From Sidelines To Picket Lines: Cheerleaders Fight For Higher Pay

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This week, pressured by 19 lawmakers from eight states, the NFL urged its teams to "comply with federal and state wage laws" when paying their cheerleaders.

That edict won't necessarily result in NFL cheerleaders receiving fair pay. In most states, cheerleaders — no matter which pro sport they cheer for — are treated as independent contractors. California is the exception. In July, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law declaring that cheerleaders must be treated as employees receiving at least minimum wage, overtime and other benefits.

As a former cheerleader for the Golden State Warriors, Lisa Murray has been part of the fight for fairer pay for cheerleaders. She joined Bill Littlefield to discuss cheerleader salaries.

BL: Cheerleaders in California will now be paid $9 an hour, which certainly is not a lot, but I understand that it's a significant step up from what some cheerleaders had been paid. Tell me a little bit about what cheerleaders were getting paid before.

LM: It can range. Some teams do not pay their dancers for practices or appearances. Some teams do pay minimum wage across the board for everything, whether it’s a practice, a game, an appearance. But, ultimately, when you crunch all the numbers these women are making pennies for what they do.

They're treated as low-skilled workers but used as the high-value face of promotional and marketing campaigns.

Lisa Murray, former NBA cheerleader

BL: People watching cheerleaders and dancers at pro sports might assume that it’s a pretty glamorous life. But I’m gathering it’s not easy to even make the rent if that’s what you’re doing.

LM: You’re right, I mean cheerleading is considered to be high-status work and it’s extremely competitive and an athletic sport. And they're treated as low-skilled workers but used as the high-value face of promotional and marketing campaigns and efforts. So unfortunately these women are not making a living wage, which is what we’re fighting for right now.

BL: Was there a particular point when you were doing this work that you realized you weren’t being compensated fairly for what they were asking you to do?

LM: The moment I sat down and signed my contract my first year was very alarming. I was paid $10 an hour for my first two years. It was $14 an hour your third year and $20 a year if you made captain. And you keep being told that you’re making as much as you can. And then when I found out about the lawsuit from a former teammate of mine, Lacy, who was actually on the Warriors team with me on my first year, I started to do some research and I found out that what we’re being told is not true and the money we actually generate for these organizations far outweighs our compensation.

BL: Along that line, I understand that you’re now working with a professor at Southern Utah University trying to calculate how much cheerleaders and dancers for pro-sports teams should be paid. How do you go about figuring that out?

BL: Cheerleaders from five NFL teams have sued their employers. New York is considering a law like the one that was passed recently in California, but change seems to only be coming team by team and state by state. Could the NBA and the NFL have exercised more leadership with regard to cheerleader pay?

LM: Absolutely, without a doubt. But to be honest with you, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that they’re fighting us in every which way. If you look at the history of the NFL and the NBA, ultimately, players in the NBA, let’s say, made an average salary of about $8,000 per year before they formed a union. It’s only a matter of time before we adjust the system. Ultimately, a lot of these teams are breaking the law by misclassifying these women as independent contractors. If you’re not a direct employee, you do not have the right to organize. They’re going to push back as much as they can, but it’s only a matter of time before we will be classified as employees instead of independent contractors.

This segment aired on September 12, 2015.



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