Concession stand workers can often make more than team cheerleaders for the National Football League.
That pay gap is the subject of a new documentary called "A Woman's Work: The NFL's Cheerleader Problem.” The PBS Independent Lens film airs on Monday.
The pay disparity came to light in 2014 after a series of lawsuits raised by cheerleaders who said they were underpaid and sexually harassed. Filmmaker Yu Gu follows the stories of Maria Pinzone, former cheerleader for the Buffalo Bill Jills, and Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, former cheerleader for the Los Angeles Raiderettes.
Gu, who was born in China, says she came to the U.S. as an immigrant with high expectations about equality in democracies.
So when Gu arrived as a student at the University of Southern California and heard about Thibodeaux-Fields’ “mind-blowing” lawsuit claiming the cheerleader was paid less than minimum wage, Gu was perplexed. She says she was instantly drawn to the story.
“Just seeing this sort of extreme inequality was something that really piqued my interest,” she says. “I wanted to dig deeper.”
Thibodeaux-Fields filed her lawsuit a week before Super Bowl XLVIII, Gu says. The NFL tried to make a distinction about cheerleaders’ pay, saying individual teams are responsible for paying cheerleaders, not the league. The move was an attempt to “push away the responsibility,” Gu says.
In 2014, the average salary of an NFL player was about $420,000 a year, and a mascot could make up to $65,000 a year. A Raiderette cheerleader averaged just $1,250 a year, according to the documentary.
The pay didn’t match the work put in: Football cheerleaders can spend upwards of 60 to 70 hours a week working on behalf of the team.
NFL teams act as though the cheerleading role is an “invaluable benefit” and “women should feel lucky to have this opportunity to cheer [and] to be part of this organization that is so meaningful,” Gu says.
Teams spin cheerleading as “not really a job” but more of a charitable act to give back to your team and community, Gu says. Many fans carry the same sentiment, she says.
Ultimately, the battle over fair pay has shed light on the perception of what cheerleaders represent. One fan in the documentary said cheerleaders aren’t a good example for young girls, especially when it comes to body image.
“I don't agree with the image that a lot of these NFL cheerleaders are portraying,” the female fan said in the film.
Throughout “A Woman’s Work,” Gu shows the connection between low pay and how society views cheerleaders. While the lawsuits spurred some to question the relevancy of cheerleaders, Gu says they still remain a big part of these sports teams.
“I think part of it is if these teams are going to employ women, employ these cheerleaders, they need to be treated fairly,” she says. “And also, I think the women themselves need to be empowered to really evolve their roles, to evolve their industry and sort of even the creative aspect of who they are and how they're marketed.”
She argues the problem goes back to how society views sexuality and women’s bodies, too.
“I think right now, in terms of rape culture [and] toxic masculinity, I think there's the idea that men are just entitled to women's bodies and their affection, and their beauty should be a given [and] should be free,” Gu says.
The documentary also explores gender roles and the often unacknowledged labor women do, such as caregiving. Gu hopes the film’s look at the invisible labor many women take on can help “reinvigorate” respect and dignity for what “woman’s work” means.
So far, there have been current and former professional cheerleaders who have seen the film and felt it was a reflection of their experience, she says. They feel empowered to change the narrative on who they are and what they stand for.
“They're not just there to be seen and not heard,” she says. “They have a voice. They have opinions.”
Some former cheerleaders still have criticisms regarding the lawsuits and the fight for fair pay. But Gu hopes that after watching the movie, they will rethink their stance and find “it's not impossible to both love your experience as a cheerleader and also be treated fairly, be paid fairly, and to have a safer workplace.”
This segment aired on January 1, 2021.