'A culture of fear': inside a shocking film on how cheerleaders are treated

·7 min read

Maria Pinzone thought she had landed her dream job when, in 2012, she successfully auditioned for the Jills, the cheer squad for her beloved hometown NFL team, the Buffalo Bills. Pinzone had long dreamed of cheering in the NFL, but as the season went on, parts of the job began to unsettle her. The job required hours on hours of practice and dozens of community events, all unpaid. The Bills made more than $250m as an organization that year, but Pinzone had to pay $650 for her uniform, and was paid just $105 for 840 hours of work.

Related: 'It's a hard and challenging sport': inside the world of competitive cheerleading

Pinzone quit the team in 2013. When another Jill confided the same misgivings about their compensation, Pinzone took her contract to a lawyer. The meeting in late 2013 “felt like a prayer confession, almost”, she told the Guardian. Something felt off about the contract – the Bills’ mascots, concession workers, janitors and cleaning staff were all paid for their work and time, yet the cheerleaders in the same stadium each week were not. But doubt crept in. “Am I crazy?’ she thought. “Here I was signing up to be an NFL cheerleader – such a high prestige [job],” she said, “it just never occurred to me at all that there could be something wrong with that contract.”

A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, a documentary completed in 2019 and now available on demand, probes the context for Pinzone’s lawsuit and traces the protracted, hard-won efforts by cheerleaders across the league to compel the NFL to fairly compensate its most visible female employees. Since Pinzone, one of two former cheerleaders followed by the film-maker Yu Gu as they sought compensation for minimum-wage back pay and legal fees, and four teammates filed a lawsuit against the Jills, their managers, and the Bills in 2014, the NFL, which generated over $15bn in revenue in 2019, has come under increased scrutiny for widespread underpayment, restrictive contracts and mistreatment of its cheerleaders. Ten out of the 26 NFL teams with cheerleaders have since faced lawsuits alleging wage theft, sexual harassment, body-shaming, hostile work environments, criminally low pay (some as low as $2.85 an hour), and “blatant discrimination”.

But back in 2014, few were speaking publicly about fair pay for cheerleaders, a decades-long staple of the NFL whose traditional “volunteer” position from the 1960s barely adapted to the league’s ballooned wealth, visibility and professionalism. Highly competitive NFL cheer squads developed their own arrangements justifying maximum training and minimal pay – speak up or challenge loyalty to the football team, and you’re benched. “It happened across such a long time, and this culture of fear was really instilled in the cheerleaders from day one,” Gu told the Guardian. “It was such a huge barrier to overcome.” That was, until Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, an Oakland “Raiderette” originally from Sulphur, Louisiana, and the film’s other subject, filed a class-action lawsuit in early 2014.

Like Pinzone, Thibodeaux-Fields, lithe and preternaturally bubbly, long dreamed of being a professional cheerleader – by the time she joined the Raiderettes in 2013, Thibodeaux-Fields had put 10,560 hours into 18 years of dance training, a body of work calculated onscreen in A Woman’s Work. The NFL did not reward that expertise, and the terms of the job were untenable: Raiderettes weren’t paid until the end of the season, nine months after they began practice. Thibodeaux-Fields was expected to pay for the requisite hair, nails and spray tan at $225 a pop and was, all told, paid less than $5 an hour for her work, including eight-hour shifts.

Gu first heard of Thibodeaux-Fields’s lawsuit in the Los Angeles Times while a graduate student at the University of Southern California. Born in China and raised in Vancouver, Gu was familiar with cheerleading stereotypes but baffled by America’s football-obsessed culture. Stripped of the American mythos used by teams to justify low pay – that it was privilege to cheer in the NFL, that sisterhood and prestige were worth more than money, that it offered visibility and had always been this way – Thibodeaux-Fields’s case seemed straightforward, “a pathway to understand some of the core mythologies of American culture”, Gu told the Guardian.

A Woman’s Work observes Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone over five years, as the lawsuits and their echoes – the hurtful gossip on Facebook groups, the recognition of widespread issues across the league, the slow unlearning of “lucky to be here” gaslighting, the way recognizing it reframes one’s whole worldview – braid into their everyday lives, at times searingly personal. Gu’s camera finds Thibodeaux-Fields on the floor with her children, overwhelmed with childcare and too frazzled to engage with her husband after work. We stare from the passenger’s seat at Pinzone, days after losing her mother – her own best friend and biggest cheerleader – to cancer, as she melts into tears in her car.

The film’s unvarnished, lawsuit-unrelated footage demonstrates “the consequences, the repercussions, of being mistreated in the workplace, of being underpaid or undervalued”, said Gu. Without a Raiderette wage, Thibodeaux-Fields was dependent on following her husband’s job and providing childcare for their growing family. Maria balanced the stress and time of the lawsuit with her accounting career and primary caregiving for her mother.

Thibodeaux-Fields eventually reached a settlement with the Raiders, but Pinzone’s case, a class-action suit joined by 73 other Jills (60 more opted out) that eventually included the NFL as a defendant, dragged on, and is still in a tense stalemate. Days after the lawsuit was filed, the Bills shut down the Jills, unceremoniously ending a nearly 50-year old program. “I just couldn’t believe that they did that and turned it around on us, so we became the bad guys,” Pinzone said. “That was really hard to navigate through. At one point in the film, the defendants offer a low-ball settlement agreement rather than pay fair back wages. “The fact that they thought we would accept something so low shows what they think of us: that we’re nothing,” Pinzone says over footage of her accompanying her father to a medical appointment.

The NFL, for all its recent work to address sexism and racism within the league, and its 2016 “women’s summit” held in the wake of the league’s domestic violence scandal, has punted on addressing cheerleader compensation at the league level. Contracts and pay for the cheerleading squads are still at the discretion of individual teams and their owners. In Gu’s view, the league is “not justifying” the hands-off approach to safe and fair work environment for cheerleaders, “I think because they feel like they don’t have to justify it,” she said. Cheerleaders or no, fair pay or not, people will still watch football. “Because the league’s stance is that it’s the responsibility of each team, there’s just a lack of consistent rules and guidelines across the different teams, and there’s a lack of transparency and communication between the different teams,” Gu explained.

Still, she added, it was “heartening” to see teams change their policies in the wake of several lawsuits – the Raiderettes have changed their contract to abide by labor laws, and the California assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who appears in the film, introduced legislation specifically aimed at protecting professional cheerleaders.

Some teams have “realize[d] these women are an asset to their organization and they should be compensated for that”, said Pinzone. Though she “had no idea when we signed up” how long the lawsuit, delayed by the bankruptcy of one defendant and the pandemic, would go on, Pinzone is hopeful for resolution this year. “We’re just going to keep moving forward,” she said, “and hope that once this does get settled, that they too will bring back the Jills and do it the right way.”

  • A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem is now available to rent digitally in the US with a UK date yet to be announced