NFL vs. Cheerleaders: Blame the Girls, Not the Patriarchy

I was disturbed to read recently that NFL cheerleaders receive a paltry pittance for their work on the sidelines of America’s favorite sport, according to four separate lawsuits filed this year by professional cheerleading squads against the teams they represent. Let’s be clear: Professional cheerleading is not akin to nineteenth century textile factories or today’s sweatshops in the developing world. And yet, there’s a nagging problem with cheerleaders earning less than minimum wage (after mandatory, unpaid practices—not to mention other demeaning acts of required servitude—are taken into account), and it’s not only a labor issue; in my opinion, the NFL is plagued with a gender problem. But patriarchal oppression is not the issue.

No. The sad, but honest truth: It’s the cheerleaders’ fault alone.

What we are witnessing in the world of NFL cheerleading is a crisis of confidence. Women are notorious for passing up chances to earn promotions or higher pay in boardrooms, courtrooms, and homerooms across America. The Atlantic recently published a fascinating article by two accomplished television journalists who co-authored a book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know. The article posits:

[T]here is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.

A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.

Professional cheerleaders are no different than professional women in any field. Their ability and performance are not lacking; their confidence is. Their plight is not new. But their visibility on the sidelines of a national pastime is far harder to ignore than, say, the state of the accounting industry. With this undervaluation exposed, women’s pay is suddenly the elephant in the room. In case gender wage disparity seemed like it was lurking on the sidelines before, it is now front and center.

Sure, the NFL’s team owners have an opportunity to rectify the situation. Paying minimum wage to the cheerleaders for all hours in uniform seems like a natural next step and a sensible solution, but it doesn’t address the root of the matter, and it’s obvious the teams’ owners won’t spend one penny more than what’s necessary to quell the unrest. The owners of the Baltimore Ravens have tested this theory by preempting a lawsuit, only recently deciding to pay their cheerleaders $7.75—just over minimum wage in Maryland—for all hours on the clock (which now includes practices in addition to game time). Sadly, appealing to the team owners is part of the problem. The situation is complicated by the fact that cheerleading is considered (by the federal government) a part-time pursuit, or “seasonal amusement.” Simply put, the decision makers don’t care. Hundreds of other women, they will argue, would gladly take your place.

This is merely a copout. Intentional or not, this is a bogus argument designed to maximize profit by exploiting vulnerable, young women. It’s got to stop.

In spite of the trend toward ever-shrinking costumes, professional cheerleading is not a sex industry. Nor should it be. Girls don’t cheer in middle school and high school and college games in order to one day become calendar girls. I strongly suspect that the hyper-sexualized image of professional cheerleaders reflects male pressure from the top of the echelon and not the women themselves. (Read this to better understand the difference in attitudes between high school, college, and professional cheerleaders.) And yet, I personally don’t care whether NFL cheerleaders look like showgirls (as they do for the Cowboys) or stuntmen and women (as they do for the Ravens, the League’s only co-ed team). Professional cheerleaders are worthy of respect and generous compensation for their incredible skill and excellent performance in front of tens of thousands of stadium fans in addition to millions of television viewers.

So, what to do?

A petition on is a start, and the threat of more lawsuits may bring the matter into better focus for the decision makers. But the only true game changer will be the cheerleaders’ threat of hanging up their pompoms for good. The art of negotiation is key here, and the key to negotiating is having options. It may mean disruptions for cheerleaders in the short term, but in the long run, negotiating with the team owners means knowing that you (cheerleaders) don’t need them (the teams). You are valuable on your own. If they won’t negotiate now, you would be better off organizing your efforts and privatizing your services, for instance, and contracting yourselves out to the teams, rather than acting as employees of an ungrateful empire.

I, for one, urge every professional cheerleader and their fans to stand their ground on their value to the team, to the game, and to the culture of athleticism that they represent. Training up to six hours a day in grueling rehearsals is hardly a seasonal hobby. It is a sport. It is an art. And true, it is non-essential to the success of a team. But, it can be negotiated for the right price if the team owners are willing to pay for it.

With cheerleaders on the cusp of revolt in an unquestionably male-dominated field, the opportunity to level the playing field is real. It’s literal. And—if it’s handled well—it could change everything for female professional athletes across the board.

Maybe it’s pie-in-the-sky for now. Maybe it’s like fighting Goliath to think that professional cheerleaders might earn the professional respect they deserve in the context of a sport that’s earned a reputation for endangerment to even its prized athletes. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. And it would certainly be something to cheer about.


  • Hmm

    I wonder what would happen if all of the cheerleaders got pissed off enough to just stop showing up. That’d get somebody’s attention.

    • Matt

      Nobody would care If they didn’t show up. Six NFL teams don’t have cheerleaders and nobody cares. Cheerleaders add nothing to these teams’ profitability or success on the field. In other words, they’re completely expendable. They don’t get value because they don’t add value. It’s basic economics.

    • rj

      If they stopped paying them, then chances are the die hards would be there as cheerleading can lead to lucrative modeling careers. This I know from having several friends who were cheerleaders. For them it was about busting your rear end to get ahead–believe me, the modeling industry is alot worse on women than cheerleading

      As far as cheerleaders are concerned. I could care less about them. If I’m spending $70 to see the game, I care about the game..the same was true in HS and College…..a waste of time and resources if you ask me…Owners can simply do away with the squads…..problem solved..

    • Duke

      The Green Bay Packers have never had cheerleaders. They sometimes allow a local high school or college cheerleading squad to cheer a game, but not all the time.

      We really never notice.

  • Matt

    I have no qualms with them being paid a good wage and have no qualms with the squads just being disbanded. But I do know that hundreds of women try out for these positions and battle to stay on the squad despite the pay. Watch the TV show “Making the Team” for a much more complete insight into the subject than what this article presents. Its not an “argument” that “hundreds” will take their place – its realilty. Hundreds (perhaps thousands for the Dallas Cowboys) audition for these coveted spots. I think a better explanation is that money (or lack thereof) is not a factor these womens’ very strong desire to be on these squads.

    Cheering for a professional team is a prestige position and many of the women use it to advance their modeling careers and other publicity ventures. They become minor local celebrities. They get flown to exotic locales for calendar shoots. “Making the Team” has created reality stars. Many actors, dancers and other personalities perform for FREE or nearly free to build their portfolios and gain exposure.

    I know a lot of people strongly dislike the way cheerleading is done in the NFL. I think criticism of the pay is just a pretext to express dislike of NFL cheerleading and a roundabout way of attacking the “institution” without looking like they are attacking the “institution.”

    • Kathleen

      Your argument is invalid. Thousands would take the place of those in sweatshops, but that doesn’t make sweatshops and slave labor ok. These women work hard and should be paid well. While the women do need to negotiate better…I put the blame squarely on the patriarchal, narcissistic, egotistical male chauvinists that run the NFL. What they get paid (or don’t as the case may be) is a travesty and should be flat out illegal.

  • Claude Slagenhop

    When you have to be highly competitive to get on the cheering team, you know if you protest, you can easily be replaced, unlike a star quarterback who is a very valuable asset and can command a higher salary.

  • Redsharin

    I agree with your assessment. However, one issue you did not address was the women’s responsibility to do Due Diligence before signing their contracts. I understand unconscionable contracts are illegal; however, don’t you think the women bear some responsibility for signing them. For them to have signed the contracts one of two things had to have happened #1 the terms were not so egregious as to deter them from signing and taking the position or #2 they did not read and know what they were signing when they signed it. Either way, they actively accepted the terms and waiting until they were former cheer leaders sounds a little like sour grapes.

  • krp

    This is so damned stupid. I once had a date with a girl who told me that she had been a cheerleader for the Packers, before they got rid of them. She told me that she made $50/ month. That was how it was. She was still working as a nurse while doing it.

    If they don’t like it. there are plenty more that will take their place.

    It’s the same with waiters and waitresses. They are paid a small salary, but the benefits of working there are what they make of it.

  • Paul

    What completely ridiculous article. Cheerleaders have been ego driven from grade school on. It was always a popularity contest and the most beautiful & popular got the position. If anyone of them doesn’t like the position, the pay, the work requirements they are free to renegotiate their contract or quit and get another job.

    The reality is they are paid what they think they are worth. If they thought they were worth more they would demand more money or quit. The NFL and team owners have no responsibility to pay more to them then they themselves think they are worth.

  • I don’t think many young women who work as part time cheerleaders for the NFL view it as a career job. And for those who are unhappy with the hours, pay, costumes, and public relations appearances are certainly able to quit at any time. The truth is that many look at this sort of exposure as an opportunity to launch a career in modeling, acting, or performing, and some have been successful, e.g., Paula Abdul. Others are looking for the man of their dreams, a rich man to be specific, and this also works out for many. The NFL owners are well aware of this reality.

  • there’s the old argument, “why should we pay more when they’re overwilling to work for less?” … but the totally disgusting part is how much everyone ELSE on the team is making. makes their lousy $5/hr look more like 5 cents an hour!

    and while I realize they do indeed use this for their resume for modeling etc….there’s actually a much better…AND more profitable way to do it, if you’re going to bare most of it…try playboy. at least they do their nudity with taste.

    • Alan

      While I agree that they should at least be making minimum wage, your comparison of their salary to the players salaries is ridiculous. I don’t pay $250 a ticket to see the cheerleaders. I pay that money to see my quarterback hit his wide receivers, my secondary to pick off the opposing qb’s passes and my defense to flatten their qb into the turf. It’s like saying the person who puts up posters advertising a concert should be paid equally as the musician because they happen to work in the same industry, but the skill, time commitment and, most important, the financial gain to the team of a star player is the motivating force behind what they get paid. The cheerleaders simply aren’t the financial draw that the players are.

      That being said, the cheerleaders should be compensated for all of the time they are on the clock for the team, including practice and appearances (though most players don’t get appearance fees, they just go because their CR director tells them to or because they genuinely believe in the charity they are making an appearance for.)

    • Matt

      It’s very telling that Denise equates cheerleading with pornography (just pose for playboy already!). I also not the authors reference to them as presenting a “hyper-sexualized image” and what they do as “demeaning”

      It fits my hypothesis that complaints about cheerleader pay is just a pretext for attacking the institution of cheerleading – i.e. a purposeful attempt to incrementally chip away at it until the owners just do away with the squads entirely – which I believe to be the real goal of this “movement.”

      Why all the subterfuge?

  • Paul E

    I will respectfully disagree with the article and many of your comments. And I’m able to do this from a slightly different perspective. I’m a member of an NFL drumline — yes, I know, it’s not the same as being a cheerleader, but the details ring awfully similar: hours learning new material, a few more hours rehearsing, arriving five hours before kickoff, playing for fans and tailgates before the game… starting to sound like something akin to cheerleading yet?

    Now here’s the point, the cheerleaders actually make significantly MORE than the drummers per game. Yes, I do this gig for the rough equivalent of about $2/hour. Oh the tyranny! Wait, no, I enjoy it. It’s a labor of love for my beloved team. Yes, the players and owners are making millions. But the fans, quite frankly, aren’t at the game to see me or the cheerleaders, regardless of how fetching or talented we may (or may not in my case) be. They’re there to cheer on their beloved team too. We’re a sideshow. Think of it this way: I get PAID to stand on the sidelines at every NFL home game in my city, and get to feel like I am a PART of this organization. I am honored to be starting my seventh season doing so, and to be honest, if they stopped paying us at all I would still come to every single game. The fact is, most of you are treating cheerleading as a career. Aside from maybe the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (who are their own brand) and a select few others, almost all cheerleaders have regular jobs or attend school full time. It’s really not that much different from being a college cheerleader, is it? Long hours? Check. Hard work? Check. Virtually nonexistent compensation? Check.

    We do it because we want to. We do it because we get to say “I do this for my team” and the prestige of being part of something very cool. It isn’t worth it for a LOT of people. But thank goodness it IS worth it for enough people that game day is just that much more exciting. Even if my game check won’t even pay for the wings and beer we go grab after the game.

  • Abu Nudnik

    Modeling is like this. ALL the arts are like this. Sometimes labor is like a product you give away to generate interest.

  • Prior to the lawsuits, I created the petition to pay NFL Cheerleaders a living wage, and I’ve got to say, I enjoyed your article immensely!

    Hey, NFL- How about paying NFL Cheerleader’s a living wage!

    CALLING all NFL Fans & Cheerleading Fans & Athletes everywhere – Please join the 128,000+ supporters by signing & distributing my (our) petition to pay NFL Cheerleaders a livable wage:, and together, we will continue to make a difference!!!

  • Pingback: Why Is the Media Obsessed With Gender Bending? | Acculturated()

  • Thank you, all, for the lively debate! Some excellent food for thought. A special thanks to Diane Todd (who started the petition) for sounding off here. Your leadership on the matter is commendable, and I look forward to continuing the discussion.

  • LK (Lois) Williams

    The cheerleaders are not playing the ‘victim’. They are trying (very likely on the advice of their lawyer) to generate public support for their cause, just as workers in other lines of work very often do – for example teachers, health care workers. If the organizations want cheerleaders they should pay them a respectable salary, and the cheerleaders have a right to ask for that, even if they are doing something that they love. Whether or not the fans go there to see the cheerleaders is not the point, if the owners feel that they are of value, pay them a salary that reflects some respect for their time.

    By the way, I don’t care for the butt shaking or boob showing – but this is about pay, not my likes. If they want them, RAISE THEIR PAY!

  • Kim

    This is frustrating. I’ve walked in with all the confidence in the world to ask for a raise and I was told no. Then I asked for a promotion and was told no. To just tell women that they’re lacking confidence is so unfair. The cheerleaders are filing lawsuits but there’s still no change.

    • Thanks for commenting, Kim. This is an old article and there were dozens of comments at the time it was published because it struck a nerve with many woman like you. Unfortunately, the site lost all the previous comments in the transition to this new commenting software. I am not contributing articles to Acculturated at this time, but I wanted to respond. I agree with you that it sounds harsh, and my intent was to help bring the issue to light as a wake-up call. The matter is indeed very complicated, and lack of confidence is only one part of the problem. And it’s a cultural problem, not an individual one, for the most part. I do think, in general, that the art of negotiation is lost on women in business. As an entrepreneur myself, I am learning the difference between “asking” and “commanding” – the latter involves consequences and accountability. Thanks again for offering your perspective. It’s important for women to discuss.