2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

A Woman's Work: The NFL's Cheerleader Problem
“A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” (Photo by Samanta Helou-Hernandez)

“A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem”

Directed by Yu Gu

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

Being a cheerleader for the National Football League might look glamorous on the outside, but the harsh reality on the inside is that NFL cheerleaders are often being paid below minimum-wage salaries, if they are being paid at all. In fact, being an NFL cheerleader is a job where the employer makes you lose money, not make money, because the cheerleaders have to pay for work-related expenses, including trips to their teams’ football games and other team-related events; the cheerleader outfits (which are work uniforms); and the photo shoots they do for their team calendars—all without reimbursement from their teams or the NFL. And to make matters worse, the cheerleaders have to wait until the football season is over before they are paid their insultingly low salaries. Meanwhile, NFL team mascots (who are usually male) and waterboys are paid a lot more than cheerleaders, even though NFL teams use cheerleaders a lot more than mascots to sell team merchandise and to attract fans to games and other team events.

“A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” is a superb documentary that exposes the entrenched system that refuses to fairly compensate cheerleaders for the work that they do. Many NFL teams require that their cheerleaders sign contracts allowing teams to set the rules of employment. But, depending on the state, the contract might be illegal if the cheerleader is considered an employee rather than an independent contractor/freelancer. The bottom line is that NFL cheerleaders (who are almost always female) are literally the poster children for some of the worst gender-based salary gaps in the United States. They are the lowest-paid football employees at NFL games.

Because cheerleaders have an image of being there as eye candy, many people assume that cheerleaders exist to appeal mostly to men. But considering that women are attending more football games than ever before, and there are countless young girls who aspire to be cheerleaders, it’s an issue that should be of concern to NFL fans, regardless of a fan’s gender, and a wake-up call for how fans want to support their teams with their money.

The documentary focuses on two former NFL cheerleaders who are among those leading the fight to change the system so that NFL teams will begin paying market-rate compensation to their cheerleaders for their work. Both women have filed landmark lawsuits that have brought many of these issues to the public’s attention.

Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, a former Oakland Raiders cheerleader, sued the team in 2014 for back pay that she felt was owed to her. Her class-action Raiderettes lawsuit paved the way for similar lawsuits that year. Maria Pinzone, a former Buffalo Bills cheerleader, also filed one of those similar class-action lawsuits, but her Buffalo Jills lawsuit had more defendants—the Buffalo Bills, Citadel Broadcasting (the subcontractor hired to manage the Buffalo Jills cheerleading squad), Stephanie Mateczun (the Buffalo Jills alum who managed the cheerleading squad) and the NFL.

Also featured in the documentary are the legal teams for each women—Pinzone’s attorney Sean Cooney and Thibodeaux-Fields’ attorneys Leslie Levy, Sharon Vinick and Darci Burrell get the most screen time from each legal team. Lorena Gonzalez, a former Stanford University cheerleader who is now a member of the California State Assembly, is also featured as a prominent ally to cheerleaders who are fighting for a fair wage. Because lawsuits like these often take years to get resolved, Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone went through some major life changes during the course of filming the documentary: Thibodeaux-Fields started the movie as the mother of one child, and ended the movie as the mother of three. She and her husband also relocated from California to London when he was transferred for his job. Pinzone got married, but tragically lost her mother to breast cancer one month before her wedding.

Just like athletes, cheerleaders for professional sports teams spend years training to hone their skills. Many of them have professional experience as dancers and/or gymnasts, and they have to go through a challenging recruitment and audition process before being chosen by a team. The work they have to do for the team on and off the field is also more strenuous and demanding than what mascots are required to do—not to mention that mascots, who are usually in costume disguises, aren’t held to the same standards of beauty and physical fitness that cheerleaders are required to have. The documentary also points out that the women who have filed the lawsuits are not expecting to be paid the same salaries as athletes, but they want to be paid at least the same if not slightly more than the team mascots who do a lot less work than cheerleaders do. It blows away the myth that these are women looking to get rich from their lawsuits.

In fact, as seen in the documentary, the lawsuits come with heavy prices, financially and personally. Through candid interviews with Thibodeaux-Fields, Pinzone and other cheerleaders who have been involved in these lawsuits, it’s clear that being a cheerleader for the NFL was a dream of theirs since they were children, and they (as well as some of their family members) have had an intense loyalty to their NFL teams. But standing up for their rights meant that they had to sacrifice their NFL cheerleader dreams and important team relationships they made along the way. Their lawsuits virtually ensure that they will never work for a professional sports team again, not to mention the insults, threats and blackballing they would get in other ways. (Thibodeaux-Fields’ lawsuit has been resolved. Pinzone’s lawsuit is still pending, as of this writing.)

“A Woman’s Work” also takes a responsible approach of showing the perspectives of people who disagree with the lawsuits, including NFL fans and current and former NFL cheerleaders. (The lawsuits’ defendants aren’t interviewed—no doubt because their attorneys wouldn’t allow it—but there is some news footage of people such as Mateczun and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell mentioning the lawsuits in TV interviews. Not surprisingly, the defendants say that don’t think they did anything wrong.)

The cheerleaders who think it’s wrong to sue for a higher salary usually say that being an NFL cheerleader is a “privilege,” a “sisterhood” and a “tradition” that shouldn’t be disrupted by asking for a living wage that meets the state’s minimum standards. They also think taking legal action is destructive because it tarnishes the reputations of the football team and other cheerleaders who want nothing to do with the lawsuits. The documentary includes footage from a Raiderette reunion in Las Vegas, as well as male and female fans at football games, who have derogatory and sexist things to say about cheerleaders who dare to ask to be paid fairly for their work. The point is clear: Men should not be blamed as the only ones who want to keep the cheerleaders in their place, because women can be just as adamant in the belief that cheerleaders should accept the way it’s been done for years.

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, had one of the best lines in the movie in response to this belief: “When you’re in the NFL, you’re not part of a family. You’re not in the will. You’re part of a job.”