I’m psyched for football season, mainly because I’ve got dynamo Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp and his 20+ points on my fantasy team, which is aptly named EmDoggy Style (because I like dogs, you sickos). But I particularly love this time of year because it provides an excuse for me to rant about the NFL’s most misunderstood and undervalued workers: NFL cheerleaders.
As a rare NFL-cheerleader-turned-journalist, I am constantly jabbering on about the unseen work, struggles, and magic of the league’s internationally recognized dancers. While the field has diversified, both racially and from a gender perspective, over the last five years with the inclusion of male, queer, and trans cheerleaders, NFL cheerleading is still widely associated with a sexed-up, cis women army of dancers on the sidelines—an accessory to the sport of football, but not a professional sport worthy of real compensation in itself. And we all know that jobs coded as feminine are often labeled inherently less valuable.
It’s been well documented that cheerleaders are woefully underpaid, earning on average only $150 per game—pennies in relation to the hours they put in. But there is inherent value in the work these dancers and athletes perform. NFL cheerleaders, just like any other category of dancer, are professional entertainers, and they do far more than just bop around the sidelines with plastered smiles on fall Sundays. As inflation continues fueling a nationwide labor movement—Starbucks baristas, Apple store workers, and North Hollywood strippers are unionizing for the first time in history—it’s probably approaching time for professional cheerleaders to organize and demand fair labor practices, too.
Speaking from experience, here are some of the little-known realities of a very hard-working contingent of American workers.
Many teams in the league are able to justify paying cheerleaders close to minimum wage by requiring them to have other jobs or be enrolled full time at a university, or classifying them as independent contractors. Most of the work related to cheerleading takes place outside of regular working hours to accommodate for those additional jobs—whether they’re full time corporate gigs, acting, dancing, or exercise instructor jobs that take place in the wee hours of the morning. Rehearsals to learn choreography take place on weeknights or weekends, field rehearsals are often at the ass crack of dawn on the day of a game, and games generally require at least a 12-hour day, including fan interactions and pictures. This way, teams get to say, “Look, see, this isn’t their only source of income, everything is fine!!!”
Because physical labor isn’t enough, teammates are often required to fit into and then maintain a particular aesthetic that’s also in line with conventionally attractive, heterosexual norms (for example, the Seattle Seahawks cheer team used to wear a specific shade of light pink lipstick!). Teammates often attend trainings with big cosmetics brands like MAC Makeup, then receive a few free products and a discount on additional products moving forward—basically, here’s how to do your makeup, you’re on your own, goodbye! Some teams also receive discounts at tanning salons, on teeth whitening treatments, and even at medspas. But for the amount of makeup required for the gig, you end up running through products like a Dodge Ram in the mud, which requires you to spend—you guessed it—more money for physical upkeep. It’s like all of the staples of being a celebrity without the fame! Or the big check!
While some teams get access to free or discounted meal kits, most do not have access to their football team’s well-stocked nutritionists and physical trainers. When I was on the job, I received an annual membership to 24 Hour Fitness, a mediocre gym with few amenities, and zero nutritional guidelines. If you were interested in personal training because you were exhausted from your million other jobs, that was coming out of your own pocket. Given that most teams demand you remain in generally the same shape you were in when you made the team, give or take a few pounds, you’d think teams might want to help you stay fit, not throw you to the sharks and ask you to beat them up yourself. Oh, and don’t forget dance training, something you’ll want to invest in to keep your stamina and technique up to par…again, on your own time and with your own cash.
On top of their responsibilities on the sidelines and on game days, most teams also require cheerleaders to fulfill upwards of 20 “gigs” or promotional appearances per season. These can look like season ticket holder events, events in the parking lot of a dealership, nonprofit galas, school visits, or kids clinics where teammates teach young dancers cheers and routines. While most of these jobs require smiling, being inherently charming, and having a foundational knowledge of the game of football and of your franchise’s history, you never know when an event organizer is going to throw a microphone in your face and ask you to speak to a sea of 100 grinning fans “just for a second!” Better have those corporate talking points memorized—that’s additional mental labor!!! And it certainly doesn’t help that sponsored events, which require mingling with sponsors or team executives, are ironically where many women have been groped, harassed, or worse on the job.
Guess what? Cheerleaders are brand ambassadors on the field, but they’re also sometimes encouraged to act as brand ambassadors in daily life (of their own free will, of course)—during the hours they’re not getting paid! It’s sort of like being an influencer, but you don’t get paid for social posts, and you also aren’t always provided free branded gear. Instead, you’ll get a team store discount and a pat on the back. Of course, I’m sure you can understand why cheerleaders might want to post about their jobs, even when not required: It’s glamorous and intriguing and provides social capital. But just because something glitters, doesn’t mean it should be expected for free.
Bottom line: If it takes up time and is performed in service of a billion dollar organization, guess what, baby? That’s labor!!!! Ball’s in your end zone, NFL teams. Time to pay up.