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Washington Redskins Cheerleaders: All work, (almost) no pay

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(Photo: Matthew Beck/TBD)
Redskins cheerleadersPhoto: Matthew Beck

If an aspiring cheerleader opts for each of these suggested modifications, she’ll be out a few thousand dollars before she even auditions for the squad. But so what? A salaryman looking for a job in corporate administration invests big dollars in suits, cufflinks, and ties. An aspiring professional athlete sinks bank into trainers and diet. But it’s only an investment if you stand to make a return.

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Redskins cheerleaders shake up money for the team, if not themselves.

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Cheerleaders who make the cut are paid $75 per home game performance. With eight games and a couple of preseason bouts at FedExField on the schedule, full compensation for a season of on-field entertainment can amount to less than $1,000. Redskins cheerleaders also receive a pair of season tickets. Of course, they’ll have to find someone else to fill the seats—they’ll be working.

The Redskins say cheerleaders log “12 to 20 hours” of work for the team every week. That's probably low. According to cheerleader testimonials at Project Cheerleader, women attend two to five mandatory practices each week, which sometimes start at 6 p.m. and extend to midnight. Cheerleaders must learn their choreography on their own time, studying DVDs of routines before key practices. Throughout the summer, the women practice as a squad. And that doesn’t include the hours of tanning, dieting, exercising, makeup applying, hair styling, and bra-pinning necessary to make the cheerleaders field-ready.
Once the season starts, game days can be 12-hour affairs. To make a 1 p.m. start time, 29-year-old Buffy wakes up at 5 a.m. She hits the shower, does her hair and makeup, and arrives at FedExField by 7:45. At each stadium arrival, “it’s important we present ourselves in the best light possible,” Buffy says. During the game, she’ll execute halftime and sideline routines. She’ll drop to the splits in the kickline. She’ll represent the team in events and promotions throughout the afternoon. And no matter what she’s doing, she’ll always look the part. “When a commercial comes on,” says fellow cheerleader Dawn, 28, “you’re cheering for that commercial.” The day’s duties won’t end until 6 p.m.

Each spring, cheerleaders set aside eight full days for the organization, too. That’s when they travel to an “exotic location,” where they’ll produce enough primo shots for 16 months of calendar. At last year’s Punta Cana shoot, the Redskinettes tinkered with provocative poses for days. Several cheerleaders appeared with only footballs, hands, or pink roses covering their breasts. Others just wore paint. In shoot videos published on the team website — which sidle up to ads from Verizon and Audi — the women romp in the surf and dish about what they look for in guys. The Redskins sell the resulting spread for $14.99 a pop.

The Redskins say the shoot “includes airfare, hotel and all meals,” but Jojokian warns Project Cheerleaders that squad members are required to secure their own passports and set away their own vacation time for the mandatory trip. The Redskins won’t comment on whether these women are actually compensated for eight straight days of highly revealing modeling work. “I’m sorry,” Redskins Senior Vice President Tony Wyllie told me via email when I asked for comment on the cheerleaders’ pay: “we can not help here.”

Redskins cheerleaders

The Redskins won’t confirm what wages the cheerleaders bring home, but the women drum up plenty for the team. Each year, the Redskins make each cheerleader available for more than 20 official appearances, where they dance, sign autographs, and pose for photos at private parties and corporate events. Unlike Redskins players, the team’s cheerleaders can’t set their own appearance fees, and the team won’t disclose its price tag of a Redskinette at your doorstep. But across the league, NFL teams charge outside organizations an hourly rate that far outstrips the women’s game-day pay. The Baltimore Ravens, for example, charge appearance fees of $150 to $250 per cheerleader per hour. The Tennessee Titans charge up to $300 an hour. And the Oakland Raiders rent their cheerleaders at a $400 hourly rate. It’s not clear what portion of those appearance fees actually trickles down to the talent.

When NFL cheerleaders aren’t turning a profit for the teams, they’re pulling heartstrings on feel-good PR missions. The women of the Redskins volunteer their services by visiting veterans’ hospitals, hopping on antique fire trucks, and patronizing “green” hair salons, all to burnish the team’s public image. "Aside from the lipstick, eyelashes, and hairspray, this is a very reputable organization to be a part of," says cheerleader co-captain Sabrina of the squad’s charity work.

Redskins cheerleaders also lend their talents to autographed squad photos ($20), authentic pom-poms handled during games ($50), and a full-service iPhone app available only to fans 12 and older ($1.99). The women occupy significant real estate on the team website, where their highly clickable photos lounge next to ad space for Kenny Chesney, Bank of America, and Toyota. In 2009, the Redskins enlisted the women into a listener contest for Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s sports station, WTEM-AM. The prize: Cheerleaders in bikinis wash your car. The event required the women to “put down your pom poms and grab a sponge!”; a radio promotion teased that the auto was just a stand-in for the fantasy of cheerleaders “soaping up and scrubbing you.”

And the Redskins aren’t the only ones making money off their backsides. Comcast SportsNet carries a “Beauties on the Beach” video series starring members of the squad. The NFL sells snapshots of the cheerleaders on its website for anywhere from $15 to $389.

This is where gridiron sexism hits with full force. Football players are paid for the use of their likeness thanks to a group licensing agreement with the NFL Players Association, but the cheerleaders have no such deal. “We do not pay them,” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told me via e-mail. “The teams pay their cheerleaders. As part of their agreement with the team to become cheerleaders, they understand that they will not be paid additionally if their likeness is used in this manner. Our office doesn't get involved.”

It’s possible to run a successful professional football team without the aid of cheerleaders; six NFL teams don’t employ the pom-pom shakers. But you might not be able to run a team as financially successful as the Redskins. Forbes this year valued the organization at $1.6 billion, making the Redskins the second most valuable NFL team behind the Dallas Cowboys. The Redskins “brand management” alone constitutes a $131 million industry. And at Project Cheerleader, prospective beach beauties are instilled with the tremendous significance of making money for the Redskins, if not for themselves. “The Redskins are one of the highest revenue organizations in the NFL,” Lee tells the calendar hopefuls. The team has “more fans come to games, more fans buying paraphernalia, more fans buying calendars,” she says. “Those pictures are important.”

And the team makes sure Redskins cheerleaders look the part. “I remember one time walking off the field and a lady screaming from the stands: ‘My gosh, those cheerleaders make way too much money; look at their earrings!’” cheerleader Jamilla Keene told the Washington Post last year. “We wear a kind of Swarovski-style crystal; it's costume jewelry, but it looks extremely expensive. So it made me giggle that this lady had this perception that we make a lot of money.”

In lieu of cash, cheerleaders accept consolation prizes. Shiona Baum, who cheered for the team for the better part of the 1980s, represented the Redskins in a televised NFL cheerleading battle, and snagged a red Volkswagen Scirocco that she drove “for years.” Terri Crane Lamb, founder of the Washington Redskins Cheerleaders Alumni Association, was happy to cheer for nothing more than two free season tickets throughout the ‘80s — back then, the seats were worth more.

Other women sign up in the hopes of going on to careers in modeling, acting, or dance. I asked Lamb to list some of the squad’s most successful alums. There’s Debbie Barrigan (’94-’95 and ’99-’01), a dance troupe member in Blast!, a staged take on a football halftime show. Kimberly Vaughn (’98, ’00-‘07) now designs fur and leather handbags, including a pigskin version. Several cheerleaders have moved on to other high-profile positions in the beauty circuit: Michae Holloman (‘02-‘07) was crowned Miss Maryland USA in 2007; Kristianna Nichols became Mrs. America in 1992. Some of the squad’s most prominent alums married success. Janet Patrick is wife to sportscaster Mike. Christy Oglevee (’03-‘07) married Redskins tight end Chris Cooley. Maureen Gardner (’74-‘77) wed future Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

Those who don’t get high-profile jobs — or husbands — out of the deal are rewarded with a certain social status. Redskins cheerleaders are members of an elite club, one that Real Housewives star Michaele Salahi infamously attempted to infiltrate. “When I was with the Redskins cheerleaders, I felt like a celebrity,” says Lamb, whose alumni association boasts 900 former cheerleaders dating back to the ‘62 squad, including more than 200 paid members ($15 a year). Even now, Lamb says, “we get asked to golf in tournaments as celebrity golfers.”

Women are prepared from a young age to aspire to the kickline — and to get used to paying for the opportunity. Tylah Lancaster, a 19-year-old from Oxon Hill who attended Project Cheerleader, told me she has wanted to cheer for the Redskins “since I was 3 years old.” At the Redskins team store, girls’ cheerleading jumpers are available for toddlers starting at size 3T ($34). Girls as young as five are recruited to join the Junior Redskins Cheerleaders, who “learn the fundamentals of dance, showmanship and performance” ($325) and perform at halftime shows in a uniform “specially designed to resemble the Washington Redskins Cheerleaders Uniform” ($265). At this year’s final cheerleading auditions, Cheyenne Estep, 6, a “die-hard fan of the cheerleaders,” took mental notes as grown women posed with footballs in bikinis and towering heels to the sounds of Christina Aguilera ($15 to $25 per ticket). During the regular season, Cheyenne and her mother, Kimberly, make the 100-mile commute from Mount Jackson, Va., to FedExField to give Cheyenne the chance to wave her pom-poms on the field.

And no level of front-and-center career success can dampen the cultural cache of a spot on the sidelines. Redskins cheerleaders are engineers, Ph.D. candidates, and Air Force Manpower analysts. At Project Cheerleader, I met a DCPS administrator, a consultant, and a law student all vying for a part-time slot on the squad. “Being a Cheerleader certainly is a great complement to a law career,” cheerleader Marisa says in her squad profile page, on which she poses in a skirt that could moonlight as a belt. In fact, women are required to hold down “a full/part-time job, or attend school full time, or have a family” in order to try out for the team.

And that day job sure comes in handy. Institutional traditions prevent Redskins cheerleaders from really making names for themselves. The gig is stamped with a rough expiration date—though the Redskins don’t enforce an upper age limit, they say their cheerleaders generally range from 18 to 35. The oldest cheerleader in NFL history is 42 years old. In all official capacities, current cheerleaders—including those quoted in this story—are identified only by their first names. “They have fans,” Jojokian says of the surname ban. “Fans who like to look them up.”

At public appearances, cheerleaders are accompanied by bodyguards to ward off inappropriate advances. Pretending that it’s not a big deal is part of the job. “Toward the end of the game, when people are getting belligerent, you just have to keep your head up and smile,” says Donna, 26. “Stay professional,” adds Amanda. “Don’t let the rest of the crowd know it’s affecting you, even if it is.” Sometimes, the crowd commentary requires some internal justification. Cheerleaders should always remember that “it’s about the dancing and performing,” Buffy says. “Not about the outfits we’re wearing.”

The first-name basis may help the cheerleaders evade stalkers, but it also prevents them from building personal brands outside of the boundaries of the team. Agreeing to the terms of the gig “takes a special kind of woman,” says cheerleader Amanda. Says Keene: “You do it for the love of what you do.”

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