The Jills Are Due
During the Buffalo Bills’ first home opener against the Miami Dolphins, Gov. Andrew Cuomo aired a campaign commercial exposing his Republican opponent, Rob Astorino, as a lifelong Dolphins fan. The ad simultaneously touted Cuomo’s efforts to keep the Bills in New York: “Governor Cuomo stood with us. He’s delivered for Buffalo and all of Western New York.”
Indeed, the governor has spent considerable time and taxpayer resources on behalf of the Bills. Most recently, Cuomo championed Kim and Terry Pagula’s $1.4 billion bid to buy the franchise to “ensure that the Bills remain at the core of the region’s identity.” Since the season began, both Cuomo and his Buffalo-based running mate, Kathy Hochul, have frantically tweeted their support on game days, tying their campaign narrative to the hometown heroes.
However, lost amid the governor’s rush to out-fan Astorino, is any mention of the Buffalo Jills, the team’s cheerleading squad. Along with five other squads across the NFL, including the New York Jets’ (the Giants don't have cheerleaders), the Jills are suing the Bills for wage theft. The suit claims that the Jills were uncompensated for over 800 hours of work, during which the Bills made onerous and sexist demands on them.
Last year the Buffalo Bills earned $252 million, yet the Jills do not get paid to cheerlead.
At the crux of the lawsuit is the relationship between the Bills, the Jills, Citadel Broadcasting Company and Stejon Productions, a management company incorporated specifically to run the squad.
The Jills have been the Bills’ cheerleading squad since 1967, when they wore white turtlenecks and had to be married to make the cut. Today’s Jills are trained dancers who execute complex athletic routines. The Bills long ago recognized their value, trademarking “the Jills” in 1982 and licensing them to various for-profit management companies under strict guidelines and profit sharing agreements.
In 2011, after an agreement with Citadel ended, the Bills directly solicited a Citadel employee, Stephanie Mateczun, a former Jill, to manage the squad.
Mateczun formed Stejon, and the Jills signed “independent contractor” agreements, which stated clearly that they were not employees. In exchange for their work, each Jill would receive a ticket for game day and a parking voucher. They would not be paid for games, and they were entirely responsible for all related expenses such as uniforms ($650), transportation, hair and makeup.
According to the lawsuit filed in May on behalf of five former cheerleaders, the Jills were required to attend twice-weekly practices, game days and 20–35 appearances at corporate, community and charity events, collectively totaling an estimated 900 uncompensated, or semi-paid, events. In addition to their mandatory unpaid work, the Jills could be fined for a broad array of infractions including “having a bad attitude.” Any opportunity for a paid appearance was at management’s discretion, contingent on the Jill being in good standing. A detailed handbook provided a set of expectations for on and off-field conduct.
Some choice excerpts:
“Don’t ask for cash gifts as wedding gifts (in print), rely on word of mouth instead.”
“When menstruating, use a tampon that’s right for your menstrual flow. A tampon too big can irritate and develop fungus.”
“Do not be overly opinionated about anything.”
According to Mateczun’s lawyer, former Attorney General Dennis Vacco, the handbook is standard throughout the NFL.
Cheerleading is high status display work, and the women who elect to do it are free to choose other work. That being said, according to Forbes the average squad’s capitalized value is estimated at roughly $1 million per team. Twenty-five of the 32 teams in the NFL have cheerleaders.
“It’s what anthropologists call a system of traffic,” says Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. “When men exchange women and reap the benefits of the circulation and control of women, but women are not in a position to capitalize on the very value they create.”
It’s also illegal under New York state law. In July, Judge Timothy Drury rejected the Bills’ motion to dismiss, finding that “the minute control that Citadel and Stejon exercised over the work of the cheerleaders supports the conclusion that they were not independent contractors but employees.” The judge stated further that “there is a question of fact as to the Bills’ functional control over the activities of the Bills’ cheerleading squad.”
What is not in question is that the Bills benefited from the products of the Jills’ labor, without the burden of employment. That’s textbook exploitation.
“Women who are the most visible female portion of the NFL are paid less than the beer vendor,” said Marc Panepinto, one of the attorneys representing the Jills, and a current candidate for state Senate in Western New York. “I think that says something about how the NFL values women, and it’s wrong.”
How much are the Bills really fighting over anyway?
Based on New York’s $8 minimum wage, it would cost just $235,000 to pay every cheerleader for 20 hours per week, for 42 weeks per year (excluding appearances). That’s less than one one-thousandth of the Bills’ estimated annual revenue.
Instead, the Bills are countersuing the cheerleaders for legal fees.
The Women’s Equality Act has become a centerpiece of the Cuomo/Hochul campaign, spawning the eponymous Women’s Equality Party, the goal of which ostensibly is to promote the passage of the 10-point legislation. The first plank of the Act is pay equity with a specific provision to maximize damages for litigants in wage theft cases. As a ticket, Cuomo and Hochul have been touring the state, boldly proclaiming their support for women’s rights.
But when asked to comment on the Jills, a spokesperson for the governor’s re-election effort said it wasn’t a matter for the campaign. When the Cuomo administration was contacted, it was similarly loath to respond.
So this columnist asked one of the campaign’s surrogates, particularly in regard to the Women’s Equality Party, former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who responded with characteristic frankness:
“Seems to me cheerleaders show up and do a job, and it’s actually not an easy job. So they should get paid, and that should be worked out. God bless the cheerleaders who are going to court, but they shouldn’t have to.”
Lo and behold, two days later Kathy Hochul issued a statement to City & State:
“I support the Jills. Where a woman works should not be determinative of whether she is entitled pay.”
The governor then weighed in through a spokesperson:
“We support the right for a fair wage for the Jills and for all New Yorkers.”
But that didn’t stop either of them from attending a Bills Tailgate party just a few weeks later.
In 2012 Cuomo was intimately involved in negotiations to secure a $130 million-dollar deal to fix up the Bills’ stadium. He met twice with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who leveraged $95 million—the cost of 73 percent of the renovations—in taxpayer support.
Maybe doing something to help the Jills, rather than the organization exploiting them, could be the governor’s next campaign pledge.
Alexis Grenell (@agrenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.