NFL cheerleaders march on the NFL bosses
Attorney Gloria Allred stands among former Houston Texans cheerleaders, from left, Ashley Rodriguez, Morgan Wiederhold, Kelly Neuner, Hannah Turnbow, and Ainsley Parish, right, while holding up a shirt printed with $7.25, the amount she says the former cheerleaders where paid per hour, at a press conference Friday, June 1 in Humble, Texas. | Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle via AP

Let’s talk a bit more about football (I can’t help myself).

Trump’s “Celebration of America” event was absurd and laughable at best—let’s leave the Fourth of July in place. White House staffers had to fill in empty spots in the crowd, a few proud Eagles’ fans showed up, one guy took a knee, and the “ultra-patriot” president couldn’t remember the lyrics of “God Bless America.”

That’s all I’m going to say about that event.

Today, I want to talk about a group of NFL employees who are taking direct, collective action against the low pay, hostile work environments, and discrimination that league bosses and owners conveniently ignore: NFL Cheerleaders.

Four former Houston Texans cheerleaders marched into NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office Monday, June 4 demanding fair pay and better working conditions for all cheerleaders.

“Cheerleaders are being exploited and mistreated solely because they are women,” said Gloria Allred, the cheerleaders’ attorney, reading from the letter at a press conference outside NFL headquarters in New York. “These cheerleaders deserve to be paid more than a mere pittance.”

An NFL security guard blocked them from entering the building and accepted the letter, but there was no response to their demands from any NFL personnel.

It doesn’t matter if you’re working in the private or public sector, a fast food joint, hospital, mine, nursing home, or performing on live television during the NFL’s entire season—the moment you demand better pay, better treatment, and a safer working environment from the boss, you’re tossed out and labeled an “agitator” who violated their “trust and open door policy.” Bosses will promise you the world when they’re facing you, but behind closed doors, they’re thinking up new ways to screw you and squeeze out every last penny.

The letter to the boss came three days after five former cheerleaders filled a lawsuit against the Houston Texans last Friday, June 1, claiming the team failed to fully compensate them as required by law and subjected them to a hostile work environment where they were harassed, intimidated, and forced to live in fear.

Filed in Houston federal court, the lawsuit accuses the franchise of paying cheerleaders less than the $7.25 an hour they were promised, not compensating them for public appearances or performing other job-related tasks, and creating a workplace culture where cheerleaders were threatened with being fired for speaking out or voicing any concerns.

“I remember feeling puzzled and angry and asking myself why we didn’t deserve to be paid more than $7.25 an hour for what was a demanding job,” said Kelly Neuner, a former Houston Texans Cheerleader.

“The organization did not pay us for all our working activities including practices, traveling expenses, training camp, and other required personal maintenance expenses. If we wanted to remain Texan Cheerleaders, we had to accept sub-par pay and unpaid working hours and expenses. If not, we could be terminated. We were constantly reminded how disposable we were to them. I felt like the Texans did not care about my rights as a professional, as a woman, or as part of the Houston Texans Team. I felt bullied into accepting their practices out of fear of losing my job.”

Thrown into that mix of low-pay and a hostile workplace are the drunk and rowdy objectifying fans thinking they’ll get a chance to “score a cheerleader”—I’ve heard some of the foulest, scuzzy sexist comments sitting in the stands.

“The hours I put into appearances, keeping up with my fitness, practices, game days, taking time away from my family and school was worth more than $7.25 hour. I, and my fellow cheerleaders, were treated as the lowest of the low,” said Hannah Turnbow.

But it got worse for her.

“The Houston Texans were paid thousands of dollars to have us show up at appearances at locations all over Texas with no security, no transportation, and where our safety was not guaranteed,” she said. “I was attacked by a fan at a game leaving abrasions on my shoulder. My attacker was not approached or removed from the game, I was told to just suck it up.”

Makes you wonder how many other cheerleaders—women in general—have been told to deal with sexism and toxic objectification by just “sucking it up.”

Screw real accountability, though.

At least that was what I read from the Texans’ statement responding to the allegations:

“The Houston Texans have been repeatedly recognized as one of the top workplaces in our city. We take pride in the environment we provide for our staff and we are constantly looking for ways to improve the experience of our employees, including the Houston Texans Cheerleaders. While we have not been served in this case, we have reviewed the complaints and look forward to vigorously defending ourselves against these allegations. We appreciate the Houston Texans Cheerleaders for the positive impact they have made in our community and for the outstanding way they have represented our organization for nearly two decades. If there are things we learn from this process that we feel will make our cheer program even better, we will make the necessary adjustments. We do not tolerate mistreatment of our cheer team or our employees at any time.”

I like the bit about “vigorously defending” themselves. If they’re willing to jump to their own defense so quickly it makes it hard not to believe they have and still “vigorously” intimidate cheerleaders who speak out demanding change.

This is the second lawsuit filed against the Texans.

Last month, three former cheerleaders filed suit in Houston federal court claiming the Texans didn’t pay them minimum wage or overtime and accusing the cheerleading supervisor of “body shaming” them.

These legal actions are a part of a series of complaints raised by cheerleaders across the NFL recently.

Former cheerleaders with the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints also filed discrimination lawsuits against their ex-team employers.

Also last month, Washington Redskins cheerleaders went on record with the New York Times detailing forced topless photo shoots that included male spectators and special assignments to escort male sponsors of the team.

With each collective action—in the court room, outside the league office, or in the press—NFL cheerleaders are acting like a strong union.

Unfortunately, they are in the same predicament that UFC fighters, currently organizing with Project Spearhead, are finding themselves in: being missclassified, purposely, as independent contractors.

Making it even harder to organize are our country’s outdated and anti-worker labor laws.

But if you listen to what former Houston Texans cheerleader Ainsley Parish said, it’s hard to see how they are not direct employees of the team:

Houston Texans cheerleaders perform before a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Texans, December 10, 2017 in Houston. Hannah Turnbow says the Texans often provided cheerleaders with no security, no transportation, and did not guarantee their safety at events. | Matt Patterson via AP

“We were harassed, bullied, and body shamed for $7.25 an hour. We were told what to wear, how to wear our hair, what we could post, who we could follow on personal social media, who we could hang out with, where we could go, who we could talk to, and what we could say.

“The Houston Texans created a hostile and unfair workplace. They instilled fear and anxiety in me and my teammates—anxiety that we struggle with even today. We were told we were replaceable—told to keep our mouths shut. The Houston Texans should not have given us a uniform if they didn’t want us to become an army.”

Currently, the National Labor Relations Board has an 11-point test for determining “independent contractors:

Extent of control by the employer

Whether or not the individual is engaged in a distinct occupation or business

Whether the work is usually done under the direction of the employer or by a specialist without supervision

Skill required in the occupation

Whether the employer or individual supplies instrumentalities, tools, and place of work

Length of time for which individual is employed

Method of payment

Whether or not work is part of the regular business of the employer

Whether or not the parties believe they are creating an independent contractor relationship

Whether the principal is or is not in the business

(New:) Whether the evidence tends to show that the individual is, in fact, rendering services as an independent business

I’ll let you decide after reading Parish’s statement.

Regardless of that obstacle, I hope cheerleaders keep taking the fight to the boss and win the dignity and respect they deserve—NFLPA I’m looking at you to support your NFL co-workers.

In the meantime, this sportswriter will be rah-rahing for these brave NFL cheerleaders, and I ask readers to do the same.

Solidarity doesn’t end when you leave your own workplace.

People’s World sportswriter Al Neal discusses organizing among NFL cheerleaders on the Foul Play-by-Play sports radio show.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.