A first-of-its-kind wage theft lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders gained a second named plaintiff Tuesday, when four-year cheerleader and co-captain Sarah G. announced she’d join her fellow Raiderette’s Lacy T.’s suit. (Both women are publicly using only their first names and the initials of their last names, in deference to Raiders policy). That follows confirmation last week that the Department of Labor had opened an investigation – not just into Lacy T.’s pay, but into “the team’s cheerleading squad.”
The cheerleaders and their lawyer, Leslie Levy, contend that their potential class action -- alleging that illegal pay policies are literally written into the Raiderettes’ contracts – could transform NFL cheerleading. (A spokesperson for the Raiders did not respond to a Tuesday inquiry.)
“I gave them my all – and just to find out we’ve been fooled this whole time,” Sarah G. told Salon. In a joint interview, Sarah G., Lacy T. and Levy discussed what spurred what spurred them to sue, their co-workers’ response, and whether they’re treated worse because they’re women. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
Why are you now joining this lawsuit?
Sarah: I’m joining this with Lacy because it wasn’t until she filed the lawsuit that I had any idea that I had been signing an illegal contract, full of illegal provisions, for the past four seasons.
What kind of illegal provisions?
Levy: For instance, in California, it’s required that you get a paycheck every two weeks. These Raiderettes start their season … in April, and they do not get their one and only paycheck until the following January …
The contract calls for them to get paid $125 for each game. Game days are 10 hours long -- they do not get paid the two hours overtime …
According to the contract, they’re not to be paid for practices, they’re not to be paid for charity appearances …
So there are hours and hours and hours, according to the contract, that are put in, that are completely unpaid.
Sarah, how have you been impacted by this alleged wage theft? How has it affected you?
Sarah: I signed a contract for the past four years. But it wasn’t until I read Lacy’s claim that I just -- I felt cheated, I felt used. Betrayed by an organization that I gave my heart and soul to for the past four seasons. I gave them my all – and just to find out we’ve been fooled this whole time.
How has your budget been affected by these alleged violations?
Sarah: Any Raiderette will tell you we’re doing it for the love of dance. Money isn’t a factor, you know, going into this. But now that I’m aware of the fact that I have been signing an illegal contract for the past four years, that’s where the issue is. And that’s what we’re fighting for, is for us to be paid in accordance to the law, and what the law says we are entitled to.
The decision to start or to join this lawsuit – is that something you did with ambivalence? Did you have fears about entering into this lawsuit?
Lacy: Yeah, of course. When I first decided to take my contract to this law firm, and all of my fears I guess you could say were confirmed, I knew that I definitely wanted to pursue the lawsuit and make a big change -- not only for the Raiderettes, but hopefully for the entire NFL and their cheerleaders.
But yeah, it was very scary. Because it was my first season as a Raiderette, and I knew it could potentially be my last season as a Raiderette by doing this …
I did want to wait until the season was over so that I could enjoy my one and only season and give it -- dance to my fullest. Because it was a huge dream for me. But at the end of the day, I just felt like I had to do something. Because it was just ridiculous the amount of hours we were putting in, and how hard we were working, and the amount we walk away with at the end of the year.
Was there something in particular that spurred you to make that first visit to a lawyer?
I came from an NBA team -- I danced with the Golden State Warriors for two seasons, and …they paid us more than the minimum wage. I got paid for every hour I worked, on two-week periods. I had zero out of pocket expenses.
So coming from that and joining the NFL, and with the Raiders, right off the bat I was spending money out of my pocket. Week after week I was traveling to these photo shoots and mini-camp. And it was the point when I said, “Wow, I’ve spent over $500 this month, and I’m not going to even see a paycheck until next year?”
That’s the first thing that made me question the contract and everything that I’d stepped into. So I kind of knew off the bat that this was wrong, and very different from what I was used to.
Sarah, the decision to join the lawsuit -- was that a scary thing to do?
Sarah: I decided to join with her when it actually was in front of my face that it is an illegal contract. And I sacrificed my last year -- I was hoping for another year with Raiders, I sacrificed that.
Dancing is my passion. It’s always been my dream to be a Raiderette. So it was a hard decision. But at the end of the day, I’m glad that I’m standing up for what I believe in, and what is fair.
Levy: This is an NFL-wide practice ... Pretty much any NFL team that we have heard of or know about engages in some version of this contract, that does not provide compensation in accordance with either state or federal law.
Sarah, when you said you sacrificed your last year, what did you mean?
Sarah: I had every intention trying out for the Raiders for my 5th season … I’m putting that aside.
Just, my dream to dance, my dream to become a Raiderette, is in a sense ending short, so I can stand up for what is right and what is fair – to side with Lacy.
Because you don’t think the team would let you come back, or because you don’t want to come back after filing this lawsuit?
Sarah: Both. I would love to come back if they changed their contract, and gave us a legal contract to sign. But I don’t feel that I’d be the first pick back on the team after this, to be completely honest with you
Lacy: I don’t think that we’re going to be welcomed back with open arms.
A Los Angeles Times columnist printed some excerpts from the [internal Raiderette] handbook, including etiquette advice like “If you don’t like your meal, try a little of everything and strategically move the rest around your plate.” Were you bothered by that kind of language in the handbook?
Lacy: I personally was not bothered by that. I mean, I think etiquette was probably something we could all learn a little bit from. And it was presented in a way where we just said: This is to help you out if you ever find yourself in a formal situation.
It’s about manners. And being from the South, it’s like, you know, debutantes, and you kind of learn about this at a young age as well. So I personally was not offended by anything in the handbook. That’s just me.
Sarah: I feel the exact same way. The handbook isn’t what’s in question here. I feel the handbook is how every woman should live their life. It’s just like Lacy said -- it’s a book of etiquette and how to conduct yourself as a woman.
And the part in all caps that says “DO NOT BECOME THE TOPIC OF CONVERSATION IN THE LOCKER ROOM AND/OR BY THE RAIDER STAFF. WE EVENTUALLY HEAR EVERYTHING” - were you put off by that?
Lacy: I personally wasn’t. Just because I’m married with a child, so I have no intentions of getting to know anyone on the team. I think that was something that was said because of, like, things that might have happened in the past …
Sarah: I feel the exact same way as Lacy … There are a lot of young girls that join the team, that are 18, 19 years old, and you know, just surrounded by these star athletes. It should be addressed – how to act around them, and how not to act around them.
The allegations that are being made about not being paid what you’re legally owed – do you see this as an issue about gender?
Lacy: Well, I mean I guess that’s open for interpretation. But I don’t know -- I mean, it is a bunch of women that are living our dream, and they’re taking advantage of us, and they have all of the power in the world to change it, and the men in the office have just chosen not to. Maybe you can decide for yourself. But I think a little bit, yeah.
Levy: The mascots for most teams, if not all … are male. And from every research … we’ve conducted, they get paid between $30,000 and $65,000 a year. So, while I know that they work hard on the field, they don’t work anything like these women work. And they certainly don’t work the hours outside of the field that these women work.
What has been the response that you’ve gotten, Lacy, both from your co-workers and from management since you’ve gone public like this?
Lacy: Since I’ve gone public, I’ve heard zero from the Raiders office, from my director and from any management.
The support of people that are not dancers … has been phenomenal …
Now, from the dancing community and my sister Raiderettes, it’s a little bit of both. A lot of girls support me, and understand exactly what needs to change, but they’re too scared to come forward publicly.
And then there are some girls that are really upset. Because you have to understand, they had no idea I was going to do this -- and they woke up one morning and they were all over the news. So yeah, I think some of them were a little bit upset about that.
And Sarah coming out publicly - and saying I’m not only going to privately support you, but I’m willing to put my name out there too, and let the public know that you’re not the only one that feels this way -- I think is going to make all the difference in the world to this case. And she’s a co-captain, and a four-year veteran, and someone that a lot of the girls really look up to on the team. So maybe her coming forward will change everything.
Why do you think more Raiderettes haven’t joined the lawsuit so far?
Sarah: When I read that Lacy had come out and filed the claim, I admit I was a little hesitant at first … This is my passion -- my dream, you know -- I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stop that, you know, so quickly. So abrupt.
But … my point in coming out with Lacy was in hopes that more girls will, you know, realize that they don’t have to be afraid to stand up for what’s going on here and … just to jump on board.
Levy: All the Raiderettes are part of [the suit]. They don’t need to publicly come forward to be part of it. So it is on their behalf kind of whether they like it or not
That’s assuming that you receive class certification, right?
Levy: Yeah. It’s a little hard to imagine how we could not receive class certification at this point … I rarely say that, but this is one of the clearest cases that I’ve seen in decades.
Being a Raiderette – what made this such an appealing job?
Sarah: I’ve been dancing since I was 3 years old. So just to become a professional dancer in any aspect has always been a dream of mine. You know, I grew up associating the Raiderettes [with being] just a talented group of women, beautiful women, very well-respected …
It was just my dream to be able to perform at a professional football games as a Raiderette.
Lacy: It was also a dream of mine to dance in the NBA and the NFL … The Raiderettes were voted the No. 1 NFL cheerleading team two years in a row. So they’re a very prestigious group of women, and they’re known for their class and their talent. And so to want to be a Raiderette, I think, is a lot of girls’ dream …
And once you’re a Raiderette, you know how special it is to be one -- so I think that’s also a reason why a lot of girls are scared to come forward.
Do either of you believe that there’s anything inherently problematic or sexist about cheerleading as it exists now in the U.S.?
Sarah: Absolutely not. I’ve never felt that way with the Raiders.
Lacy: I don’t think so, personally …
At appearances and stuff, we’re always treated with respect, and we’re taught how to handle certain situations. And besides the matter of not paying us in accordance to law, I’ve never felt that there was like a sexist thing, or disrespected.
But now that the season’s all said and done, and it’s clear that they knowingly broke the law, I do feel offended and used a little bit. But … never before that did I think that way.
How far are the two of you willing to go with this lawsuit?
Lacy: All the way. Hopefully Sarah’s on board with me, but I think that we’re willing to go on any talk show that wants to talk about it, talk to any news reporter or radio show. Mainly not to embarrass the organization -- that’s never my intention -- but to hopefully reach other teams, and other dancers and cheerleaders out there, to come forward and hopefully change the NFL from here on out.
Levy: This lawsuit -- and it is, as far as we know, the first of its kind -- may push the NFL to reexamine all of the contracts for all of the cheerleaders, and bring them in accordance with state and federal law.
Do you expect that you will file, or that others will file, lawsuits against other teams?
Levy: I would love to say that it won’t be necessary. But if it is necessary, we’re ready to do so.
Do you have an estimate of what the Raiders' liability is here?
I mean, they have put these illegal provisions on paper. It is a written contract that you can go through, and just page by page by page, see every violation of law -- pretty much every labor law, major law in the state of California, is broken.
I have no doubt – and again, I don’t say this lightly – I have no doubt that we will succeed on liability. I think the issue will be just doing the math on the damages.
And what range do you think that penalty is in?
Levy: The women will be entitled to any back wages they’re owed, and they will be entitled to penalties.
It could be as much as $10,000 to $20,000 per Raiderette, and there are 40 in any given year, and we go back four years …
It may be more than that.