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U.S. Labor Department Calls NFL Cheerleaders 'Seasonal Amusement' -- Says They Don't Deserve Minimum Wage

Cheerleaders help make the NFL's billions. They need to get paid.

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Just why would someone ever want to become an NFL cheerleader? For the fleeting, half-baked fame? The camaraderie? Recognition for your athletic-aesthetic prowess? Or maybe it’s the privilege of being one of America’s Sporting Handmaidens – and all the charitable, community-serving femininity you’ll embody forever after. (Provided, of course, you don’t move on to stripping, or bring the NFL into disrepute while you represent it.)

Hopefully young women are looking for at least one of the above, because it’s certainly not the money, honey: as a brewing lawsuit brought against the Oakland Raiders by their cheer squad has revealed, NFL cheerleaders are some of the most poorly paid legal workers in America. With next to no labor rights and making nowhere near the minimum wage, they could use a cheer or two themselves.

Back in January, Oakland Raiderette Lacy T brought a suit on behalf of the entire squad. Factoring in practice hours, charitable appearances and the annual swimsuit calendar photo shoot on top of a 10-game commitment, he and her attorneys argued that the Raiderettes’ $1,250 annual wage worked out to less than $5 an hour. That’s a whole $3 below the state minimum. And it’s more than $5 below an increase the Obama administration has been seeking all year and said in a report last week would close the gender wage gap by a full 5%.

The Raiderettes are also required to fund their own travel and mandated cosmetics. They get fined by the team if they don’t sport the right underwear or the proper shade of fake tan. And in direct contravention of California labor law, these cheerleaders get paid at the end of the season, rather than every two weeks. And so the Cincinnati Ben-gals are joining the fight, too.

Yet last week, the US Department of Labor declared the Raiders exempt from having to offer its cheerleaders the minimum wage because they constitute “seasonal amusement”. Meanwhile, NFL attorneys claim that the Raiderettes never even had the recourse to real justice – that their contracts don’t allow them to sue in court anyway. Now, their case must head to arbitration, as so many matters of sport so often do. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who makes $44m a year heading up the $9bn marketing machine powered in no small part by cheerleaders and the fans they excite, will decide whether cheerleaders deserve a morsel more.

Make no mistake: cheerleaders are instrumental in generating revenue for the NFL. They feature prominently in in-house and television advertising, which will bring in an estimated $3.1bn between now and 2022. Sure, the players are on more commercials and have the skills to demand a low-end salary of $100,000. And, sure, the timeout routines may feature more closeup-ready shimmy than Bring It On-style tumble. But most NFL cheerleaders are trained dancers holding down college degrees or full-time jobs in order to pay for “the privilege” of cheering on Sundays. Even an NFL mascot makes a minimum $23,000 per season, while the women putting themselves out there for the National Football League make “salaries” more akin to that of a garment worker.

You don’t just have to follow the money. A week after the Raiderettes sued, a former Baltimore Ravens cheerleader leaked a list of that team’s draconian dictates from back in 2009. And the handbook had a distinct sexist inflection: no fraternizing with the players, including no discussion of wages or working hours; no jewelry, other than wedding bands and team-mandated earrings; no weighing a single pound more than you did at the beginning of the season; compulsory tans, fake or skin cancerous – the list goes on.