New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09

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Do NFL cheerleaders deserve minimum wage?

Roger Goodell wants to pay the NFL’s cheerleaders less than minimum wage.

Can one cheerleader take on the National Football League? In January, 28-year-old Raiderette Lacy T. filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 40 cheerleaders accusing the Oakland Raiders of breaking minimum wage and labor laws. Now her complaint is turning into a broader labor dispute that questions the NFL’s business practices as well as the legality of forced arbitration.

The NFL is the most profitable sports league in the world, earning on average, $1.17 billion in 2013. Cheerleaders pull in profits too: The Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleading squad alone brings in about $1 million in merchandising and cheerleading camp revenue.

At the time of the suit, Lacy T. and her Raiderette squad were paid $1,250 for a 10-game season – less than the cost of a Super Bowl ticket. That’s less than $5 an hour when accounting for three unpaid practices a week, at least 10 required charity appearances, and photo sessions for the annual swimsuit calendar, the women say. The Cincinnati Ben-Gals, who have also joined the fray, are paid $90 a game, or $2.85 an hour.

The Raiderettes, professional dancers required to stay in shape year-round, can be fined for being late to practice, using the wrong pom poms, or wearing the wrong shade of nail polish. They must cover expenses such as travel to games and visits to an expensive hair salon chosen by the Raiders management – who even decide each woman’s hairstyle and color.

Because fines are subtracted from the cheerleaders’ earnings, the Raiders readily acknowledge that a cheerleader can end up with no pay at all by season’s end.

In contrast, Raiders Running back Darren McFadden earned about $9.6 million last season, with six missed games due to injuries, while Kicker Sebastian Janikowski pulled in about $4.9 million after missing a third of his field goal attempts, notes local columnist Tom Barnidge.

The cheerleaders allege other labor violations as well, such as having all of their pay withheld until the end of the season, and working over eight hours on game days with no rest or meal breaks.

In March, the U.S. Department of Labor decided the Raiders were exempt from offering federal minimum wage and overtime to its cheerleaders because they are considered a seasonal establishment. But the lawsuit is expected to continue in California, which has no such exemption for seasonal operators. California’s $8 per hour minimum wage is set to rise to $9 per hour in July, and to $10 in 2016.

However it’s decided, the case is likely to have a national impact: 26 of the NFL’s 32 teams have cheerleading squads and a win by the Raiderettes could encourage other claims. Beyond the NFL, the lawsuit is also raising broader questions about the practice of forced arbitration.

The NFL claims the Raiderettes have no right to sue, because they agreed in their employment contracts to refer all disputes to binding arbitration before none other than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — whose $44 million salary is paid by the NFL teams.

Their contracts state that Goodell would be allowed to ignore rules of evidence and state labor laws, limit information the Raiderettes could obtain from the team, and demand secrecy for both the process and the outcome. His decision would also be unappealable.

But the right of employers to require arbitration is not always recognized by courts if contracts favor one party too strongly. At least one study found that arbitrators rule in favor of the businesses that hire them 94 percent of the time.

“We believe we have a good shot at defeating it,” Raiderettes lawyer Leslie Levy told the Los Angeles Times.

Employers typically prefer private arbitration because it’s less costly and time-consuming than public litigation. But consumer and employee groups say there’s a big difference between voluntary arbitration that’s agreed to by both parties after a dispute occurs, and forced arbitration that requires consumers or employees to waive their rights to sue as a condition of purchase or employment.

The Raiderettes’ case is now sending ripples all the way to Washington, D.C., where there is renewed interest in the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2013. The legislation would prohibit forced arbitration in employment, antitrust, civil rights, and consumer disputes. Over 100,000 fans have also signed a national petition to demand living wages for NFL cheerleaders. Whatever the courts decide, Lacy T. is definitely making her voice heard.

Lisa Wirthman writes about business, women, & social good. She contributes to Slate, Forbes, and other publications and writes a column for the Denver Post. Follow her on Twitter @lisawirthman.

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