Beautiful, Desired, Happy and Exploited: The Life of an NFL Cheerleader


National Football League cheerleaders volunteer. They receive a puny per-game honorarium, but nothing for their many hours of rehearsal, or the use of their images for promotion. Can this be squared with basic principles of fairness?

It cannot, but people will try. The cheerleaders  have such glamorous jobs! They are adored, and treated like royalty, or at least Kardashians! They get to date football players, and you know how hot and rich they are, at least until they become senile in their fifties! Most of all, the competition for the cheerleader squads is fierce!  They don’t want to be paid! The job is its own reward!

Weak. Athletes are paid mega-millions of dollars to play the same games they played for years as recreation. Actors receive union-dictated salaries for engaging in the same activities they fought like dogs to do for free in high school, college and community theater. The standard mantra is that joy and fulfillment in life arrives  when you are fortunate enough to be paid for doing what you love, not to be allowed to do what you love so someone else will make a lot of money, while you get dates. The NFL is a money machine, generating billions and paying its management, employees and contractors very well, but they “allow” young women to significantly enhance the NFL brand and  product for little or nothing. The word for this is exploitation. The NFL does it because it can, and the women put up with it because, well, they enjoy it.

The correct analogy  is unpaid for-profit corporation internships. College and graduate school degree holders are willing to indenture themselves for experience, contacts and resume enhancement, and profitable companies, led by six and seven figure-making executives, are perfectly content to take advantage of the desperation and give nothing bankable back for tangible value. The practice has been successfully challenged in court, but that is a separate issue: it’s not just illegal, it is wrong.

It’s obviously wrong. The principle that we are obligated to fairly compensate those who give us value by their talent and effort is the reason we tip waiters, give money to street musicians and bonuses to IRS agents even when they haven’t paid their own taxes; the fact that they enjoy their labors (or not) is irrelevant. For the National Football League, with its billions, to pay virtually nothing for the time their cheerleaders devote to giving NFL fans and cameramen something to gawk at and keep under their mattresses is cheap, exploitive, and unethical. The fact that they can get away with it—something professional sports teams cannot do with the far less comely and popular costumed mascots that make stadiums look like theme parks—is no justification at all.


Source: Bloomberg, New York Times

23 thoughts on “Beautiful, Desired, Happy and Exploited: The Life of an NFL Cheerleader

  1. Isn’t the compensation of NFL cheerleaders an “employment” situation where the question, “How much [compensation] is fair?” can only be answered much like the Supreme Court justice who said of pornography, that he can’t give a definition for it, but he knows it when he sees it?

    Beyond that, should the cheerleaders unionize, perhaps?

    • Im trying to avoid commenting until I get my wordpress sorted out but, I have to agree with where I think Michael is going with this. There is a significant open market value difference between cheerleaders and the top 1% of the US’ atheltic talent pool. How many women are pretty and capable of twirling and chanting? A significant number. Now how many men are capable of the atheltic and technical prowress demanded by proffesional sports?

      To further dissent, cheerleaders work jobs that are more akin to the tipped wages of waitressing. They have lower than usual on-paper pay but more than make up for it in the revenue streams that are dependent on, but exculsive from, their job (i.e. tips). Most NFL cheerleaders are also career models or actresses that use the exposure and prestige of the NFL to book more jobs at higher rates than they would have otherwise been able to. Throw on top of that, the not inconsiderable fee they get from any non NFL event appearance, and the job gets pretty lucritive pretty quickly.

        • Nope. They’re beautiful but the top 1% generally dont need the NFL to find work. That group tends to get attracted by outfits like Victoria Secret or Playboy or high end fashion/modleing agnecies.

            • Were not talking about every possible proffession pursued by the theoretical top 1% of female beauty. Were talking about proffessions that are directly dependent on that beauty. NFL Cheerleader, modeling, acting, etc. The argument goes that the top 1% tend (overwhelmingly) not to choose the NFL and instead pursue other career paths, where, like top 1% performing atheltes, they are paid very very well for it. NFL cheerleaders do not bring the same level of supply-demand value that NFL players do, so attmepting to compare the two when supporting your argument is wrong. Going the other way, it also supports my argument that the NFL cheerleaders are paid fairly, which is to say, a fair market value based on supply and demand.

      • I don’t think people are saying they should be paid at NFL athlete levels, just they should be paid minimum wage, at the very least, which they aren’t currently. I have a hard time seeing how the NFL gets around not paying them a regular wage of some sort. They don’t get tipped as such, I think the NFL is trying to say they are independent contractors. It’s probably illegal, much like the unpaid internships. Otherwise why have a minimum wage at all? Every employer would point out side benefits the employee allegedly will get outside the job itself to try to justify not paying a salary.

        • They dont get tipped but they directly receive extra compensation as a result of thier employment, in the same sense that waiters/waitresses get tips. Tipped wages are far below minium in the same sense that NFL cheerleader’s pay is below what you would expect.

          • I don’t comprehend your argument at all. They don’t get paid, and do work of value for employers who pay others handsomely. You are seriously arguing that this is fair and equitable? I run a theater company, and we could easily get talented cats without paying them, because may actors have other jobs, and want to act. We pay them as much as we can afford to, however, because we charge for the product contributed to by their services, just like cheerleaders contribute to NFL games, and it would be unethical to stiff them just because we can get away with it. You are just rationalizing, as far as I can see.

            • I think you comprehend it just fine, but you’re not willing to recognize it as valid. But just in case:

              Waiter/waitresses receive a lower than minimum wage for thier many hours of work. This is not unethical because, as a direct result of doing that work, they receive access to income from secondary sources that are dependent on, and yet exclusive from, thier job. In this case, restraunt patrons who pay thier own money, not the businesses money (hence exlusive), to waiters and waitresses to compensate them for thier work, while at the same time, the waiters and waitresses wouldnt have the oppurtunity to tap that stream of income without being employed by the buiness in the fist place (hence dependent).

              If we extend this to cheerleaders, the parallel becomes clear. NFL cheerleaders are paid minimum wage. But as a result of their employment they receive access to secondary streams of income, in the form of off hours event apperances, moedling/acting gigs, etc… that they would not otherwise have acces to without the connections, prestige, and exposure they receive from thier employment as an NFL cheerleader.

              It should be exhasutively clear now (I feel like Ive said the same thing three or four times). But if it remains incomprehensible, let me know which parts are causing the hold up and Ill try to unkink them. If it remains an invlaid argument in your mind, let me know where you feel my argument fails to prove itself. From my persepective its a fairly direct comparison; where cheerleaders get paid in a manner that is fair to thier market value and in keeping with established wage ethics.

          • Most of these cheerleaders are trying to become professional dancers — this is akin to the unpaid internship. It is wrong. You also assume that they “all” benefit monetarily from cheerleading in other ways. Also wrong.

            • Everything I said about models and actresses applies equally to proffesional dancers. And to my knowledge, no one in the proffesional dancing world considers the NFL to be a great route to success there.

              “All” cheerleaders dont have to benefit for my argument to be true. Some will lack that talent or initititive to capitalize on those seondary sources of income. In the same way that some waiters/waitresses lack the talent or inititiative to turn decent tips.

              P.S. in the above three posts I apologize for any spelling.grammer errors. I had to type it while reaching over a large bowl of salad on a very small Panera table.

        • What drove the unpaid internships?

          Cruel and evil corporations?

          Or colleges/universities compelling internships as a requisite graduation?

          If the latter, what compels any company, that may not have ONE IOTA market driven need to hire an intern, to hire an intern? Nothing.

  2. Are they paid as much as the people who have jobs to clean up the stadiums or heat and serve the hot dogs? They have to do a lot more preparation for get the position and a lot more practice to do the job.

    Saying they get side money for other appearances is like saying a star who gets money for signatures on a ball shouldn’t get paid for playing, or stars who do voiceover ads should give up their movie salaries since they do voiceovers, too. Any side money is irrelevant regarding the pay issues with the NFL.

  3. The day this story came out I joked that in completely unrelated news, NFL teams had decided they would not have cheerleaders anymore…

    It would, after all, solve the problem…

  4. Sorry, but I read “The standard mantra is that joy and fulfillment in life arrives when you are fortunate enough to be paid for doing what you love…” and retched. Getting paid for what you love may be fulfilling (and more usefully, loving what you are paid for) but the notion of anyone tying thier own personal fulfillment to mere monetary concerns is… deeply saddening.

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