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NFL cheerleaders are underpaid, overworked, unfairly treated

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Paul Hazelton

Would you work a full-time job for $5 an hour? Astonishingly, many NFL cheerleaders do just that.

While some might argue that cheerleaders are unimportant in relation to football, the reality is they do far more than wave pom-poms. They represent the team’s brand, model for photo shoots, are subject to mandatory practices and much more. Yet for all the hard work, they rarely see a dime for their efforts, and are subject to some of the most unfair labor practices in the United States.  

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The time requirements alone are astounding. While most teams state that cheerleading positions are part-time, some regular season practices range from two to five times per week and can last for six hours. This, on top of public appearances, game day performances and a myriad of other obligations virtually ensures that this is not the case. According to former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Sunni West, who spoke with For The Win, the work is so demanding that she was “leaving work every day and going straight to practice and not getting home until 11 or 12 at night.”

The requirements for becoming and staying an NFL cheerleader aren’t much better. For example, the Dallas Cowboys – known for their talented cheer squads – offer a one-year contract, and tryouts for these positions are grueling. Annually, there are between 36 and 39 spots available on the team, at times with more than 500 applicants, including returning veterans trying out from across the globe. These tryouts span multiple days and involve everything from written tests to lengthy dance rehearsals and on-the-spot interviews. If these women are lucky enough to make the cut, they are shipped off to training camp, which hosts nightly practices that can run as long as five hours. And while there is no official weight requirement, their website explains a lean figure is demanded by our uniform.” This rule is so vigorously enforced that veterans who return only a couple of pounds overweight can find themselves on the chopping block.

But, all this pales in comparison to the horrendous salaries. In fact, some teams pay less than $100 a game. This salary is so low that most NFL cheerleaders have to find a second job. Even worse, there is no additional payment for practices, most public appearances or photo shoots. This means that teams are allowed to use these athletes’ images in promotional advertising and merchandising – which annually rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars – while offering no royalties. It is also worth noting that this industry presents a high-stress atmosphere with the very likely possibility of injury and almost no job security.  

An even less-known fact is that some teams have been known to fine cheerleaders for minor infractions. This was the case for the Oakland Raiders, who were reportedly fining their “Raiderettes” for things such as bringing the wrong pom-poms to practice and neglecting to turn in their biographies on time. In 2014, the Raiders apparently also had a policy that required their cheerleaders to foot the bill for makeup, hair, photo and even travel expenses. The Raiders have since been sued, as have the Bengals and Bills for unfair employment practices.

Recently, the NFL has been attempting to clean up its image, particularly where women are involved. The irony, of course, is that the lowest paid and most overworked employees are also the heroes and icons for millions of young women around the globe. Colorado State University 2014 alumna Angela Wood, who made the cut to cheer for the Denver Broncos at age 21, said, “…being part of the dance world, I always wanted to be one of these amazing women.” 

At the end of the day, it might be time to start cheering for a union instead of a touchdown.

Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @HazeltonPaul.

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