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Professional Cheerleaders Face Exploitation, Low Pay and No Benefits

In a multibillion-dollar industry, why are cheerleaders getting sidelined?

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Autumn is the time for cozy sweaters, apple picking and the all-American obsession with football. For professional cheerleaders, the season means learning new routines to perform for packed stadiums — along with ridiculous pay, no benefits and exploitation.

So why should you “get ex-cit-ed?” Because in a way, we’re all cheerleaders. And the labor game is not being played fair.

Not all fun and games

Professional cheerleading has been around since the 1960s, when the National Football League started organizing pro squads, most famously the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in their iconic bedazzled blue outfits. Cheerleading took off like a rocket, and by 1983, ESPN was broadcasting the National High School Cheerleading Competition across the country. Recently, advocates have even begun lobbying for cheerleading to be recognized as an Olympic sport. The “spirit industry” is a multibillion-dollar operation aimed at marketing and merchandise for the “cheer and dance community,” complete with its own 24-hour online television network, the Cheer Channel.

Some of today’s professional cheerleading squads do complex acrobatic routines, like the co-ed Denver Nuggets stunt team. Many, like the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, have morphed into elite dance teams, with thousands competing to make the cut.

The process of becoming a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader is so intense that it spawned its own reality show, Making the Team. Thirty-six women survive from the initial open audition “cattle call” to the final team roster. Along the way, the women endure punishing fitness sessions directed by an Army drill sergeant and shell out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on various fees, prep classes and recommended consultants. There are etiquette sessions, mock interviews, calendar shoots, and even history lessons. The reward is a place on one of America’s most visible professional dance teams and a chance to shake your groove thing in front of millions of people. Maybe you’ll end up a star, like singer Paula Abdul (Los Angeles Lakers) or actress Teri Hatcher (San Francisco 49ers), who both got their start as professional cheerleaders.

The work of a pro cheerleader is considered part-time, or even a voluntary “hobby.” But between the practice sessions, photo shoots and charity appearances, the demands are so great that women are often hard-pressed to hold down another job or keep up with their studies. An in-depth report on the Washington Redskins cheerleaders reveals the grim reality of practices lasting up to six hours, requirements to learn choreography on their own time, hours of tanning, hairstyling and makeup application, and 12-hour game days.

Such a big effort brings in big money—but not for the cheerleaders. Like so many other workers in America, whose productivity gains since the '70s go almost entirely to managment, cheerleaders get the crumbs from a very rich pie. Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders rake in an estimated $1 million per season to the franchise through everything from annual swimsuit calendars to pricey training camps for aspiring cheerleaders. But the women make only a pittance — $150 per game. There’s no pay for practices. None for photo shoots. No insurance to cover you if you get injured. No job security. A cheerleader can get axed from the squad for anything from failure to meet body fat requirements to “morality” issues, like a too-revealing selfie on Facebook or not immediately leaving a bar if a player shows up, because, you know….

Welcome to the upside-down world of professional cheerleading.

All-American scandal

Cheerleader payment varies from team to team, but most in the NFL, for example, get paid on a per-game basis, as little as $50. (Keep in mind that the NFL is tax exempt, and heavily subsidized by you and me). An elite veteran cheerleader might get a salary of anywhere from $200-$1,000 per month. Some may make extra money doing paid appearances, but the regular work of a cheerleader generally includes a packed schedule of unpaid appearances and performances throughout the year. You can be a pro cheerleader and make less than $1,000 a year for your work and time. It’s doubtful most cheerleaders end up making minimum wage with all the hours they put in.