Bad Cheer - Patrick Hruby
Bad Cheer

Looking to exploit someone? Study NFL cheerleaders
By Patrick Hruby | Sports on Earth | May 2015
Looking to exploit someone? I mean, just flat-out take their lunch? Good -- you've come to the right place.

I can't do it for you, but I can show you how. It's easy. Just stop treating your employees like employees -- or, for that matter, like human beings with dignity -- and start treating them like pro cheerleaders.

Consider Sarah, a former professional cheerleader I spoke to last week. She's a pretty young woman. Pretty smart, too. College grad, self-starter, hard worker. Bit of a fitness buff. A few years ago, she joined a professional cheer squad. At first, she was ecstatic. The job seemed glamorous. Almost like a privilege. She felt admired by fans. Looked up to by little girls. Closer to family members who had played college football. Sometimes, she felt beautiful, she says, like she was "the epitome of the All-American girl."

Then reality set in.

The gig required Sarah to take fitness classes, maintain a winter tan, get her hair and makeup done by professionals. She had to pay those costs out of her own pocket. She spent six to eight hours a week practicing dance routines with her teammates. As far as she knows, no one was paid for that time. Over a seven-month period, she made more than a dozen public appearances with the cheer squad, promoting ... the cheer squad. She wasn't paid for those, either. She appeared in a swimsuit calendar and sold at least 100 copies herself -- didn't see a dime. Received a single complimentary copy.

At the end of the NFL season, Sarah claims, she finally received a paycheck, for a whopping $375. Her expenses for the year totaled more than $2,500.

One night, during an unpaid promotional appearance, Sarah says she found herself standing on a downtown street corner, T-shirt rolled up to her bra line, holding a sign that featured the name of a nearby bar -- a human billboard in tiny boy shorts. "That's when it hit me I was being used," she says, "and how little everything I was doing had to do with bringing positive energy to a football game."

Within pro football, Sarah's story is hardly unique. This year, current and former cheerleaders from five different NFL teams have filed lawsuits against their employers, alleging (among other things) that the teams failed to pay minimum wages, instead paying as little as $2.85 an hour; that they forced cheerleaders to cover their own business expenses; that they imposed illegal fines for workplace infractions such as gaining five pounds; that they auctioned off cheerleaders as golf tournament prizes, which meant sitting in men's laps; that they required cheerleaders to sell at least 30 copies of a swimsuit calendar but shared none of the profits; and in the case of the Buffalo Bills, that cheerleaders were subjected to a weekly "jiggle test," in which cheer coaches "scrutinized the women's stomach, arms, legs, hips and butt while she does jumping jacks." That last lawsuit, against the Bills, also references a cheer squad handbook that explains in detail how to wash one's vagina.

You might find all of this alleged employer behavior creepy, maybe even illegal and immoral. You wouldn't be wrong, and you wouldn't be alone.

But that's not why you're here. You're here to exploit someone, probably because you're a terrible person -- possibly even a sociopath! And it turns out there's good news for you. The world of NFL cheerleading is a terrific case study in how to get over on people. Here's how it's done.

Screw 'em with semantics

Sure, cheerleaders wear your corporate logo, perform at your primary place of business, represent your organization in the larger community, help drive clicks at your company website, but whatever you do, don't call your workers employees. Or professional dancers. Call them volunteers. Or independent contractors. Or even atmosphere producers. Refer to all those mandatory appearances at hospitals as voluntary. Working hours spent rearranging furniture in the team office or selling preseason game tickets? Those are called charity appearances.

It's verbal alchemy in reverse, spinning gold into straw. If you can define work as anything but, then you might not have to pay for it. "When we made the team, we were supposed to be paid $50 per appearance and do at least three charity appearances," Sarah says. "But every time we would show up at an appearance, we would be told it was for charity. It turned into a lot of promotional modeling -- we would go into bars in our uniforms and then put on clothes with logos of Miller Lite or other companies, and then walk around and hand things out and not get paid for it. Which was really demeaning."

Manipulate their emotions

Those weigh-ins and jiggle tests are top-notch tools of emotional manipulation. Just like the football coach who withholds love, praise and respect -- like a distant father figure -- in order to milk extra effort out of his players, a cheerleading coach can foster unquestioning compliance by hitting the body-image button early and often.

During her first cheer squad meeting, Sarah says, each member of the team was given a handout ranking the entire team from highest to lowest, in categories like "best hair," "overall facial beauty" and "swimsuit physique."

"There were a lot of tears," she says. "It was like 10 pages long, with charts and diagrams. That was kind of extreme. To a girl in her early 20s, that will kill you."

Sarah and her teammates also were given the result of a body-composition exam. Sarah's BMI score was "underweight." Her body fat percentage was at the low end of the range typically associated with Olympic athletes. "Those numbers are really low," she says. "If I went into a doctor's office, they would have said, 'You need to gain some weight.' It's possible that I couldn't have had children at that point." And? "The coaches told me I was perfect where I was at."

Remind 'em that they're fungible

After a few months of -- ahem -- charity work, Sarah says, her teammates would roll their eyes whenever the team's coaches mentioned an upcoming paid appearance. "We knew we would not get paid," she says. Still, no one spoke up. The reason? "We were afraid," she says. "We didn't want to lose a spot on the team."

Cheerleading, like many industries, is a numbers game rigged against the talent. The number of attractive young women who would like to cheer is far greater than the number of available roster spots. So don't be afraid to share the math with your atmosphere producers. Constantly remind them that their hard work, dedication, dancing skill, positive attitude, PR savvy, good looks and self-financed tans are essentially commodities, replaceable at any time and for any reason. Instill a sense of perpetual insecurity, and don't ever let them know that you'd be in trouble if they decided to walk out en masse.

Consider the example of Mimi Kilpatrick, a former Tampa Bay Bucs cheerleader. In an interview with Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times, Kilpatrick recalled avoiding "corporate Christmas parties and golf carts" -- not because the team received $200 per cheerleader for public appearances but only paid out $75 to said cheerleaders, but because of lecherous men and "a lot of inappropriate touching."

Did the Bucs organization encourage its cheerleaders to protect themselves from sexual harassment? Not the way it should have, Kilpatrick says. Did the cheerleaders demand change? Nope.

"We didn't want to make waves," Kilpatrick told the Times. "... I knew if I left -- or complained -- there were 100 other women out there who wanted to take my spot."

Control as much as you can

Make some rules. Then make more. Tell cheerleaders to "shake hands for about three seconds, be firm, and be web to web," keep nail polish pads in their cars "for emergencies," and "strategically move" meals they dislike around their dinner plates. Don't attend parties at players' homes, don't bring dates to the office Christmas party, don't drink at the office Christmas party, don't wear "clips or tie-backs" in their hair. Use the phrase oh my goodness instead of oh my God, don't use slang, never "complain" or be "overly opinionated" about anything. Never discuss "politics or religion" while dining, never "overeat bread at a formal setting," never "ask for cash gifts as wedding gifts." Avoid "excessive sniffling" and "too many arm movements."

"I know that some teams even require their cheerleaders to have full-time jobs," Sarah says. "Which is probably so they can pay for things."

Exercising near-total control will benefit you in two ways. First, the more rules you have, the more fines you can levy when your volunteer football enthusiasts inevitably break them.

The Raiders, for example, allegedly fined their cheerleaders $10 to $125 for forgetting to bring their pom-poms to practice or showing up late. If a woman weighed too much or was "photographing heavy" -- a wonderful phrase that can mean whatever you want it to mean -- she would be informed right before kickoff that she was benched for the day. Without pay, of course. Raiders cheerleaders reportedly were promised a lump sum of $1,250 at the end of the season. They also were given a handbook that warned them it was possible to "find yourself with no salary at all at the end of the season."

As for the second benefit, just remember this: When your workers are expending copious amounts of cognitive bandwidth on the amount of bread they're eating -- plus the decidedly non-Zen riddle of how many arm movements are too many, really? -- while simultaneously worrying about getting dinged for misplaced pom-poms -- they won't have much time left to wonder why they're getting fined for a bunch of bulls--- in the first place, or why their pay amounts to peanuts.

Instead, they'll simply grow accustomed to following orders. That makes telling them to hand out stuff at bars for no compensation a whole lot easier.

Use their peers against them

Within the context of hostage-taking, psychologists use the term Stockholm syndrome to describe the phenomenon of hostages having positive feelings for -- and even identifying with -- their captors. Obviously, cheerleaders aren't literal hostages. And lousy pay and work conditions aren't the same thing as a gun to one's head. Still, you cultivate a similar emotional response. In ESPN the Magazine, Amanda Hess explains how:

… the strong camaraderie among professional cheerleaders was a selling point for recruiting dancers, but it was also a strategy for keeping the women in line … a cheerleader who failed to pull her weight risked more than her spot on the team -- the Raiderettes were told that any personal failure could endanger the future of the entire squad, bringing down the sisterhood for good. "Fans would come to see the games whether or not we had cheerleaders," the handbook reminded them. Fail to follow the squad's instructions to a T and the team might decide that the whole cheerleading enterprise is "too much trouble to deal with …"
… since news of the lawsuit went public on Jan. 22, neither the Raiders nor the NFL has made a peep to the media. [They wouldn't comment for this story either.] But a group of former Raiderettes took to social media and local and national news to publicize their own perspectives on the team. "We are horrified that this Bitter Betty is suing the organization where we created lasting friendships and a Sisterhood, a *family bond*, that only another Raiderette can fully understand," alumna Teri McCollum wrote. Anjelah Johnson, another former Raiderette and a comedian, put it more pointedly to a local radio station: "In the barrio, when you turn your back on the gang, you get stitches" …

"In college, I took a class on cults," Sarah says. "There are some parallels with cheerleading. Especially with the money -- like, where is it going? But also the sense of identity, of being part of a team. That's cult-like. Be exploited and not realize it."

Dangle a winning lottery ticket

Actors Teri Hatcher and Charisma Carpenter got their starts as NFL cheerleaders. So did Bachelorette contestant Melissa Rycroft and former ESPN fitness show host Kiana Tom. You don't have to offer them a fair deal, because you're offering them a platform. A chance to get noticed and make it big, even if the odds of that actually happening are as puny as your season-ending paychecks. People will work for tangible compensation, but they'll work harder for unfulfilled promises, suffer longer for intangible benefits.

"Why did I even do it?" Sarah says. "It's that intangible thing. I got caught up in the idea of feeling sexy, athletic and wholesome, all at the same time. Plus, that feeling of when you want something, and you work really hard for it and you get there. Still, there shouldn't have to be lawsuits to pay minimum wage."

At this point, maybe you're having second thoughts. Maybe you feel like taking advantage of young women like Sarah just because you can is … you know … wrong. Banish those thoughts from your mind. The truth is, everyone's doing it, in ways big and small, to greater and lesser degrees. Exploitation is all the rage. It's All-American, really.

It's the NCAA and its member schools, collecting billions in television revenue and handing out multimillion-dollar coaching and athletic director contracts while colluding to restrain the pay of amateur student-athletes. It's Bleacher Report and the Huffington Post building valuable online properties on the backs of unpaid writers; media giants, Hollywood studios and others milking unpaid "interns" who do employee-level work. It's companies reclassifying de facto employees as "independent contractors" to dodge Social Security and worker's compensation costs; it's retailers and fast food restaurants screwing employees out of overtime pay; and even the San Francisco Giants shorting dozens of clubhouse and administrative workers out of more than $500,000 in wages.

Don't worry about a backlash, either. Plenty of people will defend you, including the very people you're exploiting. It can't be exploitation, they'll insist, not when people are lining up for your non-job jobs. Not when you aren't literally putting a gun to someone's head. Just ask Sarah.

Actually, don't bother. "Sarah" isn't her real name, of course. At the end of our conversation, she told me that she wanted to remain anonymous. Why? "I might want to try out for another team again," she says. "I have to think about it." And therein lies the real trick. If you want to take advantage of someone, use your power. And if you want to exploit them completely, use theirs.