Sports fans won’t have to feel quite so guilty about enjoying cheerleaders and on-court dance teams in New York state if a bill proposed Wednesday in Albany were to become law.
The measure would force all sports franchises in New York to provide basic workplace protections to their cheerleaders and ensure that they are paid at least the state minimum wage for their labor. “We cannot overlook any worker entitled to fair pay under the law,” Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D/WF) said in a statement announcing the proposal. “Sports teams and owners should not continue to capitalize without providing the most basic worker protections.”
Rozic’s Senate colleague Diane Savino (D/WF), who reportedly plans to introduce the measure in the upper chamber soon, told the New York Daily News that teams knowingly exploit would-be cheerleaders’ ambition to get them to work without pay. “These teams try to sell them this idea that ‘you’ll become famous and one day you’ll thank us for exploiting you,’” Savino said, joking that she might get some of the women “to come and cheer the Senate on” in hopes of getting the bill passed before the lawmaking session ends in two weeks.
Rozic and Savino’s legislation comes about a year after a lawsuit from former members of the Buffalo Jills cheer team that supports the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills at games, alleging that the team and the production company that manages the Jills routinely ignored minimum wage laws for cheerleaders.
After tallying up the various practices and public events at which they were required to dance and socialize without pay, the Jills were performing “840 hours of unpaid work per woman, per year,” the suit claims. The current owners of the Bills paid $1.4 billion to buy the team in September.
The alleged abuses go beyond monetary matters. “Select Jills were required to wear a bikini, and then go into a dunk tank, where they were dunked in water” by charity golf tournament attendees, before being “’auctioned off’ like prizes at this event” and “serving as a ‘bought person’” to the golfer who shelled out the most cash for the privilege of a given cheerleader’s company, the suit alleges. When an auction-winning golfer decided his cart was too full, the rented cheerleader would allegedly have to sit on his lap. None of the cheerleaders were paid for participating in the event, but refusing would have risked losing their on-field job. The suit also alleges that the Bills and their production company failed to provide any security or even a stage to prevent attendees from groping the Jills at a casino event where they walked around in bikinis.
Similar allegations have been raised against numerous other sports franchises by former cheerleaders. Despite their piracy-themed mascots, both the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have struck settlements to repay the women who sued. But so long as other franchises continue to hold out in court, cheerleaders face an inhospitable legal landscape that is likely to mute their claims without even deciding whether or not they have merit.
Rozic and Savino aren’t the first lawmakers to decide to step into the void the justice system leaves for exploited cheerleaders. Former Stanford University cheerleader and state Rep. Lorena Gonzalez (D) proposed similar legislation to protect cheerleaders in California back in January. The bill passed the Assembly in May on a 52–21 vote, and is scheduled for a hearing in the relevant Senate committee on June 10.