you’re doing later, etc…
-Inappropriate jokes
-Strong opinions
-Gossip

It would be quicker to say what they can talk about.

No need to avoid:

-The weather

Go team.

Comments

  1. machintelligence says

    It is amazing what some people will tolerate to be able to be down on the field during a game.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    It’s well known that the “girls” are paid a very nominal fee, if that – something like $14 per game. They do it for the exposure – many of the actresses in Hollywood have this sort of experience on their resumes. The only one I can remember is Charisma Carpenter, and I’m only aware of her at all because she used to be on Buffy and I used to love Buffy O__O

    But that’s why they do it – to get on TV, to be seen, as a springboard into TV/movie appearances. Nobody’s holding a gun to their heads. They choose this because they want the prestige of being NFL cheerleaders.

    The fact that it’s considered prestigious, we can have a discussion about that. But these women are not being exploited the way truly powerless people so often are, aside from their selling themselves so cheap.

  3. drken says

    Actually, it’s the high school/college variety of cheerleading that’s more like gymnastics. There’s also competitive cheerleading, which is gaining momentum as an interscholastic sport. Those are sports. Pro cheerleading is mostly dancing. That doesn’t justify the low wages and demeaning rules, but it’s nothing like the school-based stuff.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    No need to avoid:
    -The weather

    Oh, I bet if she talked about AGW, she’d probably get in trouble.

  5. says

    drken – ohhh, I didn’t know that. I’ve seen a few bits of the high school stuff on tv here and there, and I assumed it was all like that – and adjusted my attitude to cheerleading accordingly.

  6. screechymonkey says

    Blanche @4:

    Nobody’s holding a gun to their heads.

    I was unaware of the “gun to the head” requirement of labor laws. Damn, I had no idea labor&employment defense lawyers had such an easy job.

    You’re getting less than minimum wage? Hey, nobody’s putting a gun to your head.

    You’re being sexually harassed on a regular basis? Hey, sweetheart, nobody’s putting a gun to that cute little head of yours.

    You’re being exposed to unsafe working conditions? Hey, still not seeing a gun.

  7. John Morales says

    screechymonkey @8, Blanche was merely noting that they do have agency, which you did not dispute.

    (I grant it was a touch redolent of “dear Muslima”)

  8. PatrickG says

    To echo Nathaniel Frein, agency is rather beside the point. If people can’t afford to consider the unpaid, full-time position, you’ve completely excluded a very large number of people from being able to get all the cookies Blanche lays out above.

    But hey, why should people without independent income be allowed to get TV exposure which might jump-start an acting career? If they don’t have the means to support themselves, they’re probably not hot enough for Hollywood, amirite?

    Not only that, that attitude is highly reminiscent of the “Fuck you, pay me” meme John Scalzi and others (like our blog host Ophelia Benson like to rant about*.

    Exposure is not currency. This is pure exploitation of labor by capital. That is, unless every cheerleader who didn’t secure a lucrative derivative career was able to come back and claim damages.

    * Ranting here not meant negatively. I hugely enjoy that type of rant. :)

  9. screechymonkey says

    John,

    Nobody was disputing that they have agency. So it was a complete non sequitur.

    Every single asshole employer who violates labor laws rationalizes it exactly the way Blanche just did. “If they don’t like the way I treat them, they can leave! They stay, so they must be ok with it!” But we as a society got past that argument a long time ago, which is why we have labor laws to begin with.

  10. tuibguy says

    I don’t know how the League, with all their billions of dollars in tv revenue and taxpayer-subsidized stadiums justifies it – whether the cheerleaders have a gun to their heads or not.

    Used to be a football fan, but less and less interested in it as the years drag on. (True confession – I didn’t watch any games last year, not even the Stupor Bowl. Tell that to 30-year old me and he would never have believed you.)

  11. PatrickG says

    But we as a society got past that argument a long time ago.

    If that were true, we wouldn’t be seeing said argument right here in this thread… or most other places, too.

    You’ll have to forgive my snark, but after the 60-hour week I pulled last week and the upcoming probably-70-hour week I’m particularly uninterested in the “but other compensation!” argument.

    The good news is I don’t have to worry about filling out overtime paperwork, since I don’t get any! The even better news is my boss doesn’t require this that often, unlike a lot of other people in my line of work. We should all just be grateful to have jobs, right?

    Plus, I don’t have a gun to my head. There are plenty of software development jobs that don’t require this kind of work schedule near major deployments of new software…. er, wait, no there aren’t. Well, I can always quit and never work in this field again. Right Blanche? Right John?

    That’s my agency!

    Shee-it.

    [Should also be noted that I’m fucking privileged as hell to be offered the opportunity to regularly work insane hours for high compensation. I would never do this for fucking free, which is what “exposure” really means.]

  12. PatrickG says

    That last quote should be attributed to screechymonkey, and the snark is not directed at you, screechymonkey. Apologies if that was unclear. The perils of writing comments piecemeal.

  13. John Morales says

    PatrickG @14,

    Well, I can always quit and never work in this field again. Right Blanche? Right John?

    Right. You could, but you don’t — you’re making the best of unfortunate circumstances; you’re striving, not just enduring.

    Kudos.

  14. Blanche Quizno says

    Everybody, I am not saying that it is okay that the fact that NFL cheerleaders are basically agreeing to do it for free is fine. I’m just explaining why they do it. It is considered a career plus – a stepping-stone into Hollywood. Whether that’s right or wrong is not a judgment call I am making. I am simply pointing out that those who hire for acting jobs supposedly look very favorably on pro-cheerleader experience. I’m saying that because I read it somewhere. Don’t shoot the messenger.

    Why would ANYONE work for free? Only because they regarded this stint at [fill in the blank] as having future payoff potential, or because they really, REALLY want to do that kind of work. See “volunteering.”

    My son’s friend did an unpaid internship at a local TV station while he was in high school. Now that he’s graduated, he has a paying job at that same local TV station. Do I feel he was exploited? No. Does HE? No. Is this right? That’s a judgment I am not qualified to make. In exchange for his time, he gained valuable experience that led to a paid position. On one of the local radio morning DJ shows, they routinely have interns. The interns are not paid much (if at all – I’m not sure about that – THEY may work for free). One of those former interns is now a paid regular DJ on said morning show. Does he feel he was exploited? I don’t think so, but I’m not qualified to speak for him. I’m simply stating what I observed. Do ALL the interns get paid positions at that same radio station? No. But it is understood that it is VERY hard to break into radio, and that those with a passion for working in radio will do whatever it takes to get in. High demand, low availability. Economics.

    But does what the person in question think of their time “in training” count for anything? SHOULD it? People can – and do – justify horrible things to themselves all the time. Is this the discussion we’re having? That we need to protect people from delusion? That, despite the coveted pro-cheerleader positions being regarded as a stepping-stone into Hollywood, these positions must not be permitted to go without a proper rate of payment, even though they only hire…wait for it…WOMEN??? Pretty women should be *fine* with working for nothing? Is that what we’re talking about here?

    I’m gone – you people work it out.

  15. screechymonkey says

    Blanche :

    Everybody, I am not saying that it is okay that the fact that NFL cheerleaders are basically agreeing to do it for free is fine. I’m just explaining why they do it. It is considered a career plus – a stepping-stone into Hollywood. Whether that’s right or wrong is not a judgment call I am making. I am simply pointing out that those who hire for acting jobs supposedly look very favorably on pro-cheerleader experience. I’m saying that because I read it somewhere. Don’t shoot the messenger.

    Fuck you, Blanche. You claimed that these women couldn’t possibly be exploited because “nobody’s putting a gun to their heads.” Some of us called you on it, now you’re just “the messenger” who wasn’t asserting a position? Bullshit.

    But does what the person in question think of their time “in training” count for anything?

    Well, if you had read the article linked in the OP, you would see that the documents being discussed “come to us courtesy of the law firm representing five former Jills who are suing their old handlers for allegedly violating a number of New York labor laws.” So I’d say that at least five of the persons in question don’t think that highly of the “deal” the Bills gave them.

    Pretty women should be *fine* with working for nothing? Is that what we’re talking about here?

    WTF? You were the one defending this shit — you were just fine with them working for nothing as long as there were no guns to heads. Now you’re trying to take the high ground?

    I’m gone – you people work it out.

    Well, that’s par for the course. Hardly the first time you’ve dropped a turd in a thread and then run away. Please stay gone this time.

    They come to us courtesy of the law firm representing five former Jills who are suing their old handlers for allegedly violating a number of New York labor laws.

  16. brucegee1962 says

    I think this is an interesting discussion, and I’m not quite sure which side I’m on now. However, it seems to me that the anti-Blanche faction above seems to be relying on a questionable assumption — that money is the ONLY form of remuneration that counts, and that any other form of remuneration should be ignored by the law when considering exploitation.

    I mean, many theaters engage volunteer ushers — they work a bit at the beginning of a show, and then they essentially get a free ticket to watch it. How is that fundamentally different than the cheerleader situation, other than the cheerleading job being more onerous? What about people who appear on game shows like Survivor? Isn’t that essentially the same thing — a very few may get money, and the rest get bupkiss. Are the ones who don’t win being exploited?

    I’m not sure of the answer, myself.

    Now, the set of restrictions being put on these young women is more problematic, and a disturbing commentary on what our society finds attractive. That seems like a separate issue from the exploitation, though.

  17. screechymonkey says

    brucegee:

    However, it seems to me that the anti-Blanche faction above seems to be relying on a questionable assumption — that money is the ONLY form of remuneration that counts, and that any other form of remuneration should be ignored by the law when considering exploitation.

    Can’t speak for anyone else, but I have not made any such assumption. The New York courts can deal with the Jills’ lawsuit according to what NY labor law requires.

    My objection was simply to the facile position that “as long as they’re not there at gunpoint, it’s A-OK!” and the disingenuous retreat from that position.

  18. lpetrich says

    How are these cheerleaders financially supported if they aren’t paid? Do they all have rich parents?

  19. Anthony K says

    that money is the ONLY form of remuneration that counts

    Pretty sure everyone understands that there are other benefits beyond cash. It’s not a groundbreaking concept. It’s not like the intangible benefits (read: we don’t want to pay cash, because WE certainly know how important cash is) of working aren’t touted by the majority of conservatives and business owners at all times. It’s a pretty fucking pervasive concept in politics and business. Most of us have jobs. We understand how they work. We understand what compensation is.

    However, it’s kind of true that money is the goal for most people at the end of the day. Gas stations don’t accept the satisfaction of a job well done in exchange for a tankful of fuel to get to work. Positive exposure doesn’t take care of the power and water bills. Work experience doesn’t fill the fridge with milk, bread, and vegetables.

    Let’s not bullshit ourselves. The Buffalo Bills don’t play for the experience, and the owners don’t own the team to develop a sense of character. They get paid in addition to all these other wonderful non-cash remunerations. There’s no reason the Jills shouldn’t get the same.

  20. Anthony K says

    How are these cheerleaders financially supported if they aren’t paid? Do they all have rich parents?

    Of course not. They pay their bills with promises of future payment when their exposure and experience land them all paying jobs in the future. Like we all do, rich or poor.

  21. says

    Ultimately it’s a privilege test: You must be this rich to “earn” the exposure.

    Means that equally (or better) qualified minorities don’t get the opportunity because they simply can’t afford to take it.

  22. says

    My wife is working on a social work degree. Part of that includes a requirement for a certain amount of unpaid internships. She has found them to be hard work, made more difficult trying to balance a full work-load and part time work. Fortunately, she and I have been lucky in that we have financially supportive (if emotionally abusive) parents to help keep us afloat, and now that I’ve finished my associates and am bringing in a steady paycheck she can afford to leave her job at Safeway and look for something better.

    Does she feel it’s exploitative? Yes, in fact, she does. It’s effectively a part time job in itself, but with no money (She might even be paying for the privilege, but I’m not sure). Just “networking” and “exposure” and “on the job training”.

  23. jesse says

    As people have noted the problem with the “exposure is good” argument is that you can’t eat exposure or pay bills with it.

    I’m a working writer. I won’t do anything for free. I could write a blog, but I don’t very often because I would get nothing for the time I put in and the “exposure” might or might not help. It’s jut too big a gamble when I have bills to pay. It’s one of those things I never feel like I have the time for even if I like doing it.

    Unpaid internships are a completely awful thing and should I think be against the law. Even “progressive’ media outlets do it (the Village Voice I am looking at you) and when I was offered one I simply could not afford to do it, even though I might have liked getting stories in there.

    TV is even worse. And the very real problem with this is that it cuts out anyone who isn’t a trust fund baby from certain jobs. The effect on journalism in particular has been pernicious. To their credit most daily newspapers stayed away from unpaid gigs (they at least paid freelance rate) but many high-profile magazines went full-bore with it and TV stations loved getting free labor.

    The result is the people who do these jobs are less likely to be a very diverse crowd. Ever wonder why the local TV station seems to have a weird view of poor people? It might be because the producer was doing unpaid internships as a student and teenager and the only way they could do it was by being from a relatively privileged background. People like that can be well-meaning but that doesn’t mean you know jack.

    Another problematic effect is that writers are supposed to be tweeting and monitoring social media and “engaging” — doing almost anything except producing actual copy and doing real reporting that makes you any goddamned money. Right-o folks. That makes sense. (Almost everyone I know of who touts this kind of stuff has a regular day job or steady guaranteed gig. This is why Clay Shirky makes me angry as hell).

    The entertainment industry is particularly bad here and it is in fact why the rules set by SAG and the other unions are pervasive (and seem arbitrary and weird) but they were set up that way because movie studios and TV studios were abusing people. They still do. The whole problem with the way the cheerleaders are treated is that what once might have been do-able as a hobby and part-time gig has suffered mission creep until now the demands they make — all by themselves — amount to a full-time job. getting your hair done takes time, you know? And costs money.

    Yes, people do community theater and all that kind of stuff. But at some point, if the demands on you are big enough, it’s time to get paid for the labor.

  24. qwints says

    They’re not volunteers under federal law because you can’t volunteer for a for-profit entity. Department of Labor definition of volunteer.

    They’re probably not independent contractors either because of the degree of control exercised by the team, but that’s a more open question.

  25. Anthony K says

    Exactly how much exposure is a model/starlet wannabe supposed to get in Buffalo? Other than the frostbite inducing kind?

    Are you kidding? A moment on the field is worth a thousand headshots sent to casting directors. Why, if you pull up the ol’ wikipedia page for the Buffalo Jills and look at notable members I bet it’s a veritable who’s who of the biggest names in modeling and acting.

    Lessee here…tum te tum…ah, here we go, Buffalo Bills, Notable members. There’s, uh, Theresa Joy, and uh…that’s it. The only notable member is Theresa Joy, and she’s so notable and famous thanks to her unpaid tenure in the life and career master’s degree that is being a Buffalo Jill that her Wikipedia link goes nowhere. A little digging turns up her IMDB page, which lists 19 acting credits over 16 years.*

    Boy, it’s pretty humble of the Buffalo “The Rest of Us Get Paid Actual Legitimate Dollars” Bills to call them the Jills, rather than the Buffalo We Practically Have Skeleton Keys to Open Every Door in Hollywoods.

    Pay the Jills in cash instead of bullshit, or insist that the rest of the franchise also do their jobs for the good of their résumés rather than their bank balances.

    *I really don’t intend to knock Theresa Joy’s career here. Hollywood is not an easy place to find success, except for the exceptionally lucky. The point is, her having been a Buffalo Jill hasn’t done sweet fuck all for her acting career. And it doesn’t look like it’s done anybody else much of any good either.

  26. PatrickG says

    Pretty women should be *fine* with working for nothing? Is that what we’re talking about here?

    I know you’re gone, Blanche, but your willful misrepresentation of what screechymonkey and I were saying is beyond ludicrous. The hell was that? We explicitly said they should be paid.

    Nobody should be expected to work in a professional capacity* for nothing, unless it is a bona fide volunteer position. Unpaid work is exploitative, full stop. That’s our point, not this 50 meter tall Pretty Strawwoman you just set on fire.

    * There’s a whole ‘nother discussion to be had about so-called domestic work, but that doesn’t seem germane to this conversation, involving corporate organizations and all.

    @ brucegee:

    I mean, many theaters engage volunteer ushers — they work a bit at the beginning of a show, and then they essentially get a free ticket to watch it.

    Category error. The ushers are being compensated commensurate to the value of their work (e.g. ticket has monetary value, work required is minimal and of short duration, seems dandy to me).

    If the ushers had to do contribute substantial amounts of time and work at the theater in the hopes that someone might cast then in a play, yeah, sure, totally the same thing.

  27. anbheal says

    Yeah, the whole stepping-stone and exposure argument is classist bullshit. And what’s galling is how it’s most commonly trotted out by phenomenally rich organizations. Poor urban outreach programs pay their employees, but prestigious universities actually require “practicums” or “work-study” of their students, where in order to get your degree you MUST provide free labor to some professor or department or affiliated organization. I was the envy of my entire department because I convinced the UAMC at which I did my practicum to actually pay me for the high-level programming I did for them. Free labor is exploitation, plain and simple.

    Between the two Williamses, Mario and Kyle, the Bills are spending over 25 million per year. On the sidelines I count 9 Jills. Let’s say 20 hours per week for 16 weeks, so 320 hours X 9 Jills, is 2880 Jill-hours, and let’s call it labor at least as qualified as a house painter, so 30 bucks an hour. That’s less than $90,000 per year. Are you fucking kidding me? Mario Williams makes over one million per game, about $20,000 per minute. And the Bills can’t come up with four Mario-minutes for 2880 Jill-hours???

    This makes the infamous “casting couch” look like a sweet deal in comparison. Heck, at least the wannabe-starlet probably got dinner afterwards.

  28. Anthony K says

    Yeah, the whole stepping-stone and exposure argument is classist bullshit. And what’s galling is how it’s most commonly trotted out by phenomenally rich organizations.

    You can always tell bullshit: it’s what the bull never serves itself.

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