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NFL Cheerleaders’ Fight to Be Heard

After years of low wages, poor working conditions and sexual harassment, change was needed. But now, as NFL teams re-make their cheerleading squads, the women themselves are often cut out of the conversation—and it’s the cheerleaders who are being told they’re the ones who need to change.

The email showed up at 3:29 p.m. on a Friday in February. In 31 minutes, there would be an “Important Meeting”—the only two words in the subject line of a Washington Football Team executive’s email.

Candess Correll decided she wouldn’t be joining the Zoom call. She was a team captain for the First Ladies of Football, Washington’s cheerleading squad for the past six decades, but she’s also a full-time senior software engineer who was working remotely at the time. The short notice was “rude and unprofessional.”

Soon after, teammates filled her in on what she missed: A four-minute webinar during which a team executive, his screen blacked out, told everyone in attendance that the First Ladies of Football would be put “on pause.” Everyone in attendance was on mute for the entirety of it—no one was given the opportunity to ask questions. For all intents and purposes, Correll, her teammates and their director, Jamilla Keene, were out of jobs.

Correll, despite her status as a team captain, says she was “just as in the dark” as everyone else. “It sucks as a leader when you don’t have answers for your teammates and the people that look up to you,” she says.

SI Daily Cover on the NFL's cheerleading problem

Former captain of the First Ladies of Football Candess Correll.

The NFL has become increasingly inclusive for women on the football side. In the past six months, Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistants Maral Javadifar and Lori Locust became the first women to win Super Bowl rings as coaches; Kelly Kleine (in Denver) and Catherine Raîche (Philadelphia) ascended to front-office positions never before held by women; Sarah Thomas, the first female official in league history, was the down judge at Super Bowl LV; and Maia Chaka became the first woman of color hired as an NFL official.

For cheerleaders, though, the progress has looked different. Over the past few years, franchises across the league have moved to rebrand, redefine and reimagine cheerleading after years of low wages, lacking diversity and sexual harassment. But one important voice has been cut out of the conversation: the women themselves. Which raises the question: Is this truly progress for NFL cheerleaders—or is it just meant to look like it is?

The image of the NFL cheerleader—hot pants and go-go boots—is rooted in objectification. During a Cowboys game at the Cotton Bowl in 1967, a stripper going by the name Bubbles Cash drew fanfare when she strutted down the aisle wearing a short skirt, two cotton candies in hand. Team president Tex Schramm took notice and began to consider alternatives to the co-ed high schoolers on the Cowboys’ sidelines. When Dee Brock, the team’s cheerleading director, pointed out that models—Schramm’s first choice—can’t dance, trained dancers filled the roles. The uniforms began to change in 1970, and within two years the look had become what it is today.

NFL cheerleading has evolved since then. Today, most cheerleaders are high-performance athletes who train their entire lives to be on a squad. They dance during the pre-game and every time music comes on over the course of a three-hour game. During the season and offseason, they make community appearances and participate in private corporate events. Because the cost of attending an NFL game is prohibitive for many, cheerleaders at community events are often the closest fans will get to a game day experience.

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in 1970 vs. 1978

Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in 1970 (left) vs. '78.

“I honestly joined because of the USO tours and a lot of the community outreach events,” says Melissa Wallace, a Cowboys cheerleader from 2014 to ’17.

Wallace was a competitive dancer her entire life, spending seven days a week in the studio. NFL cheerleading was a way to continue dancing after high school; the community and team appeal played big roles too. “I’m from Las Vegas, where previously we didn’t have any sports teams, so it was not really a ‘town’ feel. Coming [to Dallas] and having everybody so excited about the Cowboys was really cool for me and I wanted to be a part of it.”

For all those positives, working conditions, historically, have been problematic. Pay is exceedingly low considering the time commitment and the enormous amount of revenue NFL franchises generate—most cheerleaders are paid minimum wage, or just above. On game days, they often have to arrive at the stadium four to five hours ahead of time to practice and get ready (time for which they are paid). They are also compensated for, typically, 12 to 15 hours of practice per week during the season. Most work or go to school. One former cheerleader, who agreed to speak to SI only under the condition of anonymity, says fast-food workers made more than she did as a cheerleader in 2018.

“I know [employees at] the Steak ‘n Shake down the street made $11 an hour,” she says, “and I remember thinking, my rookie year, ‘I make $8 an hour; I work steady hours and I only make $8.’”

Low wages and poor treatment often lead to a feeling of disrespect. In the past decade, several former NFL cheerleaders have sued over wage theft, unfair treatment and a toxic work environment. Erica Wilkins sued the Cowboys for wage theft in 2018 (the suit was settled out of court); Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields was one of two cheerleaders to sue the Raiders for wage violations in 2014 (also settled out of court); Maria Pinzone sued the Buffalo Bills for wage violations, alleging poor working conditions, that same year (still ongoing, a spokesperson for the Bills did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment); Kristan Ann Ware sued the Miami Dolphins for discrimination, and Bailey Davis filed a sex discrimination complaint against the Saints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018. Ware, who believes her workplace turned hostile after she opened up about her religious beliefs, and Davis offered to settle their lawsuits for $1 in exchange for a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Anna Isaacson, the league’s senior vice president for social responsibility, and league lawyers took a meeting with Ware’s lawyer, but Goodell didn’t. The NFL leaves the management of cheerleaders up to individual teams.

“If Roger Goodell just invited us to the table and literally said, I am willing to work with the women who so bravely spoke out about the injustices and the mistreatment in the NFL, if the NFL changed how they treated women, [can] you see how the rest of the world would follow suit?” says Ware, who dropped her lawsuit. (A league spokesperson did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment for this story.)

You can also find cheerleaders who are perfectly happy with their employer and compensation. That’s in part because, with franchise’s handling their own squads, pay, time commitment and overall treatment vary. Emma Hess, a former Minnesota Vikings cheerleader, says she and her teammates were “lucky” because they were paid Minneapolis’s minimum wage, $11.25 per hour, instead of Minnesota’s minimum wage, which was $9.86. Sponsors typically allow cheerleaders to receive free or discounted services, like nails, hair, tanning, and more.