Court case could make NFL cheerleading squads a relic, and that’s long overdue

Nov 7, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks Cheerleaders entertain fans prior to a NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 7, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks Cheerleaders entertain fans prior to a NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Recent legal battles won by NFL cheerleaders may lead teams to abandon squads all together. It should have happened years ago.

NFL cheerleading squads might soon pass into the annals of league history. Not for lack of interest or any cultural factor, but rather just business. In light of recent court decisions, the facts of the situation demonstrate that the NFL is better off without this piece of in-game fanfare.

Recent legal struggles have focused on whether or not NFL cheerleaders are employees of the teams they perform for and thus due all the benefits and protections afforded to employees under the law. While the scope of the lawsuits has been limited to just two NFL franchises, there is a growing threat that these cases will set a legal precedent that might spur NFL teams to simply disband the squads.

In September 2014, the Oakland Raiders avoided a trial in the class-action lawsuit brought against them by 90 former cheerleaders when the organization reached a $1.25 million settlement. The women collected on that settlement last week. The timing was interesting, as on nearly the same day, cheerleaders in Buffalo won the most significant court battle to date against an NFL team.

On Friday, New York State Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour ruled that the cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills, known as the Jills, were non-exempt employees and not independent contractors as the team had argued. It must be noted that the ruling did not identify them as employees of the Bills, however. Exactly who the Jills are employed by will be decided by a jury trial if the suit proceeds. The plaintiffs in the case were the Bills, Cumulus Broadcasting, Stejon Productions and Stephanie E. Mateczun, a former Cumulus employee who ran the Jills. If the case proceeds to trial, the Bills would likely argue that any/all of the other three defendants were the Jills’ employers.

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At face value, this ruling is relatively unremarkable in its impact on the current and future working conditions of NFL cheerleaders. The ruling only applies to the Jills, who haven’t been part of Bills games since the 2013-14 season when the Bills disbanded the group in response to the lawsuit. In order for this ruling to have any serious implications for NFL teams, cheerleaders currently performing for other teams would have to file suit and refer to this ruling as legal precedent that they have not been justly compensated by their respective teams.

Whether or not any existing cheerleading squads will do so, and whether or not they would win those suits, is a matter of speculation. State laws on matters of employment can vary greatly, making it a challenge to apply the Jills’ precedent in other venues. Additionally, it’s possible that other groups of cheerleaders may be completely content with their current situation.

If a rash of lawsuits against NFL teams by cheerleading squads does occur, expect other NFL teams to follow the Bills’ example. NFL franchises are businesses first and foremost. Cheerleading squads are seen as nothing more than a type of game day entertainment and not something that teams are willing to invest serious dollars in. Having to treat them as employees, paying them at least minimum wage, buying workman’s comp insurance along with providing a benefits package is all more of an expense than NFL teams want to take on. But disbanding the squads wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen, in fact, it could help out the NFL’s business.

The truth is that what these women are provided in return for not only their on-field performances but also public appearances and use in promotional materials isn’t just compensation. Many of them not only have to buy their uniforms and pay for their own travel expenses, but get what little pay they receive docked for violations like wearing the wrong color of socks. Most of these women receive so little in comparison to the amount and quality of work that they are doing that something as seemingly trivial as a new uniform design can be cause for great excitement.

Disbanding cheerleading squads would also be more in tune with the NFL’s desires to make every person in the world a fan of its game. If the NFL wants to market itself to women as die-hard fans and dedicated consumers, they can’t do that while simultaneously treating women as part of the game day fan fare.

If the NFL wants to be a league that welcomes women like Dr. Jen Welter coaching and Beth Mowins calling nationally-televised games, it can’t continue to treat the women on its cheerleading squads as nothing more than decorations on the field. It either needs to start paying them what they’re worth, or disband the squads. It’s more likely that they will choose the latter, and that’s okay. Actually, it’s long overdue.