When Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields demanded fair wages and treatment for fans, she sparked a revolution in the NFL.
Growing up in Louisiana, Lacey Thibaudeau Fields dreamed of being a cheerleader. In 2013, this was achieved when she was selected to join the Raiderettes – the cheerleading team for the then Oakland Raiders.
But the dream soon spoils.
After 18 years of training, Thibodeaux-Fields claims to have quickly discovered that she was expected to work for less than the minimum wage, without additional compensation for mandatory training courses or expenses related to public appearances.
In 2014, she decided to take a stand, and sued raiders over labor laws. Over the next four years, many other fans across the United States took action against other NFL teams, alleging pay theft, gender discrimination and harassment.
In a new movie, A Woman’s Work, director Yu Gu follows the story of Thibodeaux-Fields and fellow cheerleader Maria Pinzone, who has filed an ongoing lawsuit alongside 73 other fans against the Buffalo Bills and former cheerleading team, Buffalo Jills.
Yu and Thibodeaux-Fields spoke to BBC Sport about the film, the lawsuits, and their impact on the women participating.
“If you do, you may never dance again.”
Thibodeaux-Fields says one of the things she can’t stand is the idea that anyone hates it – so why take the NFL – one of the most popular sports organizations in the United States?
It was not a decision I made lightly.
“When I first met my lawyer, they said, ‘Lacey, if you decide to do this, you have to understand that you may never dance again,'” she says.
It was dancing throughout Thibodeaux-Fields’ life. After graduating from Louisiana Tech, she joined the cheerleading team in the NBA franchise at the Golden State Warriors, where she says she was paid fair.
But the season was tough, with 42 home matches and Thibodeaux-Fields already having a full-time job. The NFL seemed like a great choice for the young mom.
“The season was shorter … I could still dance in the evening … it was going to be a dream job,” she says.
Of the more than 600 women who took the test, Thibodeaux-Fields was one of 40 women who made up the team.
“I loved my new team-mates and just wanted to do my best,” she says.
“You guys are lucky to be here.”
She says she quickly finds that the team can be expected to go through tough hours of training, without additional compensation.
“If you weren’t chosen to dance in a game – let’s say you are overweight – you won’t get paid for that game,” she says.
Pinzone recounts similar experiences in Buffalo Jills. In the film, she describes a culture of fear – taking “vibration tests” to check weight before matches.
Thibodeaux-Fields really began to question when she said she realized it was expected to cover expenses related to mandatory public appearances – including beauty treatments. She says she’s even told which salon to use; It was at least an hour and a half from her home.
“There was a lot of little things like that that kept growing – traveling to the calendar photo shoot, or finding out that you’d have to stay somewhere for the weekend and make the arrangements,” she says.
“I was going to raise issues with people in my own group and with my captain.
“We were told: You are very fortunate to be here, you should be proud of this moment.”
“More illegal than any contract I know.”
Thibodeaux-Fields claims its contract states that fans will be paid $ 125 (£ 90) for each game they worked on, or $ 5 an hour. The federal minimum wage at the time was $ 7.25 an hour.
It also claims that the contract stipulates that fans will not receive any pay for the first nine months.
Thibodeaux-Fields says this was not explained enough during the induction, so she and her husband contacted an attorney.
Sharon Finnick was the labor attorney who obtained a copy of the contract.
Speaking in the movie, Finick describes her reaction at the time: “There are more rulings here that are illegal then any contract I know of.”
One of the main questions was whether the Raiderettes were employed or self-employed.
“The contract almost immediately states that they are actually employed, and as a result, they should be paid for every hour they work,” Darcy Borrell, another employment attorney, tells the film.
After Thibodeaux-Fields filed the lawsuit, she met filmmaker Yu.
Yu told us that she became obsessed with American football culture while studying film production at UCSD.
I read about the Thibodeaux-Fields lawsuit in the Los Angeles Times, and I had a meeting.
The history of the women’s movement revolves around people coming together.
Yu’s initial goal was to follow Thibodeaux-Fields throughout her daily life. Over the course of four years, she captured the birth of three children, and moved to London.
All along, more lawsuits have been filed against NFL teams.
By September 2020, the film states that 10 of the 26 NFL teams with female cheerleaders have been prosecuted for wage theft, unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment and discrimination.
“At first, I thought this was going to be just one woman – she’s one heroine,” says Yu. “ But then I saw all these other women joining her and there was some kind of beauty in that, that I wanted to think about.
“When you look at the history of feminism in the United States, it’s about getting people together. And that’s what this story is about, too.”
‘Feminism has always felt like a negative word’
In one scene, Thibodeaux-Fields initially describes her struggle with the word “feminist.”
“I’m from a very conservative area in the Bible Belt in Louisiana, and I’ve always felt feminism is a negative word,” she says.
“When I started growing, I understood a little more. Feminism is exactly what I’m doing, saying,” I’m here, no matter what you think about me, I did a job for you and you owe me. ”
But not all of her Thibodeaux-Fields – or former Raiderettes – cast mates have backed her and the movie shows examples of the negative press she has received.
“They have to remember why they’re there,” says one former fan of the movie. “It is a privilege and part of a brotherhood.”
Yu calls this inner misogyny.
“Historically, women have been second-class citizens,” says the director. “This is the structure that we grew up in. We have all internalized this structure in some ways. As women, you are forced to adapt.”
The teams change their contracts
The lawsuit brought by Thibodeaux-Fields in January 2014 sought to obtain salaries and back wages for her and the current and former 90 Raiderettes.
In July 2014, Raiders New contracts offered For the 40-member cheerleading squad, which means they’ll be earning $ 9 an hour and get paid for all of their hours.
In September of that year, eight months after the lawsuit, the team He submitted a $ 1.25 million settlement (£ 900,000) to the women in the Thibodeaux-Fields suit.
Thibodeaux-Fields believes her case and the other lawsuits filed have inspired change across the NFL.
“I had fans from some of these teams who called me and said, ‘You don’t know me, but we just got new contracts.'”
But Yu is frustrated that he didn’t go further.
“There is still broad change and transparency on a continuous basis,” she says. “Any changes that have occurred have done so under the table and for individual teams.”
Pinzone’s lawsuit against the bills is still ongoing. In the film, she expressed her frustration with the team’s attempts to deliver what she describes as low-ball compromises.
“The fact that they thought we would accept something so low shows what they think of us: that we are nothing,” she says.
How blame is the NFL?
The film explores the question of how strong the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodall could have over the cheerleading team contracts.
Thibodeaux-Fields says, “Roger Gödel signs our contracts, so it’s kind of understandable that he’s aware of the things they put before him or support him, as I hope so.”
“When you are on the team, you are part of the NFL.”
A spokesperson for the NFL told BBC Sport: “For teams that have fans, the league has no role in their selection, duties, hours or wages.” They added that there was no discussion of changing this position.
The invaders, who are now being transferred to Las Vegas, were contacted for comment by the BBC.
Thibodeaux-Fields now lives in Florida and says her dance is currently confined to the house.
Looking back, she is proud of the role she played in the fight for women’s rights.
“After 2018, with the Me Too movement, America is finally starting to have these really cool conversations about women in the workplace that I was having in 2015. It’s really cool to think of myself as ahead of time.”