Review: A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleading Problem

STUDIO: 1091 Pictures | DIRECTOR: Yu Gu
RELEASE DATE: Jan. 26, 2021
SPECS: NR | 80 min. | Documentary

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie

What do you get if you mix football, feminism and film? The 2019 documentary A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, which details the historic class-action wage theft lawsuit against the NFL initiated by current and former cheerleaders.

Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields is a working wife and mother who finds herself struggling with debt even though she has her “dream job” as an Oakland Raiders cheerleader. One day, she realizes that after her paying out of pocket costs for multiple work expenses including her uniforms, and not receiving compensation for hours spent on mandatory practices and promotional appearances, her annual salary amounts to a paltry sum of $1,200—which isn’t even paid out until the end of the season. This certainly seems wildly out of touch as the NFL makes billions of dollars in profit every year. (Even the mascots make an average of $60,000 a year!)

So, in 2014, Thibodeaux-Fields enlisted an all-female employment law firm and sued the Oakland Raiders. Her actions weren’t met with high-fives and end zone dances, even from the cheerleading sisterhood, many whom seemingly echo the sentiments of the NFL, and the public at large, that being a cheerleader isn’t a job, it’s a privilege. (‘Keep your mouth and be happy with what you have’ appeared to be the general feeling towards her.) Eventually Thibodeaux-Fields’ case inspired other women across the country to stand up and file similar lawsuits, including several cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills. In response, the Bills canceled the cheerleading program.

It’s no revelation that the NFL has culture of toxic masculinity but it is a bit of shock that after 50 years cheerleaders continue to face such blatant discrimination and inequality — especially as we celebrate the hiring and acceptance of women as NFL coaches and referees. Director Yu Gu (Who Is Arthur Chu) expertly frames the hypocrisy of the NFL for enlisting women (who have spent years perfecting their craft as trained dancers) to perform for and help promote their teams, and then, along with the male fans who happily ogle them, call them whores when they want to get paid for their work. The football fan in me felt a little better learning that at least the NFL Players Association supported the suit.

As the film follows the women through their legal battels, it features thoughtful interviews from their family members, lawyers and California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who composed legislation specifically to protect professional cheerleaders. The only comments from the NFL come from various news reports and broadcast interviews with Commissioner Roger Goodell. It is unclear if the filmmakers reached out to him or anyone else in the NFL for this film.

The only area where the film falters a bit is in its structure. Its brief 80 minutes includes a few too many extraneous scenes from the women’s personal lives which don’t necessarily push the narrative along. That time would have been better utilized providing an in-depth examination into the varied expenses the women must personally cover and how many unpaid practice and promotional hours they clock.

Those small quibbles aside, A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem successfully lays out a case for how the NFL cheerleaders are not only underpaid but undervalued. The film is an important work and should be required viewing for every football before they tune in to the upcoming Super Bowl.

About Janine

Janine is a dedicated fan of the 1940 film Kitty Foyle, directed by Sam Wood, written by Dalton Trumbo and starring Ginger Rogers, who won an Oscar for her portrayal. And seeing that film is all it took to make her a lifelong movie lover. Janine is excited to add her insights to the great team at DishDisc.com.