It's a pretty safe bet that 2014 won't be looked back as a banner year in the NFL. Even in the context of the league's egregious handling of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases, though, the exploitation of cheerleaders should not be overlooked.
Recently, The New York Times ran an interview with Alyssa, a former NFL cheerleader who is in the process of suing the Buffalo Bills for what she considers unfair wages and working conditions. Alyssa's experience with the Jills -- the name of the Bills' cheer squad -- was described as a "nightmare." This echoes Alexa Brenneman's class-action lawsuit against the Cincinnati Bengals that claims the Ben-Gals only get paid $2.85 an hour. Cheerleaders from the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers filed similar suits.
It seems ridiculous that it took until 2014 for all of this mistreatment to be revealed. But there can be no movement without a pioneer, and it wasn't until this January when NFL cheerleaders found that in Lacy, a Raiderette who knew that she deserved better than a tentative $125-per-game fee to be paid in a lump sum at the end of the season -- as long as she didn't have any fines for lost pom-poms or for missing her target weight.
In January, Lacy and her lawyers Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP filed a class-action lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders. Lacy wasn't asking for much; she simply thought that Raiders cheerleaders deserved to be paid minimum wage for all of the hours they worked (including practices and appearances), that they should be paid on a regular basis, and that expenses such as required hair appointments and travel expenses should be reimbursed.
"People act like we were asking for million-dollar contracts," she told Sports on Earth. "I was asking for minimum wage. We should at least have that, and I'd argue that we deserve way more. Bottom line, it's not too much to be paid."
Lacy didn't plan on being a trailblazer when she joined the Raiders for the 2013-2014 season. She simply wanted to fulfill a life-long goal and dance.
"It was always my dream to dance in the NBA and the NFL," she said. "My whole life I just wanted to dance in professional sports, and that's what I worked towards after college."
After she graduated from college, Lacy moved to San Francisco and danced for the NBA's Golden State Warriors for two seasons, before taking a couple of years off to get married and start a family. She then decided to tackle her goal of dancing in the NFL.
She easily made the Raiderettes, but quickly noticed how different her contract was than the one she had in the NBA, where she was paid $10 per hour for all of her time devoted to the squad and reimbursed for all expenses. "I asked tons of questions right after the contract signing," she said. "I thought it was weird that they didn't pay us for all of our events or practice. But everyone said, 'That's just the way it is.'"
Lacy loved being a cheerleader for the Raiders -- she became fast friends with the other girls on the squad, and lived for cheering in front of the big, supportive crowds on game days. She even enjoyed the charity work and appearances that she was required to do. But the expenses added up -- the lawsuit says that Lacy paid $650 in out-of-pocket expenses during the season.
Lacy had conversations with her teammates and knew that they felt the same way that she did. However, most of them stayed silent because they wanted to be able to come back and cheer the following season.
"Throughout the year we're told, 'You're lucky to be here. If you have a complaint just let us know, we'll find someone to replace you,' I think a lot of girls have that fear.
"I think that also, a lot of girls maybe haven't had enough work experience to understand how they should be treated in the workplace," she said.
But Lacy, then 27 and with a two-year-old, knew that filing a lawsuit was the right thing to do. Despite all of the comments she heard along the lines of, "They're just cheerleaders, they don't deserve to be paid. Everyone wants to be a cheerleader," Lacy knew what a valuable asset the Raiderettes were to the organization.
After all, the many mandatory-yet-unpaid activities Lacy had participated in during the past year included: A calendar shoot for a Raiderettes calendar that was sold for profit, children's dance clinics that cost upwards of $200, and ticketing events where the cheerleaders signed autographs, took pictures with fans, and attracted buyers to the merchandise booth.
"We do so much year-round for the organization -- even during the offseason, we are a walking, talking marketing team for the organization," she said. "We're all extremely intelligent, hard-working and talented young women who deserve to be paid for their time and their talent."
Before Lacy's lawsuit went public, she had a lot of support from her teammates, but that quickly went away once the backlash from former Raiderettes began. Many feared that she was going to cause the Raiders to shut down the cheerleading program -- something that the Buffalo Bills actually did this season after Alyssa's lawsuit. Lacy was repeatedly told that she was "betraying the sisterhood." Suddenly, all of the good friends she had made during her cheering season drifted away.
"It was hurtful, but at the same time it's like, if you don't care enough and respect yourself enough to stand up for what's right, then shame on you. I'll do it for you, you'll reap the benefits, and hopefully one day you'll look back and see how silly you were."
In September, the Raiders proposed a $1.275 million settlement. The deal goes back four years, and includes all of the Raiderettes during that time period, unless they opt out. This includes 90 women, and according to lawyer Leslie Levy, only two women have opted out so far. Overall, this will provide each dancer with $4-5,000 per season.
Crucially, the Raiderettes have also completely re-done their contracts starting this season. They now pay each cheerleader minimum wage for every hour they work, even practices and events, and take care of all Raiderettes-related expenses. None of that would have happened if Lacy hadn't decided that doing the right thing was more important than, well, everything else.
Lacy knew that if she filed the suit she was likely giving up her dance career for good, and she has made peace of that. Now 28 years old, expecting her second child, and living in London, she's ready for the next phase of her life. But even if it's not her job anymore, she'll always be a dancer at heart.
"I love to dance, and I dance all the time, even if it's just with my three-year-old in my living room," she said.
Lacy does hear from a couple of her former Raiders friends these days, but says that they have to keep their communication under the radar. Despite all she's done for them, she's still a sisterhood outcast.
"I haven't had anyone come and thank me, and I don't expect it, " she said. "But I really hope in my heart that they appreciate what I've done for them."
Lacy has done her part to make the league a safer place for cheerleaders, but the fight is far from over. Now she has to pass the baton -- and some words of wisdom --along to Alyssa and any others who are willing to take on the cause.
"I'd just pass on the message that they should stay strong and know in their hearts they're doing the right thing," she said. "In the end they'll be successful because you can't argue the law. You have to get paid for your time. There is definitely a sense in pride in knowing you're doing the right thing, even if it's not the popular thing."