A Woman’s Work The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem

A Woman’s Work is a documentary that shines a spotlight on the NFL and its practices around wage theft and illegal employment of cheerleaders … a problem for over 50 years. It seems almost unimaginable that discrimination on this scale could still be going on.  But it is. Most teams still expect their “girls” to pay for their own uniforms, have their hair done weekly, travel, and promote their teams all without extra pay. In fact, one of the cheerleaders worked nine months straight with no pay check. Most are paid a paltry amount and only at the end of the season … despite the fact that the cheerleaders add an estimated $1.4 billion in value to the teams.

Maria Pinzone in Court

The 85-minute film takes us on a journey through the lives of some of the women who have been affected by these contracts and the historic class-action lawsuits that they were finally able to bring against the teams and the NFL. Most of the action focuses on two women, Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields (Oakland Raiders) and Maria Pinzone (Buffalo Bills). Their stories are touching. Both grew up with little money or education. They worked their butts off to achieve something, logging literally thousands of hours of practice in gyms, after school, and on and off the football field. And they are proud of their work. But neither had the savvy to demand their fair share. Nor could they really afford to fight the Goliaths. The average football player, according to Forbes Magazine, makes over $2,000,000 per year. Some, like Aaron Rogers, make $76,000,000. Commissioner Roger Goodell takes home a cool $40,000,000. Even the NFL mascots and water boys are paid more than 60K per season, while the average pay for cheerleaders is less than minimum wage. 

In 2014, deeply in debt and with a small child at home, Lacy showed her contract to employment attorney, Sharon Vinnick, who said, “There are more provisions in here that are illegal than any contract I know of.”  Shortly afterwards, they filed the first class-action suit.  Others soon followed. The footage in the courtroom is actually riveting. In one unforgettable scene, the plaintiff’s attorney accuses the NFL of signing off on what are clearly illegal work contracts. And then the suits went from being about the individual teams to the whole NFL. 

The Cheerleaders

While the first court battles were going on, the fans weighed in, including one who accused the cheerleaders of being glorified sluts. A radio host added, “You’re a mom, what are you doing?”

As of the release of this film, a third of NFL teams have been sued for wage theft, illegal employment practices, and discrimination.  But the league and the players have staggering amounts of money and can tie up any litigation in court for years and years to come. Some states, like California, have recently mandated that cheerleaders must make at least the minimum wage of $10 per hour. But even some of the cheerleaders’ colleagues still think they should be cheering for the glory of it. As one former cheerleader put it, “This lawsuit they brought forward was about money. And we all know, being here from the 60’s till now, it was never about money.” 

I would love to say that this film is totally engaging and an example of great storytelling. But it isn’t. The film spends too much time behind the scenes with the two featured cheerleaders. The office conversations with the attorneys are long and not well paced. And keeping the focus so narrow actually makes the story seem smaller and less important than it is. I, personally, didn’t really warm up to the gross injustice of it all until I started doing research for this review. That being said, this is a subject with both heart and heft, especially in this age of #metoo and #timesup.

Photo credit:  Cheer Film LLC

Top photo: Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields

A Women’s Work had its world premiere at Tribeca on April 27th but will be screened two more times: Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at 6:45 p.m. and Saturday, May 4 at 3:45 p.m. Location: Village East Cinema, 181-189 2nd Avenue, between 11th & 12th Streets

About Paula M. Levine (40 Articles)
Paula is an award-winning writer, producer, and storyteller who has spent over twenty years producing news, feature stories, documentaries, and web content. Since 2014, she has also taught Writing and Media Relations at NYU in their Masters Program in PR and Corporate Communication. In her "copious spare time", she runs, bikes, and swims; and has completed 7 NYC Marathons.