Five former members of the Buffalo Jills cheerleader squad have filed suit against the Buffalo Bills this week, as well as two other companies the plaintiffs say actually owned and controlled the Jills. This makes the third lawsuit by NFL cheerleaders against the teams they cheer for filed this year, including the Cincinnati Ben-Gals and the Oakland Raiderettes.
The complaints are filled with horror stories about the requirement the teams had for the women and the sometimes degrading situations they were placed in, including “jiggle tests,” where the women would do jumping jacks while a coach recorded which parts of the women’s bodies did not meet the physical specifications of the team, weigh-ins, and being “auctioned off” at golf events and then being forced to sit on the laps of the contestants with the successful bid. The cheerleader squads had strict manuals that mandate the color and shape of underwear and instructed the women on how frequently tampons needed to be changed.
While those allegations in and of themselves are shocking, perhaps equally so is the cost to the women to participate on these squads. The cheerleaders were responsible for paying for their own hairstyling sessions, at salons picked by the teams, as well as for manicures, self-tanning sessions, and in some cases, the swimsuits they wore for the squad swimsuit calendar. Some squads were required to buy their uniforms and to pay all their own traveling expenses for mandatory events. Both the Ben-Gals and the Jills were required to purchase copies of the swimsuit calendars, costing them up to $750 each, but were told that they could sell the calendars to recoup the cost.
The owners of the cheerleader squads made a significant amount of money from the appearances, between $175 to $300 per appearance for each cheerleader at each event. The total revenue from each squad is estimate at at least one million dollars per year. But the cheerleaders were only paid for a few coveted appearances- the rest they were required to appear at for free.
Besides the shockingly high out of pocket costs and strict micromanagement of the cheerleaders’ appearances, it appears that the teams and owners may have violated federal and state labor laws. All three suits bring claims under individual state minimum wage laws, and the Ben-Gals also brought suit under the Federal Labor Standards Act, for failure to pay the minimum wage, willful violations of the FLSA, and retaliation. It appears as though the state law claims are necessary, as the National Labor Relations Board opened its own investigation into the Raiderettes after their suit was filed, but found that as seasonal employees, the Raiderettes were not entitled to the minimum wage protection offered under the FLSA. It is possible that the federal district court in Ohio could find differently, however.
It is interesting to note that these lawsuits are coming in a period where there appears to be an increase in lawsuits against the NFL and the NCAA and possibly a change in the public perception of the people who entertain us every Saturday and Sunday during football season. There has been the lawsuit by former and current players regarding permanent damage from concussions, and a public backlash against the Washington Redskins for refusing to change their name, which many find offensive. The Northwestern University football time was just granted the right to unionize as well, calling in to question whether or not the status quo will remain regarding the treatment of college athletes. As of right now, it’s impossible to tell whether these lawsuits are part of a broader societal change regarding athletes, but the lawsuits do help bring attention to some issues that many of us may have not thought of before.
Michael Kraemer is a partner with Kraemer, Manes & Associates, a law firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, serving all of Pennsylvania, with attorneys focusing on business law, employment law, litigation, and civil issues. For more information please visit www.lawkm.com