A former cheerleader is suing the Milwaukee Bucks for violating Wisconsin's minimum wage laws. Her allegations of wage abuse and demeaning image standards are all too common in sports.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
On November 18, 2013, just before a game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Portland Trail Blazers, Bucks dance team coach Tricia Crawford emailed dancer Lauren Herington to tell her she would not be performing that week.
Herington, who was new to the squad, had not lived up to Crawford's appearance standards for the week, which she was contractually obligated to follow. Crawford said she saw a "significant difference" in Herington's appearance from her team audition earlier that year, and that even back then Herington "still had a little slimming and toning to do."
According to Herington, this type of behavior was commonplace on the Bucks' dance team, which she left at the end of the 2013-14 season, her first and only one on the squad. She claims that she was verbally harassed by Crawford, given a schedule that made holding and maintaining another job nearly impossible, and driven to develop an eating disorder—all for a wage her attorney estimates was between $3.50 and $4.50 an hour.
Herington has since filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Bucks, a franchise recently valued at $600 million, for violating Wisconsin's minimum wage laws. Her allegations of wage abuse and demeaning image standards are not an anomaly in the sports world.
Most of the focus on cheerleader exploitation has come in the NFL. A group of Buffalo Bills cheerleaders sued the team last May—alleging, in part, that they were required to flirt with men, subjected to humiliating body scrutiny, and paid virtually nothing. The cheerleading operation was suspended shortly thereafter. Later that year, the Oakland Raiders settled a similar suit for $1.25 million; the state of California subsequently passed legislation forcing teams to pay cheerleaders at least minimum wage and overtime (something that would be more difficult under staunchly anti-minimum wage Wisconsin governor Scott Walker). This past March, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers settled a wage dispute lawsuit brought by their cheerleaders for $825,000.
In a statement, the Bucks told VICE Sports that they deny the allegations in Herington's suit and "treat all of their employees fairly." The former team dancer sees things differently.
"To the organization, we are all replaceable," she wrote in a discovery document submitted to her lawyer that was reviewed by VICE Sports. "One wrong thing that we do, we are told there are hundreds of girls waiting to fill our shoes. Are we allowed to stand up for ourselves? Absolutely not! Again, there are hundreds of girls out there who will comply with their rules, and we can easily be replaced.
"I was not one of those girls, though."
Herington always wanted to be a dancer, so when she found out that the Bucks were holding tryouts for their dance team, she jumped at the opportunity. Born in Milwaukee, she was living in Illinois at the time, about four and a half hours away. No matter. She made the drive to team practices, two or three times a week, and eventually earned a place on a squad.
Herington put her college plans on hold and moved to Milwaukee, where she found an apartment. She was 19 years old and didn't know anybody in the city; still, she was excited to realize her dream—until she began to realize that her dream didn't pay a livable wage.
According to Herington, dancers were paid $65 per game, $30 for practices, and $50 for special appearances; if those were the only hours dancers were required to put into their jobs, then their pay would comply with Wisconsin's $7.25 per hour minimum wage. But combining games, which take roughly 5.5 hours; practices, which can go on for as long as the coach desires; and 20-plus hours of mandatory workouts and salon appearances, the stipends don't begin to cover total hourly minimum wage.
Moreover, Herington claims, what the Bucks considered countable hours did not mesh with reality. For example, she says she was paid $50 for a 12-hour community event trip to a baseball game in Green Bay, a pay rate of roughly $4.17 per hour. Dancers also were required to do 10 hours of unpaid community events per season.
"At the very least, there is no doubt that the dancers in this situation are simply exploited," said Scott Andresen, Herington's attorney.
While dancers are not technically full-time employees nor paid an hourly rate, they are treated like employees, in that their lives are almost entirely controlled by the team, from workouts to diet to wardrobe. Crawford, the Bucks dance coach, even referred to them as such in emails to Herington reviewed by VICE Sports. Dancers are allowed to hold other jobs, but Herington said that actually doing so is impractical, due to the time demands associated with working for the Bucks. She claims that working for the team caused her to lose two waitressing jobs during her year in Milwaukee.
According to the Bucks' official dance team policy sheet, dancers "are required to submit requests for absence in writing, two weeks prior to scheduled events," and "all vacation requests must be submitted prior to the season." Dancers must also consent to additional, unplanned workouts "at the discretion of the head coach," so it's nearly impossible to put together a work schedule elsewhere.
"A lot of employers didn't really understand how demanding the job is, in that you can't request days off [on short notice]," Herington said. "You're emailed the day of [by the coach]."
"The NFL case should have kind of put everybody on notice, and I'm somewhat shocked that, whether it be the Milwaukee Bucks or anyone else out there, didn't learn from the Buffalo Bills case," Andresen said.
Other allegations in Herington's lawsuit involve the treatment she was subjected to regarding her weight. Maintaining her "image," in general, was a major part of her contract.
The Bucks' policies contractually obligate workers to maintain "fitness standards"—a euphemism for keeping their weight to a level the team deems acceptable.
"I knew that we would be held to very high standards," Herington said. "I thought it would be more of a personal standard—if I didn't think I'd look good enough to be on the team or dancing that day, I would stand up for it."
According to Herington, weight and appearance took precedence over dancing ability. Multiple emails from Crawford to Herington reviewed by VICE Sports show Crawford expressing disappointment in Herington's weight. Email was the primary mode of formal communication between the coach and the team, Herington says, and dancers were required to respond to all emails by 9 AM the next day.
In a written account of her year on the Bucks dance team, Herington also alleges instances of verbal abuse, including Crawford calling her a "fat ass" for ordering a cheeseburger at a long day at training camp, being forced to wear a swimsuit and walk in front of all the team members "to make sure my butt wasn't hanging out," and being threatened with dismissal if she did not lose weight.
The Bucks chose not to make Crawford available for comment. The team issued the following response to VICE Sports regarding the lawsuit:
"The Milwaukee Bucks strongly disagree with the claims made in the federal lawsuit. The lawsuit presents inaccurate information that creates a false picture of how we operate. The Bucks value the contributions our Dancers make to the team. We treat all of our employees fairly, including our Bucks dancers, and pay them fairly and in compliance with federal and state law. We believe the lawsuit to be without merit and will contest these allegations in court."
The diet was particularly difficult for Herington, because it gave her medical problems with her stomach that often made her very ill.
In order to keep up with the image requirements, Herington went to extreme measures to lose weight, like a liquid cleanse regimen that consisted of four cups of salt water in the morning. Dancers, she said, were given a Gatorade before each game, and while food was available, they were discouraged from eating it. She also asked a doctor for weight loss pills, but was rebuffed because he said she was already a healthy weight, at a very normal 5'5'', 138 pounds.
Herington says dancers regularly were required to provide Crawford with proof of their workouts and pictures that the coach would use to evaluate their appearances. Any lifestyle choices that might cause them to add even minimal weight were questioned.
"It's something that is kind of just made normal," Herington said. "It's normal to get your body fat tested every week when you're doing this. It's normal to only eat 1,200 calories, no matter how much you eat or how much you exercise." The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion suggests that women aged 19-30 who lead active lifestyles take in double that number of calories each day.
"You don't realize how much brainwashing you get to be looking at these things as normal."
"Dancing" on the dance team, Herington claims, was secondary to the sex appeal the Bucks tried to market. While dancers made very little money, Crawford emailed the team that "so much time, effort and money" had gone into the production of the Bucks' swimsuit calendar, and that team members should be willing to "do some crazy things or stand in some gross stuff ... deal with it like a pro!"
Translation? Do sexy poses with weird props and in weird places to help us sell more calendars. If a dancer felt uncomfortable with any of these rules, it's unlikely she could go to human resources like another employee, because the contract specifically states that dancers can have no contact with the Bucks organization—management, players, or anyone else—without going through the coach. The coach has autonomous control.
The message to the dancers throughout, Herington says, was that they were lucky to be there; that lots of other people would be happy to take their spots; and that as a result, Herington and her co-workers should shut up and be grateful, regardless of what the job demanded or required giving up.
"You're not made to feel that you should be almost proud of yourself for being there," she said. "It's drilled into your mind from day one that it's an honor to be there, and you never question anything because you're given a privilege, and if you ever talk back, that privilege will be taken away from you."
By suing, Herington hopes to change that mentality—and not just for the Bucks. Herington will attempt to change how teams treat their dancers, and how they are able to treat them as employees—with near total control of their lives—without paying them like employees.
"I guess what's a little disheartening is when you have NBA team valuations of upwards of $2 billion and you have NBA players signing contracts for nine figures, that an NBA franchise can't find it within themselves to pay somebody $7.25 an hour," Andresen said. "We're not going to ask them to change their business model."