There are six NFL franchises that don’t have official cheerleading squads. That number may soon increase. Regardless, anyone who ever thought NFL cheerleaders just dance for the fun of it was wrong.
NFL cheerleaders have generally worked as volunteers or as independent contractors choosing to ply their art without payment from the team they cheer aside from the chance to be part of the “team”. No one makes them compete to become NFL cheerleaders and no one makes them dance on Sunday afternoons in front of thousands of appreciative fans on sidelines near very well paid and often single athletic young men.
Now lawyers threaten even this tradition. Suddenly cheerleaders claim they have always danced and cheered as “employees” and never volunteered to engage in such drudgery for nothing. As the ABA Journal reports here, several lawsuits have now been filed against various NFL franchises and a class action has been initiated against the NFL, all asking courts to declare the cheerleaders “employees” and awarding them unpaid past wages, including unpaid overtime, with all other applicable rights and benefits of employment. The Oakland Raiders’ franchise tentatively settled the claim against it for $1.25 million in back pay and its agreement to comply with state and federal labor laws. Some, of course, think even that’s not enough.
The cheerleaders’ claims have legal traction because many, if not all, of the NFL teams with cheerleading squads have actually treated them as employees. The franchise establishes practice schedules, sometimes fining cheerleaders who are late, and generally determines the manner, place, and time the cheerleaders perform as cheerleaders and team representatives.
Of course, there’s a lesson here for any organization which allows anyone to contribute time or talents to its activities as a volunteer: Just because someone offers to volunteer does not mean that they are a volunteer. It’s up to the organization to make certain that a volunteer never inadvertently becomes an employee. If it happens, the downside can be painful.