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'The NFL's Cheerleader Problem' and the Buffalo Jills: What happened?

'The NFL's Cheerleader Problem' and the Buffalo Jills: What happened?

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NEW YORK – Maria Pinzone stepped onto a red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival and posed for a smattering of photographers. Frame it a certain way and this seems glamorous, which can also be said of her former job: NFL cheerleader.

Pinzone was a Buffalo Jill for one year. She spent the 2012 Buffalo Bills season dancing on the sidelines just yards away from muscled, multimillion-dollar, head-smashing football players. Much like a paparazzi-lined red carpet, that can seem glamorous, too.

Pinzone didn’t see it that way. She saw intense work, strong expectations and stringent guidelines, but little pay to compensate for it. She began to question the fairness of holding cheerleaders to the requirements of a job, but not paying them like employees.

Pinzone, with a handful of other former Jills cheerleaders, took her concerns to a lawyer. “Change needed to happen,” Pinzone, 33, told The Buffalo News, “and if I didn’t do it, then who was going to?”

Pinzone was among those who ultimately filed lawsuits seeking compensation against the Jills’ managers, as well as the Bills (who didn’t operate the cheerleading team) and the NFL. That was 2014. Similar situations have boiled up in other NFL cities, too, and while resolutions have been reached elsewhere – and even Buffalo’s other dance-cheer team, lacrosse’s Bandettes, saw an improvement in their pay – the Jills’ situation remains unsettled.

In fact, the only tangible change is this: The Jills no longer exist.

Four years ago, Pinzone’s lawyer got a call from a filmmaker, Yu Gu, who wanted to make a documentary about NFL cheerleaders. Pinzone and another former Jill who filed a suit, Alyssa Ursin, participated in the film, which premiered in April at Tribeca. “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” chronicles the battles over pay between several cheerleading squads and their NFL clubs. It focuses on two teams in particular: the Oakland Raiderettes and the Jills. (The documentary is being shown only on the film festival circuit; it’s not yet available through streaming services or being widely shown in theaters.)

Pinzone, an accountant who lives in Western New York, had spent most of her day before the premiere doing interviews in New York City. During an interview with The News, she recalled her frustrations from her single Jills season: The cheerleaders were required to invest their own money in a uniform (which they could keep) and the team’s swimsuit calendars (which they could sell). They didn’t get paid for games or community events, though they were compensated for corporate appearances. At some practices, they were required to participate in physique evaluations, which became widely known as “the jiggle test”: The cheerleaders individually performed jumping jacks in front of the Jills leadership, who watched to see if that woman was fit enough to perform at that weekend’s game. If deemed not, she was benched.

[RELATED: Appellate court upholds Buffalo Jills' right to pursue lawsuit against Bills, NFL]

During her News interview, Pinzone pointed out that she was 26 during her Jills season, but some of her teammates were as young as 18 and 19, just out of high school.

“They were being taken advantage of, and did they see that?” Pinzone said. “They’re so young and naive and I had a little bit more life experience.”

When Pinzone and the other Jills filed suit, there was one swift and near-immediate consequence: Before the 2014 season, the team shut down. That decision was made by Stephanie Mateczun, then the director of the Jills. Mateczun’s company, Stejon Productions Corp., was contracted by the Bills to field the cheerleading squad. While the Bills never paid Mateczun a salary to run the Jills, they did at times pay appearance fees for the cheerleaders.

Mateczun declined to be interviewed for this article, and was not an active participant in “A Woman’s Work,” either, though she appears in the documentary through file footage. A source who declined to be named due to the ongoing litigation pointed to two reasons for the shutdown: bad press and low revenue. Mateczun, the source said, did not have the money to pay the cheerleaders minimum wage, and so the team closed.

It remains shut down today, and the lawsuits have been stalled by the bankruptcy of the radio company Cumulus Broadcasting Co. (formerly Citadel Broadcasting Co.), which paid Mateczun a salary to run the Jills before Stejon took over as manager.

Pinzone was joined at the premiere by former Raiderette Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, whose story is also prominent in the documentary, and by Gu and several other members of the filmmaking team. The 85-minute film leaves unresolved a key question, which came up in a talk-back session following the screening:

What is the update in Buffalo?

Pinzone, standing at the front of the theater with the filmmakers and Thibodeaux-Fields, whose suit in Oakland resulted in the Raiderettes receiving regular, hourly pay, had little update to give.

“We’re still waiting to settle, and there still are no Jills, unfortunately, which I’m devastated about,” she said. “I hope with Lacy’s case settling the Raiderettes doing the right thing that the Bills will take charge and do the right thing as well.”

'It was your free choice'

During a scene in “A Woman’s Work,” Pinzone is seen talking with her mother, Carol, about finally making the Jills.

“She tried out, what, how many times? Did you try out two times? Three times?” Carol asks.

“One, two,” Maria counts. “I made it my third time.”

“Third time?” Carol says. “She’s very determined. I was very proud of her. But I didn’t really know much about the organization until after the fact. I didn’t know she had to pay $600 for a uniform. I didn’t know she had to pay $500 for calendars.”

Her mother may not have known, but did Pinzone and the other cheerleaders know the deal up front?

People on the other side say yes.

“There was never a point where they were handcuffing you to the team,” said Loren Kuwik, a Jill from 2009 to 2013 and a former co-captain. “It was your free choice. Your choice to audition. Even once you made the squad, once that first meeting hit and we went through all those rules, you decided to stay.”

Kuwik is staunchly against the Jills lawsuits, whose defendants include Mateczun and Stejon, Cumulus, and the Bills and the NFL. There are two: an individual case filed by two cheerleaders, and a class-action lawsuit in which Pinzone is one of the representatives. That class action includes 74 cheerleaders. Another 60 cheerleaders, including Kuwik, opted out.

[RELATED: Buffalo Jills' lawsuit cites mistreatment, wage law violations]

“At any time during the season, you could have said to them, ‘I really don’t think this is working out for me,’ ” said Kuwik, who watched “A Woman’s Work” with a News reporter and provided commentary.

In a file clip obtained for the film, Mateczun, the former Jills director, is shown advertising auditions. “We are looking for young ladies with that special ‘it’ factor, or flair,” Mateczun says. “Even if you are not the best dancer, are you fun to watch? Are you entertaining? And additionally, are you athletic? And are you physically fit for your particular body type?”

The film then cuts to Pinzone, who is shown in a gym, doing leg crunches and breathing hard.

“She was very intimidating from the beginning,” Pinzone says in the film. “Whatever she said was what you were going to do. 'You want me to jump? How high do you want me to jump?' ”

Pinzone then describes the Jills’ regular physique evaluations, the oft-called “jiggle test.” Kuwik, who says she was benched from some games for failing the physique test, scoffed as she watched that scene.

“Yeah, sure, standing there doing jumping jacks in front of people is uncomfortable,” she said. “Any normal person in their right mind would be uncomfortable doing that.”

But on the field, she added, “You’re going to be jumping into the air and dropping onto the ground into a split. And you’re going to be doing it in front of 80,000 people. So doing it in front of the three people that are looking out for you and have your best interests in mind, and actually care about you and know you on a personal level? I’d rather do jumping jacks all day in front of the three of them and have them say, ‘OK, maybe it’s just not working this week, but we’re going to get you back to where you need to be.’ ”

Kuwik makes clear that she doesn’t have a problem with Pinzone or the other cheerleaders wanting to be paid, but she says the appeal of being a Jill for her – and for many – was about other things: The chance to continue a dance career, post-school. The excitement of performing on an NFL sideline. The sisterhood among the cheerleaders. The chance to give back in the Western New York community and sometimes beyond. (Kuwik traveled to Iraq as a Jill.)

“To be able to be a part of that, there are literally no words for it,” Kuwik said. “If that feeling alone, or all of that, doesn’t make it worth it for you, then what were you doing there in the first place? Why were you there?”

Will Jills be revived?

The biggest question both sides of the Jills saga share is this: Will Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula ever bring them back? Executives from Pegula Sports and Entertainment declined to be interviewed for this story, citing ongoing legal proceedings. Those legal cases have been stalled since late 2017 as Cumulus works through bankruptcy.

Sean Cooney, a partner at the Buffalo law firm Dolce Panepinto, is representing the plaintiffs with his co-counsel Chris Marlborough. Cooney, who was interviewed for “A Woman’s Work” and attended the premiere at Tribeca, told The News he believes the case will start moving forward this summer. When it does, Cooney is planning to build on a 2017 State Supreme Court ruling that the Jills were misclassified as independent contractors and were actually functioning as employees of Stejon, Mateczun and the radio station. He intends to pursue further discovery and depositions against those parties and the two biggest involved, the Bills and the NFL.

“The plaintiffs still want to resolve the case,” Cooney said. “Our goal is not to just drag people through litigation. It’s that we believe that we’ve proven they’re employees, the court agreed with us, now it’s a matter of how much they’re going to be compensated and by whom.”

“By whom” is key. The Bills actually celebrated that same ruling because the court didn’t find the team or the league to be employers. Though the team had cheerleaders dating back to the franchises’ earliest days in the 1960s, the Bills began outsourcing operation of the Jills in the mid-1980s. At various points, the Jills were managed or sponsored by Mighty Taco, restaurateur Russell J. Salvatore, Cumulus/Citadel’s FM station 97 Rock and Mateczun’s Stejon. In the mid-'90s, the Jills voted to become the first NFL cheerleaders to unionize, though their time as a union was brief.

With more legal proceedings to come, Bills and Pegula Sports officials are reluctant to publicly discuss issues surrounding the Jills. But in 2017, when the court ruled that the Jills were functioning as employees of the radio company and Mateczun/Stejon, the team released a statement lauding that decision. Contacted recently by The News, a Pegula Sports official pointed to the same statement, which reads in part: “As we have stated since the filing of this lawsuit, the Bills should not be a defendant in this lawsuit because the Bills contracted with third parties to hire, train, manage and compensate the cheerleaders. This ruling is consistent with the team's position that it outsourced cheerleading to third parties. The Bills will continue to vigorously defend the cheerleader's claims and remain confident that it will not be found liable.”

The Pegulas, in effect, inherited the Jills lawsuits. The legal action began in the spring of 2014, and the Pegulas bought the team from the estate of founder Ralph Wilson Jr. that fall. But they did change the pay model that same year for their lacrosse cheer-dance team, the Buffalo Bandettes, which they had owned since purchasing the Buffalo Sabres and Bandits in 2011. Formerly, the Bandettes had been paid only for games, but not for practices and appearances.

After the football lawsuits were filed, the Bandettes were paid minimum wage hourly pay for all their work. “They didn’t really say (why) exactly, but when they told us, we were like, ‘Wow, that’s great for us,’ ” said Janelle Tagliarino, who danced for the Bandettes from 2013 to 2016.

Stephanie Oswald, another Bandette from those years, told The News recently that several of her teammates were nervous about the possibility of some former team dancers following the Jills’ path and filing a lawsuit for wages.

“That was definitely something on everybody’s mind, and we didn’t want them to take it away from us like the Jills were taken away from those girls,” said Oswald, who performed with the Bandettes for five seasons. “Luckily, nothing like that happened. We were also lucky that nothing had to happen for them to start paying us more. They just did it right away, the Pegulas. We didn’t even have to mention it to them. They just took care of it.”

Taking care of the Jills situation won’t be so subtle. It’s clear the Bills and Pegula Sports and Entertainment won’t comment on the future of the Jills until the legal cases are wrapped. But there are few, if any, indications on whether they’ll revive the Jills.

Pinzone, as she said at Tribeca, is “devastated” that the team is gone. Kuwik, too, said she is “ready for there to be some sort of team again, whether it’s the Jills as they were, or whether it’s some new dance team. Either way, I don’t care, but I just want things to get moving.”

That’s the one point – perhaps the only one – on which all sides agree.

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