Surely because there was an abundance of women directors invited to bring their new movies to the recent Tribeca Film Festival, there was a preponderance of films at the festival that dealt with either the exploitation of women or the empowerment of women.
One film was about both: A Woman’s Work: The NFL Cheerleader Problem. Directed by Yu Gu, who was born in China and raised in Canada, and produced by Gu and Elizabeth Ai, this provocative documentary features two former NFL cheerleaders, Lucy Thibodeaux-Fields and Maria Pinzone, marvelous subjects whose gutsy stand against their exploitation ultimately empowered them.
After attending college in her home state of Louisiana on a cheerleading scholarship (and money she won in a beauty pageant), Lacy’s years of hard work paid off when she became a member of the Oakland Raiderettes. Maria grew up in Buffalo, where after winning many cheerleading awards in high school, she fulfilled her dream by becoming a cheerleader with the Buffalo Jills.
The thrill of becoming an NFL cheerleader was soon gone for both women when they realized they weren’t being properly compensated or respected for their time and efforts on behalf of their teams. In addition to not receiving paychecks in the mail, both were still expected to do promotions for their teams without pay, and Maria was forced to pay for her uniforms and to be in a team calendar and to endure such humiliations as jumping-jack drills to show her body movements.
In 2014, Lacy and, months later, Maria put a stop to their illegal mistreatment by daring to file class-action lawsuits against their respective organizations. They sacrificed their own careers—the Jills were unceremoniously disbanded as well—and became targets of vile attacks by those who believed cheerleaders should be seen but not heard and should not expect compensation for what they did. Even other cheerleaders turned against them, although it was their rights the two women were fighting for.
Fortunately, their risky actions led to suits against one-third of the NFL teams over wage theft, illegal employment practices and discrimination, and further put fear into the league by making sexual harassment a major issue.
Watch the trailer:
During the festival, I was delighted to sit down with Yu Gu and Elizabeth Ai and their compelling stars, Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields and Maria Pinzone, at the Roxy Hotel in Tribeca. Journalist Miriam Spritzer joined our conversation.
Danny Peary: Yu, I think A Woman’s Work: The NFL Cheerleader Problem has a connection to your previous documentaries. It too has the theme of finding one’s identity, as both Lacy and Maria found out who they really are during the years that you filmed them. Does that make sense to you?
Yu Gu: It actually does. The first short hybrid narrative-documentary I made, A Moth in Spring, was a personal, first-person-perspective film. I wanted to make a short documentary about my journey to China to try to make a short about my family and growing up there—but when I was shut down I returned to the U.S. and made my film about that. My first feature documentary, Who Is Arthur Chu?, follows an Asian-American nerd who has been an outcast all of his life but is now in the limelight as he tries to make a space for himself and gain a mainstream following. In this film I follow these women who were part of dance-cheerleading communities that they have known their entire lives.
As dancers and cheerleaders, they supported the amateur and professional football teams that were entrenched in their communities. Then they had the courage to stand up and say the NFL’s treatment of cheerleaders is not right and to change things. Through that process they became outsiders. I knew that I wanted to follow them in the long run. I wanted to see how they could rebuild who they are after leaving the communities they have known their whole lives and, through the process of their lawsuits, gain self-knowledge and grow from that.
DP: Why were you interested in NFL cheerleaders?
YG: I was interested in football as an outsider who sees it as a microcosm of this country, with all the good and bad values. As a feminist and someone who understands what it’s like to be treated unfairly as a woman, their journey gave me an opportunity to explore and express those things. It was very important for me as a visible minority woman filmmaker to make this film about what cheerleaders like Lacy and Maria come up against in the world of professional football.
DP: Lacy, how long was your journey?
Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields: About five years, with the lawsuit taking about three and a half years.
DP: In regard to Yu’s search-for-identity theme, did you say to yourself through those years, “I’m really seeing now who I really am?”
LTF: Oh, yeah. I knew I was brave and strong, but I didn’t really understand what feminism really means. So if I was asked if I was feminist, I’d get offended and say, “I’m not a feminist, I’m just trying to fight for what’s right.” I didn’t realize what I was saying was contradictory until Yu pointed out to me, “Lacy, do you remember when I first asked you that question and you got so defensive about it?” As the journey went on and I had more kids and came to terms with giving up dance, and it was all about making change and wanting a better experience for the girls after me, I realized that was feminism. I was fighting for fair pay and I was fighting for respect, and feminism was no longer a bad word to me. But it took me years to come to terms with my being a feminist.
DP: But you weren’t ever compromising, you were evolving.
LTF: For sure.
DP: And you, Maria?
Maria Pinzone: I feel the same way as Lacy. The whole process was eye-opening and it was such an incredible experience to go through it with Yu and have her there for four years. Toward the end, I was thinking, “Wow, we have accomplished so much.” We had brought about important changes.
DP: Did your own courage surprise you?
MP: I didn’t know about that. It took me a while to get comfortable with that part of myself.
Miriam Spritzer: When we were little girls, we all wanted to be cheerleaders. What were your expectations when you got the job, and what was the reality that made you actually take action on it?
LTF: It was difficult for me to have worked so hard in my life to get to the point where you are an NFL cheerleader only to realize that it wasn’t everything you hoped it was. My whole life, I was a cheerleader, I was a dancer. I grew up in a small town, Sulphur, and football was life in all of Louisiana. That carried through for me from high school football to Louisiana Tech football. I was captain of the dance team, I got a scholarship, life was great. Then after I high school, I flew out to San Francisco and became a Warrior Girl. That whole experience was amazing. I’d made it, right? The Super Bowl of my dance career. I’d done everything I wanted to do, except for one thing on my list. I wanted to be an NFL cheerleader and be on the field again
I got there with the Raiderettes and that’s when I said, “What is happening here?!?” But nobody around me had the same look on their face as me. I was the only one asking questions. Like, “Why haven’t I been paid all year? That makes no sense.” They wanted me to look a certain way, so I went to get my hair done, but they said they didn’t like the color and I was told to get it done again. I’m sorry, but that was a $200 hair appointment that took me away from my daughter for four hours and you want me to do it again? It sounds silly, but in my life at that time it wasn’t a little thing. I had a one-year-old daughter and this was money out of my own pocket. It was offensive. So I’d gone through my whole life to get somewhere, only to realize it was a sham and I was pretty much being used. It was a horrible feeling. But my love for dance had never left, which was why I was willing to fight for it.
MP: I didn’t like being exploited and I could see that happening. The people in power were taking advantage of girls who were 18, 19 and 20, and I couldn’t accept that.
DP: Were you two surprised that so many people came out against you for speaking out?
LTF: As a cheerleader I didn’t realize there was anyone against me. But when you make it clear you should be treated better, you naturally have haters, people who don’t respect you and say, “You’re so lucky to be a cheerleader and famous, and you expect to be paid?” That was kind of a shock.
MP: It took me three times to make the Jills. I tried out when I was 18 and then again, and again before I made it. There was a huge of amount of work I had to do just to make the team. You put everything into it. It is such an accomplishment and once you’re on the team, you expect to be treated well. And we weren’t.
DP: I’m sure some people said that you knew what you’re getting into.
LTF: They didn’t allow the cheerleaders to talk about their treatment or pay. So I didn’t know what I was getting into before I signed the Raiders’ illegal contract. My experience in the NBA with the Warriors was not my experience in the NFL with the Raiders. With the Warriors, I was paid fairly for my time and was paid on time, and there were no out-of-pocket expenses. I expected to be treated the same way with the Raiders and I wasn’t. I had something to compare it to.
YG: You can’t sign up to be treated illegally. Just because the women sign a contract doesn’t absolve the employers from responsibility and from the fact that they did something illegal. That attitude and the perception that the employee is wrong for not adhering to an illegal contract is really false and it is victim-blaming.
Elizabeth Ai: Did they have counsel with them when they signed the contact? No. Did they have time to review it? No.
MP: The NFL logo was on top of the contract I was given by the Bills, so I wasn’t going to question its legality. I was going to sign it.
DP: What you two did actually divided your cheerleading teams, and that was likely one of the hardest things you endured. Some of the cheerleaders accepted being exploited, while you were trying to end exploitation to benefit them.
EA: I don’t think it was dividing the cheerleading community. Maybe initially it caused shock waves, but in 2017 and 2018, more than a dozen lawsuits came out against the NFL from cheerleaders who were saying they were not going to accept these illegal practices, and not going to put up with sexual harassment. It all came out. Coinciding with the #MeToo movement, Lacy and Maria actually brought a lot of women together. That was what we hoped for and it happened.
DP: Your class-action lawsuits were both filed in 2014, so you were years ahead of the #MeToo movement and were groundbreakers on your own.
MP: Yes, many women came out after us and also filed lawsuits.
LTF: My number-one fear was that they were going to get rid of the Raiderettes, which is what they did to the Buffalo Jills, what they did to Maria. Then it would have been all because of me, all because I was trying to fight for the other girls. If they would have shut down the Raiderettes I would have been the worst person in the world.
YG: But, Lacy, in reality it’s not your responsibility.
LTF: It’s NOT in any way, shape or form, but there is still that feeling. I inspired Maria to go against the Bills and her Jills got dismantled. What the organizations do shouldn’t fall on us, but of course in your heart you’re thinking, “This is all my fault.”
DP: Maria, if Lacy hadn’t done what she did, would you have done what you did?
MP: Yeah, because as I went through the season, I knew what was going on wasn’t right and I needed to talk to somebody about it. I spoke to a couple of the girls who’d join the lawsuit with me, and I told my story to an attorney, Sean Cooney. I told him what I’d experienced, what I’d endured, everything that had happened. I asked, “Am I crazy to think that these things don’t feel right and should be changed?”
DP: Did your lawyers on opposite coasts speak to each other?
MP: A little bit.
DP: Were your lawsuits different?
LTF: Yes, because we had totally different experiences. My main fight was about wage theft. Luckily, I didn’t feel in any way that I was abused. Unlike Maria, I never had to do the “jiggle test” or had to pay for my uniform. My main focus was on the Raiders not abiding by California law.
MP: Our fight did have to do with wages, but it was also about mistreatment. I explained to my attorney how we were treated and how we were given a handbook to teach us rules and proper etiquette. That didn’t sit right with me and I wanted it changed.
MS: Were you trying to talk to people in the organization about things being a little bit off?
LTF: I talked a lot to the girls. I was really annoyed that nobody was as upset as me. I felt that with the Raiderettes there was really a bullyish culture. Our director Jeannette Thompson was not approachable. She worked in the office and when she walked in, the room went silent. She changed the atmosphere. And we were constantly told, “If you aren’t pleased with the way things are, you auditioned with 600 other women who would be happy to take your spot.” When you hear that over and over, you aren’t comfortable saying, “Shouldn’t we get paid for that five-hour promo thing we did for the team?” You would never say that.
DP: With the Bills, the equivalent of Jeannette was the Jills manager, Stephanie Mateczun, who in the film you say “put fear into us.”
MP: Correct. She was exactly the same. I couldn’t say anything to her, or anyone in the Bills organization. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do so.
LTF: The fear of being cut instantly is always there. That’s how they keep you on your toes. They keep the girls looking the best they could possibly look and in the best shape. If you slip a little, you’re out of here.
DP: Is it calculated to have a female in the manager position?
LTF: For sure. Especially a female who was once a cheerleader and in your position. She knows exactly how much you want to be there and exactly how hard you work, and exactly how you feel. They use that against you. They know how to manipulate you.
MP: It’s very sad.
MS: It comes out in the film that the NFL players are allowed to make millions of dollars, but the cheerleaders are just supposed to have fun, although they are athletes as well and are a part of the show.
LTF: It was never about making a lot of money. I wasn’t expecting a million-dollar contract. I was, however, expecting to be paid for my time. As a mother, I wanted to help my husband Josh support our family. I saw this as a part-time job to help pay our bills. I expected to be paid like a part-time worker, doing what I love—what more could I ask for? I was willing to do it for minimum wage although I thought I deserved a lot more considering how hard it was to get a spot on the team.
I would have been satisfied to do it for $10 an hour. There is a love and passion for what I was doing but I wouldn’t let it take away from all the hours I put in every week and having my whole lifestyle revolve around my trying to be the best Raiderette, the best person in my community, and the best role model. They’d say, “Great job, we respect you in our organization and our family.” But not so much. “If you want to stand up for your rights, we don’t need you.”
DP: The film’s press notes state that you were often asked loaded questions like “Are cheerleaders worth a salary when they chose to be in an objectified position?” How did you feel hearing something like that when you saw your position as a way to show your dancing and cheering talent?
LTF: I had talent, something to offer. I was chosen from hundreds and hundreds of girls to be part of this. Then they dressed me and choreographed my moves. They handed me the pom-pom. I didn’t pick the uniform. The organization did. I would have danced in a cat suit from my head to my toes with a hot-air balloon around my waist and bells on my head. I just wanted to perform, which was my passion. I didn’t care what outfit I was dancing in, I just wanted to be paid for my time.
DP: Maria, I’m sure you also had people downplaying your talent and objectifying you.
MP: My experience was similar to Lacy’s. It was frustrating to know how hard I’d worked to get there and then to have them think they didn’t have to pay me. I wasn’t paid and wasn’t treated with respect and dignity. The worst part is that they shut down the Jills. I was blamed for that directly. The comments were very harsh because everyone wanted the Jills except for the Bills owner. [Russ Brandon was later ousted as team owner amid charges of workplace abuse.] They were part of the community and part of the fan experience. It was really hard to take that.
LTF: Because you enhanced the game-day experience. You’re the reason I’d bring my daughter to a football game. It’s not the football. We watch the cheerleaders.
MS: After bringing the lawsuits, did you expect to be cheerleaders again?
LTF: Oh, no. I never attempted to go back, assuming I couldn’t. I’m in a different place in my life now—I’m still dancing and teaching dance—but I don’t think I’d be welcome at all if I tried to return to cheerleading. They have dirty little secrets they don’t want exposed and if I were there I’d talk about them.
YG: You think of how low-profile these women are in comparison to Colin Kaepernick. And he’s trying to come back and play in the NFL but can’t do it. The headliner can’t get a job, so it wouldn’t be easy for the opening act.
MS: It’s important what you did for women in the industry. When you guys decided to speak out, you knew you were saying goodbye to your careers so that someone else can have it better.
DP: It’s like when Curt Flood virtually sacrificed his baseball career to fight against the reserve clause and help current and future players. Did you know it was the immediate end of your NFL cheerleading career when you filed your class-action lawsuit, Lacy T v. Oakland Raiders?
LTF: Oh, yeah. I brought the contract to my lawyers at the beginning of the season. Leslie [Levy] looked at it and was ready to go right then and there. She knew how big it was going to be and that it was going to open the floodgates on the NFL. But she told me, “If you do this, you’ve got to be prepared to never dance again.” I took what she told me and said, “Then I can’t make that decision today. I just made this team. I haven’t had the cheerleading experience yet. I worked so hard, so give me this one season and let me decide at the end of it if the suit is something I can do.” Maybe I won’t want to do it until after two or three years of cheerleading!
So the season began and every day was different. Some days I’d think I’d do the lawsuit, but on game days I’d think it was so much fun that I could never give it up. I didn’t decide it was worth doing the lawsuit until it was all said and done.
MS: How large was your support system?
MP: My mom, my husband and my sister were supportive from the start. The community and the other girls were not part of my support system early on, but as the years went by that changed. It was nice to talk to the girls who supported me. They wanted to stay in the background, but having their encouragement made me feel better about doing the right thing.
LTF: My husband has always been for women’s rights and he was fired up about doing the lawsuit. He said, “We’re doing it!” I said, “I don’t know! Chill!” He said, “No, we’re taking the contract to a lawyer!” He was so upset that the Raiders had the audacity to give his wife that contract and think they’d get away with it. But he didn’t have the same feeling as me because I was the one—I was the face—who was challenging the organization. But it helped that he kept telling me I was doing the right thing. I don’t know if I changed everything, but I improved things for the Raiderettes.
DP: Earlier you said that you knew you’d have to give up dance. You said “dance” rather than “cheerleading.”
LTF: To me, cheer is the same as dance, or a different kind of dance. I consider myself a dancer even when cheering with pom poms. I’ll never give up dance. I dance all the time, I teach dance. It is part of who I am. I just won’t do it in front of thousands of people in a football stadium ever again.
YG: In following your journey, Lacy, it was inspiring to me that they never took that away from you. Even though they devalued you and didn’t pay you for your time and work, they were never able to take away your love of dance. I see you going back to dance, finding it in your own way.
LTF: Game Day was the hardest thing to give up. It’s also hard to give up the friendships. You spend so much time with these girls—you work out together, you’re sweating, you’re exhausted and you’re telling each other, “Do it again! You can do it!”—and you get so close. You put up with bad treatment from the organization because there’s nothing that compares to spending a season and a half with those girls and the game-day experiences with them. It was such an awesome experience cheering with them, but I filed the lawsuit because I knew it could make it even better—it could make it fair for all the girls. Some girls would say, “Oh she doesn’t understand what it’s all about.” No, I understand what it’s all about. It’s sisterhood! I care about you, don’t you see? I’m doing this for you. I’m losing everything for you. I love you.
EA: At the time these things were going on, they were not supportive. They’d say she shouldn’t be doing the lawsuit. And now they see the importance of what they did.
LTF: I don’t think they will until they see this film. Or until they will actually be honest with themselves and look back and reflect on the industry and what they deserve as women.
MP: I think it will take time. Over the years, Lacy talked to girls who didn’t at first understand what she was doing. I had girls over and we talked about it. We didn’t agree with everything, which was okay. I was glad we were having a conversation and were expressing our concerns over where things were going and wanting to improve things. Over time more came around.
DP: The “great shot” in the movie is a recent one of you, Maria, riding a bicycle with both arms raised high. What do you feel when you see that?
MP: It’s very empowering. For what I’ve overcome over the past four years, what it took to get there and [starting to cry] everything I experienced during that time.
DP: Lacy, your eyes are teary, too. What is your reaction to that powerful image of Maria?
LTF: I cried a lot over her when watching the movie. She lost her mom and had that whole experience of the Jills shutting down, and being blamed for it was horrible. She had it way worse than me in many ways. So it’s nice to see her have that victory moment. Although it’s not yet a complete victory. There’s still so much farther to go.
MP: I’m hopeful with this film that more things can be resolved [and, as she says in the film, the NFL will admit publicly that it has been mistreating cheerleaders].
MS: How do you think people will react to this film?
LTF: I think people who see this film will look at the NFL a little differently now. And hopefully they’ll say, “I don’t want my daughters treated that way.” In Yu’s movie, what got me the most was the seeing Roger Goodell announcing, “This weekend we held a women’s summit.” He was so arrogant, saying they had discussed ways to more involve women in sports and teach them leadership. Yeah, right. His pride in that statement was such bullshit. The women who are already in sports, who are the leaders, are fighting against you because you are a coward who can’t tell NFL organizations that they have to pay their cheerleaders according to the law. That’s the bare minimum you should do! Follow your state’s law!
YG: I hope the film will be inspiring and heartening for people who see Lacy’s and Maria’s journeys and how they brought unity to their communities, with all these women coming together. That would be amazing. For me as a filmmaker, I would also like people to understand and recognize the value of women’s work, which has been devalued forever. That needs to change. Any kind of shift to toward that acknowledgment would be great.
DP: Maria, are you pleased that Yu picked the title A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem? I emphasize the word “work.”
MP: I love the title. It reflects on us as women. We’re proud to be standing up for what we believe in, which is to be compensated for our hard work.
LTF: I love the title. Because the person who many people see as a little cheerleader is also a mother, a daughter, a wife, a dancer, a worker, a woman. She is so much more than the uniform that people are judging her by. She deserves so much more. I think the title says it all. It’s an NFL cheerleading problem, but it’s also a women’s problem, and an American problem. This is just one tiny speck of what women are dealing with around the United States and around the world, when it comes to women’s pay and women’s treatment.
MS: What would be ideal for the future for cheerleaders?
LTF: A living wage salary for starters. It would be a dream to live off what you’re paid for your hard work, because organizations certainly can afford you. They pay the mascots more!
DP: And, Maria, say the Buffalo Jills were reformed, and you were offered Stephanie’s job…
MP (laughing): My gosh, that would be my dream! I want the Jills back more than anything. It’s been five years and there’s no reason they don’t bring them back and do it in the right way.
MS: The Tribeca Film Festival is known for the number of films shown each year that have been directed by women. Yu, how does it feel to premiere your movie here?
YG: I feel very proud. I feel very proud of these two women and my team, everybody who worked on this film. When we started this film years ago it was just me and Elizabeth, and now it has grown so much. It’s amazing to be sharing it with audiences here in New York City, where the NFL’s office is located. We love having a presence here. This is just the beginning.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies,Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).