The lawsuit filed last week by five former Buffalo Jills was shocking for one reason: It took as long as it did for the women to get fed up.
The allegations paint a picture that’s more sad sorority than professional gig for a billion-dollar industry – little pay, humiliating body tests, a mandatory “bikini show.” All this for the privilege of standing by the sidelines of the nation’s most lucrative sport.
There’s no doubt the Jills have done plenty of charity work. They’ve signed up for a business in which physical fitness and attractiveness is paramount.
Most view the Jills as more entertainment troupe than professional sport. Nobody gives them the same field cred as the Western New York Flash.
But you can’t just dismiss professional cheerleaders as eye candy with pompoms. They probably have more influence on the image young girls get from high-powered sporting events than entire leagues of women athletes.
They certainly get more primetime exposure. You have to look pretty hard to find a WNBA game on television. But any girl watching an NFL game is going to notice the women in go-go boots doing splits, and she’s sure to see it’s one of the few ways for women to get on the field.
What she’s not likely to see is that, despite the glitz, the cheerleaders earn little beyond the perks of free gym membership, discounts at hair salons and the opportunity to be ogled by drunk fans. It’s not just a Buffalo thing. A former Oakland Raiderette filed suit in January. Then a former Cincinnati Ben-Gal alleged in a lawsuit that the team violated federal wage laws.
Even the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders rehearse for no pay and earn just $150 per game.
Competitive cheerleading at the high school and college levels has sought to distance itself from football and basketball games with the goal of being recognized as a sport of its own. Many competitive squads have ditched the pompoms in favor of stunts that require more athleticism than glamor.
Those competitions are a far cry from the dance troupes of the NFL, yet professional cheerleading remains the goal for many young girls who get their start in pigtails and bows. Cheerleading squads like the Buffalo Jills fuel those dreams with clinics for girls as young as 5 and 6. The girls pay $250 to participate; the Jills, according to the lawsuit, were required to give their time for free.
There’s been an explosion of opportunities for young women in high school and college sports in the four decades since the federal Title IX civil rights legislation banned sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs. The Women’s Sports Foundation has detailed the benefits of sports – including stronger self esteem, better body image and the potential for a positive effect on future wages.
The girls of Title IX blazed a trail that opened up real, but rare, openings in professional sports for women – from the soccer fields to the half-pipe. Yet professional cheerleaders seem stuck in a modern version of their 1960s counterparts – primping and prancing for peanuts, just in skimpier outfits.
The future of the Buffalo Jills remains unclear after its management suspended operations last week. But if they return, and if they’re going to continue to peddle their image to pre-teen cheerleaders, shouldn’t we consider: What are those young girls learning about their worth?