For decades, cheerleaders have been synonymous with the NFL.
Providing a touch of glamor, dance teams across the US entertain thousands of fans every week, representing their franchise in the local community.
But behind some of the smiles and perfectly choreographed routines lies a world of painstaking work and alleged unequal pay.
A new documentary, “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem,” exposes the underbelly of a seemingly glamorous pursuit and follows the lives of two women who say they decided enough was enough.
Former cheerleader Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields was the first to speak out, filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the Raiderettes against the then Oakland Raiders in 2014, alleging wage theft and illegal employment practices.
It led to several other cheerleaders following suit, including Maria Pinzone – a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Buffalo Bills and the NFL in 2014.
The Raiders settled for $1.25 million in September 2014, paying cheerleaders from 2010 - 2014 what they were owed back in wages.
Individual payments ranged from $2,000 to $30,000, depending on the number of seasons the women danced on the team, according to Sharon R. Vinick, attorney at Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams, who represented the women in the case.
Thibodeaux-Fields also received an additional $10,000 for acting as the lead plaintiff.
In 2014, after the lawsuit was filed, the Raiders reportedly more than doubled the cheerleaders’ pay for mandatory events, amounting to about $9 an hour – minimum wage at the time.
CNN Sport reached out to the Las Vegas Raiders, previously the Oakland Raiders, for comment but has yet to receive a reply.
Meanwhile, Pinzone’s case against the Bills is still ongoing, almost seven years after she filed the lawsuit.
The film, directed by Yu Gu and which is free to stream on the PBS Video App, follows both Pinzone and Thibodeaux-Fields as they navigate their legal battles and cope with the fallout of their decision to stand up to their teams.
Gu had no idea the project would last so long when she started it in 2014, but says it’s been a window into the immense inequality of the NFL and wider society.
“It’s really a microcosm into what all women are facing right now in the workplace, battling these stereotypes and these hypocritical standards that we’re faced with,” Gu, who was born in China and grew up in Canada, told CNN Sport.
“It’s definitely looking at something bigger through this very specific lens and even though the main participants, the protagonists, they’re women, I think this inequality affects men.
“It’s that mixture of hypermasculinity and toxic masculinity that is the source of this misogyny but it’s also something that affects all genders.”
From an early age, Thibodeaux-Fields had dreams of cheerleading for one of football’s biggest teams and, after years of hard work, she fulfilled her ambition by joining the Raiderettes cheer team for the then Oakland Raiders.
Thibodeaux-Fields had previously danced in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors. She looks back fondly on those two seasons and says she was treated very well.
However, on joining the Raiderettes, she says, things were different.
She told CNN Sport she wasn’t paid minimum wage for the countless hours she was putting in. There would be multiple community appearances and practice sessions, she said, that were unpaid. Equipment, uniforms and treatments, required to live up to the expected image of a cheerleader, all came out of her own pocket, she told CNN Sport.
Raiderettes made just $1,250 per season and pay would come at the very end of the year, Vinick told CNN Sport.
Thibodeaux-Fields, who works as a dance teacher, calculated it to be less than the then minimum wage, given the number of hours she worked.
With a young family to support and with her husband questioning the contract she signed, she took advice from a legal expert and, in 2014, filed a lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders alleging wage theft.
“There are lots of jobs that people would do for free, but they shouldn’t have to just because it’s their passion or their dream,” Thibodeaux-Fields told CNN Sport.
“Yes, there are some girls that would probably dance for free, but they’re not going to be the caliber of [dancer] that I am. They’re not going to have the experience or the drive.
“That’s why I’m here. You pay me for what I’m worth. That’s the point I’m making.”
Vinick told CNN Sport that she was initially shocked when she first read the cheerleaders’ contract because “it had more illegal provisions than any contract that I’ve read in almost 30 years of practicing law.”
Although she was satisfied with the eventual settlement from a legal standpoint – securing minimum wages for the Raiderettes – Vinick says she was left disappointed by the overall outcome.
“It didn’t end up with cheerleaders really being paid their worth. It just ended up with them being paid minimum wage if they continued,” she added.
“Instead of arguing about whether these women should be paid minimum wages, we should talk about paying these women their fair worth for what they contribute to the game day experience.”
Like Thibodeaux-Fields, Pinzone told CNN Sport she “worked her butt off” to be selected for the Buffalo Bills’ Jills.
She had previously failed twice in her bid to make the team but, on her third attempt, she said she was “over the moon” to be chosen. However, things quickly turned sour.
Pinzone says she was expected to spend $650 on her team outfit and a further $500 on treatments to be ready for the team calendar shoot. She would then participate in hours of unpaid appearances, she said, some of which were mandatory, and sponsor events, representing both the NFL and the Bills.
At the time, Pinzone did not want to speak out in case she was kicked off the team and said the subject of money was always too taboo to approach.
“I felt like I was being taken advantage of,” she told CNN Sport.
“I felt like I was going to these appearances and […] supporting everything around that, and on the back end of it, somebody else was getting paid for it.”
After one season, she decided not to go back but still had friends in the team going through similar experiences.
In 2014, Pinzone and five other women also decided to file a lawsuit against her team over the way they were paid, a case which later included the NFL (which was named on the contract they signed).
The central legal question in the dispute was if the cheerleaders were properly categorized as independent contractors, who aren’t subject to certain regulations like minimum wage, or should have been considered employees.
Pinzone and the Jills won a summary judgment affirming their employee status but the case has still not been resolved. Pinzone says the trial has most recently been delayed after one of the defendants filed for bankruptcy, and the Covid-19 pandemic is also complicating proceedings.
Stejon Productions, the company managing the Jills, stopped the operation in the wake of the lawsuit, and the Bills have been without a cheerleading team ever since.
CNN has reached out to the Buffalo Bills and the NFL for comment but has yet to receive a response.
CNN has also reached out to the lawyers representing the owner of Stejon Productions for comment but is yet to receive a reply.
Gu says the fact that Pinzone’s case is still ongoing shows the lack of understanding and the need to speak more about gender pay parity.
“It’s a little bit disheartening to think they could just say we will pay these women instead of spending so much money on actually battling this case,” she said.
“[The sport] really needs to look at changing the way they’re dealing with the cheerleaders, the way that they’re treating them.
“Of course, there’s a resistance to change. There’s a resistance to honest accountability of the wrongdoing and you see that across so many different industries.
“That’s why I feel like this film is not only just relevant to cheerleading, you see a lack of accountability across the board.”
The documentary shows the backlash the women received for speaking out, both from within cheerleading and the wider NFL community. They say some current and former cheerleaders ostracized those who backed the lawsuits.
Despite the countless days in court and disruption it caused their lives, both women say they are proud to have spoken out and encourage others to come forward. However, in hindsight, Thibodeaux-Fields would think twice about ever joining the NFL.
“If I would have seen this documentary before I decided to invest all my time and energy into these auditions, I wouldn’t have done it,” she told CNN Sport, admitting she misses the feeling of performing on that stage.
“I would have taken my talent elsewhere. If I would have known then what I know now, I would have never stepped foot in the NFL and I’d probably encourage other girls not to either.”
For Pinzone, the experience shows the lengths big business will go to save money but hopes the documentary will encourage women from all walks of life to fight for change.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s about money. I mean, these businesses, they just are so greedy.
“They want more and more and more, and they don’t care who they put down in the process. I feel like it’s just so crazy. It really is.
“I think [the documentary] is a stepping stone and the more people that come forward about their situation, I think will help everyone in the long run.”
As of September 2020, 10 of the 26 NFL teams with cheerleading squads have been sued for wage theft, unsafe work conditions, sexual harassment and discrimination, according to the documentary.