Unfortunately, two former NFL cheerleaders experienced this the hard way, meeting exploitation with confrontation. Or, as exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick said in a Nike advertisement last year, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Or even if it means ending the experience of your childhood dream in litigation.
Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields of the Oakland Raiderettes and Maria Pinzone of the Buffalo Jills are the two former NFL cheerleaders featured in “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem,” directed by Yu Gu, a cinematographer who migrated from China to Canada.
Gu eventually attended college at the University of Southern California, graduating in 2010, where she was exposed to the influence, demand and extremism of football in American culture.
“Football is something really uniquely American, and as an immigrant to this country I wanted to learn more about America, it’s values and these people,” she told BQE Media during the first week of the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film premiered this past weekend.
Gu adds that the film provided an ideal opportunity to further explore gender inequality, while simultaneously navigating the zealotry surrounding football culture, particularly in the NFL.
Being an NFL cheerleader or NBA dancer is a dream for a handful of women brought up through athletics. Thibodeaux and Pinzone are two female athletes who aspired to reach what they viewed as their apex.
“To have dreamt your whole life, only to get there and realize, ‘wow, this is what we have to do? This is what we have to deal with?’” said Thibodeaux, a Louisiana native raised in southern football culture. “It’s a shock and offensive, I just felt like it should change.”
Thibodeaux left the Raiderettes in 2014 and subsequently sued the team over inadequate wages.
“I was so surprised that’s how it was,” said Thibodeaux, who made $125 per game while paying for her own travel and mandatory promotional shoots. “No one did because it was so tightlipped, so I was ready to open that can of worms to have people discuss it and hopefully change it.
“It was my passion and it was my love,” she added. “I was willing to give it up to make it known that this was happening.”
Pinzone was part of a group of former Buffalo Jill cheerleaders who took the organization to court for similar reasons, including contractual language which was supposed to deem the Jills as employees while being treated as independent contractors. The Bills responded by shutting down the Jills following the 2014 season.
“I felt so hurt by that and so isolated because you’re trying to do something good and make a positive change,” she said. “It was really tough to overcome and to get through.”
Gu’s documentary follows Thibodeaux and Pinzone as they balance legal proceedings and their everyday lives.
“I wanted to authentically portray a woman’s struggle,” said Gu. “Going through this lawsuit, not just in the legal arena, but in their daily life as young women starting out their families and pursuing their careers were things I was passionate.”
The Raiderettes have since returned to the team after winning a settlement, and are now actual employees within the organization. Gu says it’s a first step.
“Even if you didn’t know how it would be prior, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s illegal,” she said. “It doesn’t take the responsibility away from the employer.
“You can’t sign up to be treated illegally because the law is always going to be the law,” she said. “People say, ‘oh, you signed up for it, so it’s fine.’ That doesn’t absolve anyone from responsibility.”
Thibodeaux notes that the Raiders attempted to manipulate the cheerleaders by having lawyers present contracts on behalf of the organization.
“They wrote the most illegal provisions I’ve ever seen in a contract,” said Thibodeaux, who was a Golden State Warriors dancer for two seasons . “I was paid for all my hours in the NBA; hair sponsored, nails sponsored, nothing out of pocket.”
Regarding what they wished people would take away from the documentary, Pinzone noted her desire for the Jills, which were a part of the Bills since 1960, to return.
“There’s so much they can do to make it right, and I want to empower women that see this film to stand up for themselves,” she said.
Gu adds that women empowerment from sources is also at the forefront of the film’s focus.
“I’d like fans of the sport – men – to engage in this world,” she said. “I want them to see that these are wives, daughters, friends, women in your life. To see them as athletes, I think that would be amazing.”