By Cassandra Milne – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student
South of the Canadian border, professional cheerleaders in the National Football League (NFL) have been raising their pom-poms not only in support of their teams, but also in support of basic employee rights.
In January 2014, two former Raiderettes turned their pom-poms against the NFL Raiders by filing a class action lawsuit. The lawsuit claimed that the Oakland Raiders paid their cheerleaders less than minimum wage, withheld their paychecks until the end of the season, and failed to reimburse cheerleaders for business expenses. The Raiders initially defended their actions by claiming the cheerleaders were independent contractors but eventually opted to settle out of court in September 2014. The Raiders tripled the pay to their new cheerleading squad and paid out a total of $1.25 million to 90 women who cheered between 2010 and 2013. In addition, Raiderettes now receive a ten minute break during NFL games and will no longer be subjected to illegally deducted wages for minor rule infractions such as showing up a few minutes late to rehearsals, wearing the wrong color nail polish, or failing to bring the correct pom-poms to practice. Since the Raiderettes’ class action suit, four other NFL cheer teams have brought forward similar actions.
Eighteen politicians from eight states across the United States have written the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, requesting that he “correct this economic injustice” by requiring all teams to pay their cheerleaders minimum wage. The National Football League has maintained that cheerleader pay is a team issue and adamantly supports fair employment practices that comply with federal and state law.
Politicians have since taken action by working to enact and implement new legislation. New York state is currently tabling the Cheerleader’s Fair Pay Act and in January 2016 a California state law will come into force demanding professional sports teams to provide their cheerleaders with basic employee rights such as minimum wage pay and sick leave.
The implications and actions taken by cheerleaders in the United States have yet to trickle up into the Canadian Football League. Currently, many Canadian cheerleaders are occupying what are deemed to be volunteer positions. The Edmonton Eskimos boast that their cheer team is composed of “ultimate volunteers with the hundreds of service hours they give to the community.”
The BC Lions Cheerleaders, the Felions, are paid per game and for appearances. Besides attending the games, Felions are expected to attend weekly practices for nine months and are not paid for their time. In addition, Felions are required to sell the team calendars. However, they are compensated with two season tickets and sponsored services such as gym memberships, tanning, clothing discounts, and hair styling. Despite these advantages, are CFL cheerleaders being fairly compensated?
Section 16(1) of the Employment Standards Act of British Columbia states that, “An employer must pay an employee at least the minimum wage as prescribed in the regulations.” An employee is defined in section 1(c) “as a person being trained by an employer for the employer’s business.” It is arguable that the Felions are trained at rehearsals for the BC Lion’s games and, therefore, fall within the definition of an employee. Furthermore, the British Columbia Supreme Court in HMTQ et al v. Emergency Health Services Commission et al, stated that, “… courts and tribunals have stretched the meaning of “employment” to ensure that the purposes of human rights legislation are not thwarted in the sense that the targets of discrimination are not left without any remedy.”
It is estimated that cheerleaders are worth $8,250,000 USD each game day to the NFL. Despite promoting the NFL brand, cheerleaders are just starting to earn minimum wage. The desirability of becoming an NFL or CFL cheerleader allows team franchises to negotiate low wages. Logically, this too should apply to male football players, as the desirability of playing football in a professional setting is extremely high.
Football players are able to avoid this supply-demand phenomena by continually bargaining for higher compensation. For example, the share of its revenue that National Football League paid to its players increased from 17% in 1956 to 53% in 2012. Cheerleading, a predominately female field, has been left out of these negotiations.
Society has allowed professional sports organizations to underpay their cheerleaders based on the notion that they love their job. But, by that logic, many professional athletes should be underpaid for their job. Worker compensation has nothing to do with how much one likes or dislikes their job; at the very minimum it should meet the requirements required by law.