Little to Cheer About
We did not even own our uniforms. Instead we paid a $100 rental fee, refundable only if the uniform was returned in good condition. If special outfits were required for private events, we had to buy them (and weren’t reimbursed). When I left after six years, I could not take my uniform with me because it was still in good condition; it was used for two more seasons by another Ben-Gal before I could purchase it.
To supplement the low pay, I could bring in extra money by signing up for special events with fans, which came to several hundred dollars per season. But at these events, groping, sexist comments and ogling were par for the course (sometimes literally, since we often made appearances at golf courses). And while there was a security person provided for us at stadium events, at off-site events, which could draw hundreds of fans, we were on our own.
At our orientation, our captain told us to expect harassment from fans. “When a fan gets too close or gropes you,” she said, “always smile. If a guy grabs you too tightly, take his hand off you and put your arm around him instead.” We were told to be polite and courteous, and to never get angry with fans, no matter what they did.
Some male fans leered, stared at our breasts and tried to grab us when we posed for photos with them. Bar events were particularly unpleasant because the men were often inebriated. When I posed with them, they would try to do a “boob hug,” reaching their hands around, raising them slowly and trying to touch the side of my breast. I had to delicately (but never angrily) move the hand to my waist or arrange myself far enough away that they couldn’t touch me.
Fan interactions could even be punishment for breaking the rules. On the Ben-Gals, once the cheerleaders were chosen for the four corners of the field, any women who did not “make corner” (often because of their weight) were not allowed on the field for the game. Instead, they had to go to the private suites to mingle with fans, who could be rude and ungracious. One of the reasons we all worked so hard to “make corner” was to avoid having to make a suite appearance.
In the past, most cheerleaders put up with these brutal conditions, figuring that cheering was a temporary job and there was no point fighting to change it when it was meant to be a steppingstone. Those who did complain were often shunned or punished. The overriding message we received from our directors and captains was that complainers were replaceable. Some of the more vocal women would be disqualified (by the captains) from participating in paid events, as punishment for speaking out.
Fortunately, cheerleader conditions are improving. The Seattle Seahawks were the first to offer minimum wage to their cheerleaders, in 1997. Cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers now get minimum wage and overtime, as do the Ben-Gals, after lawsuits and settlements. After one of my fellow cheerleaders initiated a class-action suit against the Bengals for violation of federal employment laws, we received $255,000 in back pay. My own payout was $7,500 for three years of cheering. Today a minimum-wage cheerleader can make several thousand per year, which might cover a chunk of the cost of pantyhose, hair extensions, cosmetics and gasoline that they buy with their own money.