NFL Cheerleaders Don't Do It for the Money

Should we be upset that NFL cheerleaders are the athletic equivalent of unpaid interns?
Pride! Fame! Fortune! Oh, wait ... Photographer: Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

I've watched all eight seasons of "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team," and I'm still trying to figure out why those women do it. The dancing part looks like the sort of thing I would have enjoyed, if I had ever been the sort of person who could do a jump-split-kick without pulling, tearing or spraining something. On the other hand, the microscopic scrutiny of social media accounts, the hysteria over even an ounce of weight gain, the hours of exhausting (unpaid) athletic practice ... that's what high school is for. It's also why we're so glad to graduate.

The most amazing thing about National Football League cheerleaders is that for the countless hours they put in on practice, appearance and weight control, their salary is, to a first approximation, nothing. They get paid a double-digit figure for each game they perform at. All the hours they put in getting ready to perform? Nothing.

From the point of view of the organizations, this is a great deal! It's very easy to see why they would enjoy having young lovelies provide their labor for free. But why the women go along -- heck, line up nine deep for the honor of doing so -- is harder to understand.

Apparently, the cheerleaders are belatedly waking up to the raw deal they're getting. Women from three different NFL teams have filed suit against the organizations they cheered for, pointing out that they get paid less than a line worker does at McDonald's, by people who want to wield the despotic managerial control of a press gang.

It may be legal to pay the cheerleaders a minimal amount for their games, and nothing for all the other work they do. As a matter of public relations, however, the football teams would be well advised to pay the cheerleaders something more like a salary and less like a gift certificate to Applebee's. The cheerleaders are a very popular part of their games, and the amount it would cost to pay each of them, say, $1,000 a game is much less than the amount it will cost management in goodwill to become known as exploiters of earnest young women who just want to dance for the fans in scanty clothing and not one spare ounce of body fat. For that matter, it is probably less than is spent on spilled beer at those same games.

But should people be outraged? For that, we still need to know why these women do it.

They are not, after all, being forced. They audition for spots on the team, and the reason that management can get away with being so obnoxious is that for every woman who makes it, many more would love to take her spot. So they must get something out of their performance: status, the joy of dancing in public, esprit de corps.

It seems conceivable to me -- indeed, likely -- that women who get a spot on the local cheerleading squad enjoy better job prospects and enhanced dating opportunities. Forget whether these women should want to date men who want to date them because they like telling people that their girlfriend is a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. I'm sure cheerleaders like the oohs of appreciation they get when someone drops the name of their squad, just like journalists don't mind the reaction when they tell folks they work for the Economist or the New York Times. And while you wouldn't want someone whose only interest in you was your prestige employer, you probably wouldn't really mind if they considered that a small plus factor.

The team, then, has something these women value. Should we be angry that the team trades it on the best possible terms?

It's basically the athletic equivalent of an unpaid internship. Obviously, interns would rather get paid. On the other hand, if they were paid, fewer interns might be hired, and people who used those internships to get a shot at their dream job might have been shut out. If the National Football League starts paying its cheerleaders and cuts the squad by 20 percent to keep costs under control, have we made those women better or worse off?

Of course, I don't know that they would do that. From outside, the NFL seems to have loads of money, and it can probably afford to throw some of it toward the cheerleaders. But institutions don't make decisions on a simple budget calculation: "Do we have money on the books that we could give to the cheerleaders?" They ask themselves questions like "Is it worth it to me to give the cheerleaders more money? Or should we just cut back on the cheerleaders?" I have no way of knowing what their answer will be. I suspect the answer will be "pay the darn cheerleaders." But the only way we'll find out is if the cheerleaders actually win their lawsuits -- in a courtroom, or in the court of public opinion.

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