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What Are NFL Cheerleaders Worth? Inside Their Fight for Minimum Wage

The Buffalo Jills at Toronto's Rogers Centre on Dec. 3, 2009
The Buffalo Jills at Toronto's Rogers Centre on Dec. 3, 2009Photograph by Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star

Caitlin Ferrari grew up rooting for the Buffalo Bills. At the dance studio in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y., her instructor was a former Bills cheerleader—a Jill, as the NFL team’s dancers call themselves—and at the end of her freshman year at Niagara University in 2009, Ferrari decided to try out herself. “It just kind of popped into my head,” she says now. “Honestly, I didn’t really think I was even going to make the squad.” After two weeks of auditions and a final interview, she did. Like the rest of the Jills, she was then presented with a contract stating that she wouldn’t be paid—not for games, not for twice-a-week practices, not for mandatory off-field appearances. There would be a chance, she was told, to make $20 an hour at some charity events. Ferrari didn’t think twice. “I’m 18,” she says. “I just made this amazing professional cheerleading squad. I’m going to sign whatever the heck they put in front of me.”

Now, she says, she knows better. She didn’t try out the next season, and in April of this year, Ferrari, now a 24-year-old sales rep for Eastern Copy Products in Rochester, filed a class action against the Bills for wage theft. She tells the story in a conference room at a rent-a-suite office in Buffalo, with one of her lawyers at her side. Ferrari is wearing a knee-length, sleeveless white dress and a bib necklace with magenta gemstones: Rabble-rouser is about the last description that comes to mind. “I wasn’t one to voice my opinion,” she says. But in January, Ferrari learned that an Oakland Raiders cheerleader named Lacy T. had sued her team in California court, alleging she was illegally underpaid. (The women often go by first name and last initial to protect against stalkers.) “You don’t make any money,” Lacy told HBO’s Real Sports. “You’re better off serving beer and hot dogs in the concession stand.” Compared with Ferrari’s deal with the Jills, Lacy’s contract was generous: $125 per game for two preseason and eight regular season games.