Sometimes, fighting is the answer.
Unfortunately, two former NFL cheerleaders experienced this hard way, meeting exploitation with confrontation, but out of necessity. Or, as exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick said in a Nike advertisement last year, "believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything."
Even if it means ending the experience of your childhood dream in litigation.
Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields (Oakland Raiderettes) and Maria Pinzone (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, its values and these people,” she said during the first week of the Tribeca Film Festival, where A Woman’s Work premiered this past weekend.
Gu adds that the film provided an ideal opportunity to further explore gender inequality, while simultaneously navigating through the zealotry surrounding football culture, particularly in the NFL.
The role of NFL cheerleader or NBA dancer is the dream destination for a handful of women brought up through athletics. Thibodeaux and Pinzone are two such 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? It’s a shock for me. It was offensive,” said Thibodeaux, a Louisiana native who lived through football culture in the American South all her life. “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,” Thibodeaux remarked, having made only $125 per game, with no expenses paid for such as travel for mandatory promotional shoots with the Raiderettes. “No one did because it was so tight-lipped, 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. 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 and you want people to see that things needed to be different,” Pinzone said. “It was really tough to overcome and to get through.”
Everything came together for Gu aspiring to put together the documentary, which follows the experiences of Thibodeaux and Pinzone as they’re balancing their legal proceedings and their everyday lives.
“I wanted to authentically portray a woman’s struggle,” Gu reflected. “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 and balancing all of those things while fighting for values. All of those things were things I was passionate.”
The Raiderettes have since returned to the team after winning a settlement, where they fought for minimum wage, and are now actual employees within the organization. Gu says it’s the 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,” the filmmaker replied. “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. It’s gonna say ‘this is illegal’ if they look at it from a perspective of the law. The fact that people say ‘Oh, you signed up for it, so it’s fine.’ That doesn’t absolve anyone from that responsibility.”
Thibodeaux even notes that the Raiders had attempted to manipulate the cheerleaders by having lawyers present the contracts on behalf of the organizations.
“That allows the girls not to think this definitely can’t be illegal. And they wrote the most illegal provisions I’ve ever seen in a contract. That wasn’t my experience in the NBA,” said Thibodeaux, who was a Golden State Warriors dancer for two seasons prior. “I was paid for all my hours in the NBA. Hair sponsored, nails sponsored, nothing out of pocket. Got bonuses.”
Regarding what they wished people would take away from the documentary, Pinzone revealed her desire for the Jills – who were a part of the Bills since 1960, named ‘the Jills’ in 1967 – to return.
“That’s the number one thing," Pinzone remarked. "It’s been five years and it’s just unacceptable. There’s so much they can do to make it right. And I just want to empower women that see this film that they could have a voice and stand up for themselves and speak on what they’re feeling to try to make change. Because if you don’t say anything and keep it quiet, if I didn’t come forward and do anything. I don’t know that anyone behind me would have.”
Gu adds that women empowerment, from sources other than the women fighting for empowerment, is also at the forefront of the film’s focus.
“In general, not just to women, but (I’d like) fans of the sport – men – to engage in this world. I want them to see that behind the word 'cheerleader,' these are real women behind them... their wives, daughters, your friends, women in your life... I want them to see a little clearer from that blind spot that they have against this women’s labor. So to have some respect and acknowledgment for this as labor. To see them as athletes. I think that would be amazing.
“The world of sports for women now I think is shifting rapidly because there are so many great athletes out there. Organizations that are trying and starting to further this conversation. And I think the more we can do that, then I feel like the more we all have to gain in terms of great athletes watching great entertainment and showing positive things.”
For more information on A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, follow @AWomansWorkDoc on Twitter and Instagram.
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