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Cheerleaders reunion bittersweet as reminder that Jills no longer exist

They are now investment advisers and firefighters. Figure skaters and engineers.

But once upon a time, they were NFL cheerleaders.

This weekend, 300 former cheerleaders representing 24 National Football League teams gathered in Buffalo for an all-year reunion.

Hosted by the Buffalo Jills Alumni, the two-day event this weekend included a trip to Niagara Falls, a “Taste of Buffalo” cocktail party and a lot of bling.

For the 158 former Jills who attended, the reunion was a bittersweet reminder.

“This would have been the Jills’ 50th year cheering, regardless of the fact we don’t have cheerleaders now,” said Chris Polito.

She is 69 now, but she cheered from 1971 to 1979 and was director from 1978 to 1985.

“To me it’s so exciting to celebrate that history with friends.”

The Buffalo Jills were silenced in April 2014 amid litigation filed by former cheerleaders who sought back wages for their appearances at games and practices, and legal expenses. The lawsuit was certified a class action in January, and as the litigation continues, so does the suspension of cheerleading operations.

Lori Marino, president of the Buffalo Jills Alumni Association and chairman of the reunion, thinks it’s unfortunate that the Bills no longer have their Jills to cheer for them.

“We support the Buffalo Bills,” said Marino, 53, who cheered from 1981 to 1992 and from 1997 to 2000. “Personally, I feel it’s very unfortunate, but I believe the girls clearly understood their roles, so what they’re doing, I do not support.”

She hopes the Jills will return.

“I feel the Bills definitely want them to come back,” she said.

A ‘huge sisterhood’

On or off the field, these professional cheerleaders shared a bond, they said. They were like family to each other then and remain so now.

“It’s a huge sisterhood, and it matters so much no matter how old you are or how long since you’ve cheered,” said Donna Dimitroff, 67, who cheered from 1971 to 1977. “We are a very close and unique group. That’s what keeps a lot of this alive.”

Jena Fiorella, 29, who cheered from 2005 to 2006, along with Dimitroff, Polito and others, composed the reunion planning committee. They were responsible for the stunning wall made of red, white and blue flowers in the shape of the NFL logo. They concocted the Pom-Pom, the event’s signature cocktail featuring red, white and blue layers. They also spent several nights stuffing scores of gift bags.

The first alumni cheerleaders reunion occurred in Washington in 2012. The second followed in Atlanta in 2014. The next is scheduled for 2018 in Nashville.

Among the alumni is Jerry Ziffer, who cheered from 1982 to 1986. A former gymnastics coach, he – yes, he – decided to audition for the Jills to promote sport acrobatics. His tryout routine of tumbling and jumps landed him a spot on the Jills roster. Ziffer, one of two male cheerleaders in Jills history, traveled from Lakeworth, Fla., where he works as a tai chi instructor.

Sarita Viloria de Hoxie, 36, cheered for Buffalo from 2004 to 2005. She also cheered for the Baltimore Ravens from 2006 to 2008, and from 2009 to 2011. And she also cheered for the Washington Redskins.

A Rochester native, Viloria de Hoxie met her husband when they both were cheering for the Ravens. They live in Salt Lake City, where they own a cheer and tumbling gym.

“When you spend all that time with people on your squad, you work closely together,” Viloria de Hoxie said during a phone interview from her Utah home.

She said the recent spate of lawsuits pitting cheerleaders against their former teams boils down to compensation, which comes in different forms.

“We cheered for games but we got free tickets,” Viloria de Hoxie said. “We were compensated in other ways. Sponsors would help with our hair and fitness. Things have changed. Now cheerleaders get paid for practice, but pay rates depend on the team – hourly for practice and hourly or a flat rate per game.”

Alleged wage theft

The Bills are one of five NFL teams that have faced class-action suits by cheerleaders alleging wage theft.

• In September 2014, the Oakland Raiders settled on a $1.25 million payment covering 90 women working as cheerleaders from 2010 through 2013. Lawyers said the women would each receive $6,000 for each year worked. The following January, another cheerleader appealed the settlement as too low.

• In May 2015, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers agreed to pay former cheerleaders up to $825,000.

• In August 2015, the Cincinnati Bengals agreed to pay up to $255,000 to settle a wage theft suit brought by cheerleaders.

• In January, the New York Jets became the fourth team to reach a settlement with its Flight Crew cheerleaders. A settlement of $324,000 will be divided.

The Jills filed their original lawsuit against the Bills in New York State Supreme Court in April 2014. It was filed by Caitlin Ferrari of Rochester, a Jill during the 2009-10 season, on behalf of herself and other former Jills. It alleged the cheerleaders worked for free at games and at mandatory public appearances. The suit named the Buffalo Bills; Cumulus Broadcasting Co. (formerly known as Citadel Broadcasting Company); and Stephanie E. Mateczun, a former Citadel employee who ran the Jills.

Two days after the filing, Mateczun suspended cheerleading operations.

In January 2015, State Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Drury allowed the cheerleaders to add the National Football League and Stejon Productions Corp. (owned by Mateczun) as defendants.

An eligibility notice was mailed July 20 to more than 130 women who cheered for the Buffalo Jills from April 2008 to April 2014, confirmed Sean E. Cooney of Dolce Panepinto, an attorney representing the cheerleaders. The notice informed the former Jills they are eligible to become plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleging wage theft against the Bills, Cooney said.

“It is my hope the notice is clear so that they can make their own decision on whether to stay in or opt out,” Cooney said.

There is a six-year statute of limitations on wage theft cases. Since the suit was filed in April 2014, the class of eligible claimants starts in April 2008.

Viloria de Hoxie commended the Bills organization, but is puzzled that the lawsuit has not been settled.

“Everyone with the Bills cheerleaders were top-notch,” she said. “When you audition for the team, they were clear as to expectations as well as compensation. The Raiders suspended tryouts but the lawsuit was settled quickly. Other teams were able to keep operations going. Buffalo is the only one still in it.”

email jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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