The world of professional sports takes great advantage of young people’s desire to be part of its glamor. The most egregious example is the way that so many colleges make so much money off student athletes while the students themselves never see any of it and often get a rotten education as well. The latest US Supreme Court decision striking down the bans on betting on sports is going to open the floodgates for a lot more money and plenty of groups are going to want a slice of that action and the only people who will be shut out are the student athletes. The problem is that there are many young people who love sports so much or hope to someday be part of the tiny minority who make it in the professional leagues that there is no shortage of people who can be exploited.
But there is another group that is also exploited and those are the cheerleaders for professional teams. Four years ago, I wrote about some cheerleaders for football teams who complained about how badly they were treated. Like the student athletes, these people love what they do and enjoy performing for the crowds at the games and the TV audiences but the owners and the league administrators take advantage of their passion to pay them poorly and treat them badly.
Now some of them are filing lawsuits.
Since 2014, five other NFL teams – the Raiders, Buccaneers, Bengals, Jets, Bills, and one NBA team, the Bucks – have faced lawsuits from their dancers, each alleging severe labor violations, and offering glances into the secretive and manipulative world of professional cheerleading: mandatory diets; forced beauty regimens paid out of pocket; countless hours of work for which the super-rich teams they cheered for refused to pay them. Perched atop of this mountain of alleged mistreatment, and riding the rocky aftermath of a recent New York Times story that revealed that in 2013 Washington cheerleaders were required to pose topless and act as unpaid escorts to the team’s sponsors, Goodell chose not to meet face to face with Davis and Ware. He sent his lawyers instead.
While much of the focus has been on NFL cheerleaders, rampant mistreatment of dancers appears to be endemic to the NBA as well. “I know the NBA has the same problems because I hear from them,” said Blackwell. NBA cheerleaders, like their NFL counterparts, are often required to sign arbitration agreements, which force employees claiming damages into highly confidential settlement talks. Often, said Blackwell, when employees settle in arbitration “they have to sign a gag order saying ‘You can never tell anyone about your story; that we settled. Nothing.” Blackwell noted that the same week Davis lost her job with the Saints, the New Orleans Pelicans fired three cheerleaders for allegedly dating a player. (At the time, both the Pelicans and Saints were owned by late billionaire Tom Benson.)
Teams often make dancers feel worthless. “The girls I hear from, every single one of them, live in a world of fear,” Blackwell said. “They’re told ‘There’s a million girls who will do your job. You’re not special. You can be fired.’ That’s why no girls are speaking out. They’re terrified.” Pierre-Val believes that these sentiments kept her own squad members from negotiating a better rate. “I do think a lot of the cheerleaders don’t see themselves as assets to the team so much as, ‘I’ve been given a chance.’ In actuality, you are bringing money and other assets to the team. I think it’s the culture.”
It hardly seems sufficient for hands to be dusted off and “Mission Accomplished” banners to be raised over the settlements of suits that award dancers with what usually amounts to around $2,000 in back pay, and may compel some teams to cease their practice of violating basic labor and minimum wage laws. In order for cheerleaders to work in a safe environment, and to earn what truly amounts to fair pay, the women will have to organize. While Blackwell says she would be happy to help cheerleaders unionize, she does not foresee that happening in the near future, while the athletes remain in an insular, fear-based culture.
This is capitalism in action. When the supply of workers far exceeds the demand, owners will squeeze them as much as possible to get maximum profit. This is the evil that unions can help mitigate. I hope the greedy, rich owners of professional teams and the league officials who are in their pockets get hammered for large damages by juries.