When it comes to applying for a job, beware not to stumble into the dark and twisted world of professional cheerleading. This I learned from the lawyer of 22-year-old Lauren Herington, a cheerleader for the NBA Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. “They are indentured servants with pom poms,” he is quoted as saying.
For those of you who are unaware, indentured servitude was an ugly process where early immigrants to America often entered a contract where they agreed to work for gratis for a period of time in order to get free passage for the arduous trip to America. This was a process that was ripe for worker abuse. As one learns the details of Ms. Herington’s case, however, it becomes clear that not only wasn’t she obligated to cheer for the Bucks, she was paid $65 per home game, $30 per practice and $50 for each special appearance — the horror!
If you still don’t see what the issue is, you haven’t been living in modern America. Ms. Herington is suing the Milwaukee Bucks for violating the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act and Wisconsin wage and payment laws. In plain speak she claims she wasn’t paid the minimum wage. On top of that, her lawyer argues that the Bucks expected her to comply with the team’s personal appearance policies out of her own pocket. Imagine the audacity of the Bucks for expecting their cheerleaders to take care of their personal appearance on their own dime. If you think this lawsuit is just a lark, keep in mind, recently in the NFL the Oakland Raiders agreed to settle with its cheerleaders for $1.25 million after being sued and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers paid its cheerleaders $825,000 under similar circumstances.
Ms. Herington, who I assume isn’t an economics wiz, had this to say, “It was quite clear as soon as the season started I was not going to be able to just devote my time to dancing and be able to support myself with that alone.” No kidding. Most people applying for a cheerleading position with a professional sports team would have known automatically that this was a part-time gig, and the rest would have figured that out when their employer gave them the pay rate. But for most people trying out to become a cheerleader, the pay scale isn’t a motivating factor in pursuing the job. Some cheerleaders may just like sports and want to be part of the action, others may enjoy the thrill of performing in front of thousands of people, and I’m sure you have a few that have grand aspirations of meeting a player or being discovered like Paula Abdul was when she was a Lakers Girl. But common sense tells you if you are looking to cover your bills, cheerleading for a team that plays only a few nights a week, and for half a year, isn’t where you need to be working.
Thirty years ago, when I was young like Lauren Herington, I took my first job in professional sports. I spent the summer working for a minor league baseball team where I was paid $5 a game to be on the grounds crew, worked for free at times in the office to broaden my knowledge base, and vended beer in the stands on a commission-only basis during the game. My paid compensation, I’m sure, wasn’t even close to the minimum wage at that time, but I had taken the job freely understanding the terms and was grateful for the opportunity and with full knowledge that dozens of people would have taken the position if I didn’t. From that summer I was able to parlay my experience into my first of many management jobs in the world of professional sports and three decades later I make a comfortable living in the business, and I’m still thankful that I had a place to launch my career. And this I feel is the fundamental flaw in minimum and living wage laws as they are one size fits all mega government regulations that don’t look at individual circumstances, or believe free parties can make mutually beneficial employment arrangements without their oversight and approval. One man’s exploitation could be another’s idea of opportunity, and in a day and age of 40-year low labor participation rates this is a lesson we should keep in mind.
As a final footnote: the Milwaukee Bucks deny any allegations they weren’t paying the minimum wage.
The offer renews after one year at the regular price of $10.99 monthly.