From cheering to jeering

Buffalo Jills file lawsuit against Bills for low pay, mistreatment

The Spectrum

The Buffalo Jills have been less cheery following a lawsuit and suspension of all activities last week.

Stejon Productions, the company that runs the squad, suspended all activities for the Jills, cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills, following a lawsuit filed against the Bills and company by five former Jills. The lawsuit, filed with the New York State Supreme Court, alleges wage theft, low pay and degrading treatment by the Bills and managing company for the Jills.

The lawsuit follows a precedent of related cases. This is the third case this year alone brought against NFL teams by cheerleaders - the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals are both roiled in lawsuits over treatment and pay to cheerleaders.

The national pattern is distressing, particularly in that the issue has taken root in Buffalo. Low pay and degrading treatment to cheerleaders is hardly anything new, as reported by Slate. Recent litigation over it, however, is.

The Jills claim they were paid far under the legal minimum wage in New York of $8 per hour and suffered unlawful takings of gratuities. Further, the former Jills claim they had to endure poor treatment including having their bodies "scrutinized" as they did jumping jacks. If "physical standards" weren't met, offenders would be "penalized, suspended or dismissed," according to complaint documents.

The treatment is nothing short of objectifying and the abhorrently low pay and outright wage theft are reprehensible.

The crux of the suit lies in the requirement of cheerleaders to sign contracts as "independent contractors," which changes legal pay requirements. That such visible participants for a team and organization have makes innumerable millions each year, such low pay is inexcusable.

The Buffalo Jills Alumni Association has railed against the lawsuit as "petty" and "self-serving," according to Chris Polito, the chairwoman for the group.

Cheerleading itself has moved out of favor for some fans, seen as an anachronism many would not mind losing. The cheerleading that accompanies athletic events often borders on objectification.

If cheerleading at NFL games is going to continue, however, those hired to perform are entitled to decent treatment and reasonable wages from the organization that profits so richly off their labor. Jills were required to purchase their own uniforms and travel to out-of-town events, which may not have been as blameworthy if squad members were paid a legal wage to begin with.

Certainly the former Jills bringing the lawsuit had some advanced knowledge of what their signature entailed. The position is hardly known for its feminist sensibilities; NFL-style cheerleading is not among the most empowering jobs.

But members of cheerleading squads across the country are as entitled as anyone else to receive just compensation for their labor and time, particularly as part of such a profitable industry. If the market for cheerleaders exists and they continued to be employed, lawful remuneration is justified, as well as decent treatment.

The former Jills may have brought the lawsuit itself for less than altruistic or ideological reasons, as the Alumni Association and others have suggested. The fact remains, however, that if members were subjected to the conditions alleged, a change is in order - both in Buffalo and nationally.

If cheerleading is to be a continued institution, those participating at least deserve fair treatment and pay.