Professional Cheerleaders Face Exploitation, Low Pay and No Benefits

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.

Caty DiDonato Anderson points out that you would do a lot better dressing up like a dolphin and waving your flipper at fans. For an NFL team mascot, salaries range from $23,000 to $65,000, not including benefits, plus a large bonus, maybe 10 grand, if the team makes the Super Bowl. Anderson notes, “The average NFL team spends more on its mascot than its entire cheering squad.”

Cheerleading looks like fun, but it’s grueling work. Most professional cheerleaders are in their 20s, but Laura Vikmanis, a rare cheerleader in her 40s who cheers for the Cincinnati Bengals (she’s a Ben-Gal), has written about low pay, pressure to get breast implants, and fear of getting assigned to “fat camp” if you gain an extra pound or two. Cheerleaders of any age are susceptible to hurts that commonly include sprains, pulled hamstrings, lower back issues, and in the case of stunt performers, potentially catastrophic injuries. Then there are the common indignities of being forced to pay for your own gear and transportation, suffering freezing conditions in skimpy outfits, and generally being treated like second-class citizens — who in some cases actually pay their own way to the Super Bowl.

Some folks are just fine with this system. Steve Czaban, a host of ESPN sports talk radio (a stooge for leagues), argues that cheerleader pay is justified because this is what the "market” allows. According to this strange but popular notion, the market, guided by an invisible hand, “knows” what services and goods are worth and prices them fairly. If you don’t want to be a cheerleader, says the free marketeer, then go be something else. Problem solved!

Cheerleading is an example of a tournament-style job market in which intense competition reigns and a few lucky winners get the spoils. If you’re a fiction writer, for example, maybe you’ll write the next Da Vinci Code. Or maybe you’ll endure horrible contracts and struggle to pay the rent. If you’re a cheerleader, maybe you’ll end up with a plumb television assignment. Or perhaps you’ll hurt your knee and spend the rest of your life paying for the injury because you don’t have insurance. As the old saying goes, you pays your money and you takes your chances. If you don’t hit the jackpot, well, the labor market has another job waiting for you around the corner. 

But it is really that simple? People who like to talk about the magic of the markets pretend that there’s actually some kind of realistic correspondence between the value the employee brings to the job and the amount she is paid and the way she is treated. But that equation gets messed up all the time. Labor markets fail, just like products fail. Invisible forces don’t seem to resolve problems like the imbalance of power between employers and employees that result in workers getting paid peanuts and forced to assume disproportionate risks.

Things get especially rough during periods of high unemployment and job insecurity. In the low-wage American economy, which is particularly unkind to young people, someone just graduating from high school or college rarely has a lot of great opportunities to pursue. A young woman eager to see the world might learn that flight attendants are getting laid off routinely. Someone interested in media may find that there are few decent entry-level positions that can actually lead to careers. Unpaid internships and temp jobs are rampant, while choices are limited. So young people put up with unfair conditions and enter the tournament in the hopes of winning the lottery. Cheerleading is an extreme example of this system, but it’s one that many young Americans are facing in one way or another. They are all victims of macroeconomic austerity and a predatory corporate climate.

Exploiting workers is not just bad for the people doing the jobs, it’s bad for the company, too. When companies, including football franchises, pay their employees fairly and treat them well, they tend to get better performance and loyalty, which, in the case of an institution like football, can reap benefits long after the job is done. Companies that play fair may also enjoy a better reputation with the public, which is particularly important in sports. Customers, or fans, in the case of football, are buying into the all-American image projected by football teams, and if they become aware of the exploitation of one of the sport’s most visible symbols, they might get turned off. This could be particularly true of female fans, recently courted aggressively by the NFL. Who wants to think about the single mom cheerleader who can’t afford medicine for her kid? What’s good for Bangladeshi dressmakers, in fact, is good for Americans: It’s time some of the crusaders for better working conditions abroad turned their attention here.

Why do we only think about jobs in “market” terms anyway? Why don’t we think of them in human terms? In human terms, we may decide that a living wage ought to apply no matter what the job because we have a basic sense of fairness and a desire to protect each other, particularly young people, from exploitation. When there are no enforceable standards or rules regulating employment, as is the case with professional cheerleading, and macroeconomic austerity prevails, what happens is a race to the bottom in which employers are free to do pretty much everything they can get away with. And that’s precisely what they do.

In the NFL, the images of cheerleaders are used in promotions and advertising without any compensation, while players or coaches collect fees for the use of their images. Many cheerleading squads, like the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, have their own corporate sponsors and pull in large sums of money for the franchise. But the women who do the work don’t share in the rewards. If that’s what it means to be all-American, isn’t there a problem?

Gregg Easterbrook of the  New Republic, who writes the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on, thinks there’s something very wrong with this picture. He argues that it's not the women in hot pants that's the main problem —that’s common, after all, in several industries, particularly entertainment. It’s the gross economic unfairness:

“It is…objectionable if everyone involved in an NFL contest is making buckets of money, except for the cheerleaders. That's the case, and that is a form of exploitation. The NFL will have about $8 billion in revenue this season, and Green Bay, the one team that discloses financial information (the Packers are publicly owned), showed a profit of $20 million last year. There's plenty of money in professional football. But only crumbs go to the cheerleaders. NFL teams are believed to pay cheerleaders approximately $100 per game. (Several teams used to post cheerleader audition FAQs on their Web sites that included such info.) Some throw in two game tickets. Don't spend it all in the same place!”

Go! Fight! Win!

Back in the mid-'90s, the cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills, known as the Jills, decided they had had enough. The Jills were in an unusual situation because a corporate sponsor rather than a team owned them. Management treated the women as independent contractors rather than employees entitled to benefits, which the cheerleaders didn’t like. The Jills were forced to pay for their own shoes and boots, and even had to purchase their own tickets to the Super Bowl when the Bills played several times. Led by veteran cheerleader Nancy Bates, the Jills filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board and eventually became the first professional cheerleading squad to form a union. They were quickly attacked by management and forced to disband. After coming under new management, the Bills cheerleaders union later merged with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, but they were never able to make the union idea stick, even in what was once a strong union town.

Professional cheerleaders face many of the same problems of any other workers, like job stability and lack of benefits, and unionizing is certainly one way to address them. From time to time there is talk of individual cheering teams starting their own unions or even a league-wide union, but there are big obstacles. For one thing, the job of a cheerleader is highly transient. Most only do the work for a couple of years, a situation that makes organizing extremely difficult.

Unions have recently been showing enthusiasm about building bridges to workers who have not typically been able to organize, like fast-food workers, and that’s a good sign. The AFL-CIO has committed to a focus on women's equality and a “shared struggle” in which many female workers have not gotten a fair deal. Perhaps cheerleaders interested in fighting for better conditions will find more helpful allies in the future. Statistics show that women represented by unions get better pay and better benefits, like sick leave and health insurance.

Strikes or walkouts are another option for people getting a raw deal on the job, but this only succeeds, as Mark Ufford points out, if public opinion is strongly behind the workers. Unfortunately, the media are often unsympathetic to cheerleaders, painting them as bimbos who get what they deserve. Caty DiDonato Anderson suggests that a group lawsuit bringing attention to the abuses in the lucrative world of professional sports might generate headlines and spark change.

Certainly a super-strong macro-economy would help everyone who isn’t sharing in American prosperity. Right now, our fiscal policies have been too focused on deficits and not enough on investment and job creation, which would give young people more options and leverage to find good jobs and demand decent treatment in the workplace.

In the end, we’re all in this economy together. Recognizing unfairness, spreading the word and challenging social and economic norms will help lift everyone trying to get a little piece of the pie. So next time you settle in with a bowl of chips to watch the Sunday game, think about the women smiling on the sidelines, ready to put on a spectacular performance with little but a lousy paycheck waiting when the show is over. In a wealthy economy, treating employees so poorly is not unacceptable. It certainly shouldn't be the American way.

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