Though the NFL season's kickoff is still three months away, controversy already plagues the league. Most recently, NFL cheerleaders made the headlines with lawsuits over their low wages.
On Jan. 31, a former San Francisco 49ers cheerleader filed a class action suit against the NFL and 26 of its teams on behalf of all cheerleaders employed by the NFL for the past four years seeking $100 million to $300 million in damages. This cheerleader, called "Kelsey K.," alleged that the NFL and member teams conspired to artificially suppress the wages of cheerleaders through collusion.
A federal judge dismissed this claim on May 26 at the request of the NFL and its member teams because he believed that the complaint did not present any evidence of collusion or antitrust behavior. Yet, because this lawsuit was just the latest in a string of allegations against the NFL of underpaying cheerleaders, it is important to make it clear that basic economics — not illegal collusion — is why cheerleaders choose to work for such low pay.
NFL cheerleaders are paid a mere $1,000 to $2,000 each year. They are promised a flat per-game fee, and are ordinarily not compensated for rehearsals, public appearances, and photo shoots. Kelsey K. alleged that this wage was not the fair market value for the skilled labor provided by the cheerleaders. To come to this conclusion, she cited an unnamed industry expert who claimed each individual cheerleader is worth $100,000 per year. By her logic, the reason professional cheerleaders do not earn this much is because of the NFL's conspiracy to eliminate competition between all 26 teams and keep wages low.
Kelsey K. contended that the agreements between the NFL and member teams had three parts: First, all teams agreed to pay their cheerleaders a flat per-game rate, and to not pay them for rehearsals and community outreach events. Second, teams agreed not to recruit cheerleaders from other NFL teams. Third, cheerleaders were prohibited from discussing their wages with each other so that they would not be aware of the collusion.
The key legal question in this dispute is whether NFL teams arrived at their policies independently or if they discussed them with one another and arrived at them collectively. As a cheerleader, Kelsey K. would not have been privy to high-level meetings between top officials of each team in which these agreements would have taken place, so she cannot produce much hard evidence.
However, the facts of this case don't show evidence of collusion. Keep in mind that this lawsuit is different from previous lawsuits over cheerleader pay. Previously, cheerleaders filed class action suits over artificially-low wages and won millions in settlements. This lawsuit does not just dispute that wages were below minimum wage, but that NFL teams conspired with one another and formed agreements to keep wages low.
Though there are certain similarities between cheerleaders' pay at various teams, their earnings still vary a lot. In fact, the Oakland Raiders pay cheerleaders $125 per game, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pay $100 per game, and the Cincinnati Bengals pay only $90 per game. So, the Bengals pay their cheerleaders 28 percent less than the Raiders, a significant pay difference. In fact, the Buffalo Bills do not pay cheerleaders at all per game.
If NFL teams were colluding, they would pay their cheerleaders a comparable amount, not anywhere from $0 to $125 per game.
It is also not incriminating that all teams pay their cheerleaders in the form of a flat, per-game fee. The NBA also adopts this pay style for its cheerleaders, which indicates that this is simply a norm in the cheerleading industry.
The complaint also alleges that NFL teams agreed to not pay cheerleaders for community events or rehearsals. However, the complaint itself admits that the Buccaneers and Bills occasionally compensated their cheerleaders for community events. If collusion were occurring, wouldn't teams be more consistent in their pay policies?
Additionally, the complaint states that NFL teams did not try to recruit cheerleaders from other teams and that cheerleaders could not cheer professionally for other teams.
However, cheerleaders are not like professional football players. They do not have individual fan bases and their performance levels are not directly tied to their teams winning. The specialized skills that cheerleaders often have, such as gymnastic abilities, are not so valuable that front offices would expend time and energy to convince a cheerleader to change teams. Also, cheerleaders are not explicitly prohibited from switching NFL teams.
The costs of switching simply outweigh the benefits because the cost of traveling to audition for another team plus the cost of moving to another locality often outweighs any potential pay increase.
Given that NFL teams didn't collude to suppress wages, why do cheerleaders accept such low wages? Probably because there are droves of young women who are willing to accept next-to-nothing for hours of practicing routines and performing them during games. Given that the number of qualified applicants exceeds the number of available spots, basic economics dictates that wages will be lower. This downward pressure on wages is reinforced by the lack of alternative, highly-paid work options that rely on the same skills as cheerleading does.
Additionally, cheerleaders don't cheer just for the money.
The "Buffalo Jills" may have sued the team over lack of pay and degrading treatment, but enough women put up with the working arrangement to fill out the cheer squad before the lawsuit. These women cheer for the experience of performing for a massive stadium filled with cheering fans. They cheer because their friends are jealous of their glamourous-looking life. They cheer so that they can be on 'The Bachelor' one day.
The NFL offers cheerleaders non-monetary compensation, and the women are free to take it or walk out the door. Unpaid internships and low-paying performance arts jobs are competitive for young people and aspiring performers for similar reasons. An unpaid internship can open doors, so young people willingly seek unpaid work.
Just as interns compete for unpaid internships at the White House, professional cheerleaders compete for a coveted spot on the NFL sidelines. And for each cheerleader who chooses to leave, there's a line of young women in the next room ready to take her place.
That, not illegal collusion, is the reason why NFL cheerleaders are paid so little.
Amelia Irvine is a Young Voices Advocate and a junior at Georgetown University.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.