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What ever happened to the Buffalo Jills?

As I was reporting today’s feature on the new documentary “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem,” I watched the film with a former Buffalo Jills co-captain, Loren Kuwik, who is staunchly opposed to the lawsuits filed by her former teammates who say they should have been compensated as employees.  

“It was never about the money for everybody,” Kuwik told me. “That’s the part that drives us all so crazy. Would it have been great for all of us to get paid like employees? Sure. But it was never about that. Ever.”

I asked Kuwik why. Why were she and many of her teammates willing – eager, really – to voluntarily purchase a uniform, front the money for swimsuit calendars, attend regular practices and maintain exacting physical standards, while getting paid for hardly any of it? The Jills experience, Kuwik explained, was about the excitement of game days, the sisterlike bond with teammates, the chance to serve the community through charitable appearances, and also the opportunity to keep dancing or cheering past school.

In a separate conversation, another dancer echoed those thoughts. Janelle Tagliarino, who had danced most of her life, remembered graduating from Sweet Home High School in 2013 and thinking, “What am I going to do now?” Like many serious dancers, Tagliarino had rehearsed at her studio every day and traveled several times a year for shows and competitions. Now, her lifelong pursuit seemed to be over. Then her friend Stephanie Oswald, who danced for lacrosse’s Buffalo Bandettes, suggested she audition for the team. “I just wanted to do it because I loved to dance,” Tagliarino said. “Money was never a factor at all.”

It’s not my role to agree or disagree with my interviewees, but this helped me see their perspective. In dance – just as in music lessons, sports or virtually any childhood pursuit – you’re paying for lessons, outfits, travel and more. To the point of the other Jills who filed suit, there’s a clear argument to be made that at the pro level, those things should change. But many cheerleaders weren’t thinking about that. They were prioritizing a love of dancing or cheering, the excitement of a team atmosphere and the bond between teammates.

In the case of the Bandettes, they did get paid for games when Tagliarino started, and after the Jills’ lawsuits in 2014, started getting paid an hourly wage for all their work. “Once I found out they got paid for it,” Tagliarino said, “I was like, ‘That’s even better.’ ”

— Tim O'Shei


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