“A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” – And it’s never done [MOVIE REVIEW]

Lacy Thibodeaux Fields, lead plaintiff in “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem.” Photo courtesy of 1091.

“A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” is a fine documentary directed by Yu Gu and written by Elizabeth Ai. Following the progress of lawsuits filed by two NFL cheerleaders from different teams, Gu and Ai clearly lay out the issues of illegal employment practices and sexual harassment that are rampant in this corner of the professional sports world. This is not to say that similar issues don’t occur in the other sports fielding cheerleading squads, just that a spotlight has been focused on this one.

Beginning in 2014, Lacy, a cheerleader with the Oakland Raiders and now a new mom, is struggling to balance the duties she has at home with the demands of her job. What in particular was her wake-up call is unclear. Perhaps it was just the accumulation of realizations, like the snowball that becomes an avalanche, that she was paying out of pocket to go to events, receiving no compensation for the hours of practice that she was required to attend, with the eventual compensation, $1,200 total, not being paid until the end of the season. Even team mascots received an average of $60,000 per year. The cheerleaders, when all hours were tallied, received about $5 an hour, far less than minimum wage.

Lacy enlists a feminist law firm that immediately determines that the Raiders were violating California (and federal) labor law. All Raider cheerleaders were required to sign an employment contract, laying out rules and regulations. Performance at games during the season was the basis for compensation. All required practices and participation at outside events on behalf of the team would not be compensated. Because of the existence of an employment contract, the Raiders would be unable to claim that the cheerleaders were independent contractors; therefore the team was in violation of the law. Lacy had a clear cut case of wage theft and illegal employment practices.

Many, if not most, cheerleaders, both past and present, were horrified by her actions. There is a widespread opinion on the part of the viewing public that these women should be grateful that they were chosen. And “the chosen” they are. Lacy, like most of her fellow cheerleaders, spent years in dance classes and/or in competitive cheer clubs. They work extremely hard at their craft and they do it for love and recognition of their skill. Like many professional dancers they would do it for free. And there’s the rub. The teams are virtually demanding that they do it for free. There are, many say, perks that come with visibility. What those perks are, however, are somewhat elusive. It is an argument that is full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. As the husband of one former cheerleader said, “If these women want money to dance half-naked on the field then they’re whores.”

Maria, a cheerleader for the Buffalo Bills, independently files her own lawsuit. Several more women from the team join her and their demands for payment start to reverberate. They are not, as the Bills assert, independent contractors. They, too, have signed employment contracts.

Class action lawsuits alleging wage theft popped up throughout the NFL, many of which were settled quickly. But not the Buffalo Bills. Management showed the Buffalo Jills, the name of the squad, the ultimate contempt and disbanded the squad rather than have to address the legal action. Because of this stonewalling, Maria and the Jills added several other defendants to their lawsuit, most notably the NFL. The NFL fought unsuccessfully to be dropped. Their position was that the team is independent in this matter and they have no jurisdiction. That would have been true were it not for Roger Goodell’s signature on the Buffalo Bills’ documents. As of today, the Bills and the NFL have refused to settle and the Jills remain disbanded.

“A Woman’s Work: The NFL Cheerleader Problem.” Photo courtesy of 1091.

Admit it. Like me, you’ve given little or no thought to professionalism as regards a “cheerleader.” They wiggle their rear ends heightening the sexual nature of their moves. Certainly, it’s definitely not an exercise that entails talent, only beauty and sensuality. And that’s where we’re wrong. These women are actually highly trained individuals. Their team is their ballet troupe. They are the corps behind Beyoncé or the dance chorus in a Broadway musical. But unlike most professional dancers, they are also prey; prey for management, perks for sponsors, amusement for the players. This is not the kind of attention they are seeking; they want to dance and perform. Like the rest of us, they want to be taken seriously. Certainly, like in most fields, whether corporate or creative, there are women who view sexual harassment as a stepping stone to a higher place on the ladder; but they are the exception not the rule.

Not part of the film but certainly related, are the lawsuits that are engulfing the Washington Football Team (formerly the Redskins). The Washington Post has done a major exposé on the widespread sexual harassment of women in the company including past interns, past and present employees, and cheerleaders who discovered that management was given outtakes of the “Beauties on the Beach” official video that included what the senior vice president called “the good bits” or nipple shots. When various women complained of the lewd remarks and actions of one executive, the Human Resources person (they did not have a department) said they should avoid him. Even with the Washington Post breathing down his neck, Dan Snyder, the majority owner, has yet to respond in a meaningful way.

Gu, a foreign student, arrived in Los Angeles to complete an MFA at USC. She was intrigued with football culture and USC definitely added to that fascination. She landed a part-time job tutoring football players in English literature and soon immersed herself in all things football, from “Friday Night Lights” to NFL All-Access. When she read about Lacy’s lawsuit, she could relate personally because the lawsuit made Lacy an outsider and this was something that Gu, the Chinese immigrant, could relate to. Football was the framework, status was the issue.

Yu Gu, Elizabeth Ai, and Jin Yoo-Kim, a co-producer, are all graduates of USC. The film that they have directed, written, and co-produced (respectively) is good despite a tendency occasionally to veer off point. I think their perspective will change your mind.

Opening January 26 on VOD.





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Written by: Neely Swanson

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