If your passion is cheerleading and someone offers you a chance to cheerlead for a National Football League team, with all the excitement, prestige and exposure that promises, your first thought might be that heck, I’d do it for nothing.
Well, it turns out that’s what a lot of real-life NFL cheerleaders have been doing.
A Woman’s Work: The NFL Cheerleader Problem, a documentary that becomes available Tuesday on Video On Demand, primarily follows two former NFL cheerleaders in a long uphill battle to get fair compensation for their time and effort.
Written by Elizabeth Ai and directed by Yu Gu, A Woman’s Work does not — spoiler alert — end with a glorious victory.
It ends with neither a win nor a loss, which disappoints but does not surprise anyone involved.
Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, a former cheerleader with the then-Oakland Raiders, had wanted to make dance and cheerleading her life since she was in fourth grade and her mother enrolled her in a dance class near their Louisiana home.
Contrary to the image often slapped on cheerleaders, she wasn’t doing this just to get up-close to hunky guys. Cheerleading and dancing helped put her through college, something her blue-collar family would have had trouble affording.
She won competitions and she won a spot on the Raiderettes, one of 40 women out of more than 600 who tried out.
She loved it, she says. There was a sisterhood among the cheerleaders and a sense that they were all part of the very cool Raiders family.
Then she got married, started a family of her own and gradually realized, along with her husband Josh, that she was working for almost nothing. She had to pay for her travel, her hair and makeup. She was away from home enough that Josh had to take days off from work to provide day care.
As for her paycheck, which she didn’t receive until the end of the season, it wasn’t that she was making far less than the players. That would be understandable. She was making far less than NFL mascots.
She left and sued. Meanwhile, across the country in Buffalo, former Bills cheerleader Maria Pinzone was having similar thoughts and took similar action.
This all began in 2014. Since then, another eight teams have been sued by former cheerleaders, giving more business to the legal system and resolving nothing.
The teams, the NFL and a large number of former and present cheerleaders have criticized the suits, saying that these women knew exactly what they were signing up for. If their base pay is low, they get career exposure plus the glamour of the NFL.
While the NFL doesn’t phrase it this way, a lot of it comes down to simple supply and demand. To a whole lot of women, cheerleading for an NFL team on national television is a dream gig. Neither the NFL or its teams have to sweeten that package with money.
A large group of Raiderettes alumna make that precise point here, talking about how their reward comes in the sisterhood of the cheerleading squad and the prestige of having their skills recognized as superior. In the cheerleading world, they’re the elite.
Lacy, Maria and their supporters counter that this doesn’t mean their work, which the teams obviously find valuable, should only benefit those who own those teams and make a great deal of money from them.
The documentary unavoidably touches on the familiar and sadly accurate concern that the things men do are compensated more generously than the things women do.
The arguments from Lacy and Maria don’t rely as much on gender inequality as the more basic notion that they earned a fair wage and were not getting it.
Lacy today is back to a blue-collar life, shopping in discount stores and teaching dance classes for local children. She says she felt badly at first that many of her fellow cheerleaders saw her as a troublemaker, but that now she does not. Both she and Maria say the principle for which they began fighting still needs addressing.
At different points in this struggle, women have been offered cash settlements in return for gag clauses, which those who refused the settlements say is a cheap way for a multibillion-dollar industry to make its critics disappear.
In a curious way, the cheerleaders’ fight is not entirely dissimilar from the long battle by NFL players to get the league to address the problem of aftereffects from long-term injuries like concussions.
That battle also took years against a backdrop of vehement denials by the league that there was even an unaddressed issue.
One commentator in A Woman’s Work says the common lesson is that however much the NFL sells itself as a big loving family, everyone who doesn’t have a long-term financial stake is a disposable part.
You don’t want to think that’s true. You wish the NFL would give a little more concrete assurance it’s not.