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Oakland Raiders cheerleaders perform

Ben Margot/Associated Press

With all the talk of minimum wage right now in the United States, here's a group you may not be factoring into the low-pay category: NFL cheerleaders.

According to a lawsuit filed last week by current and former members of the Raiderettes, the squad that cheers on the National Football League's Oakland Raiders, they earn less than $5 (U.S.) an hour – and that's before any fines for arriving at rehearsal with the wrong pompoms. In the court document, the cheerleaders contend that the team "withholds all pay" until the end of the season, does not pay them for all the hours they work, and forces them to pay their own business expenses, including those involving hair, makeup, travel and photos.

The Raiderettes are asking for tens of thousands of dollars in back-pay. But as The Atlantic details, getting short-shrift in the pay department is common for NFL cheerleaders. The San Diego Chargers pay their cheerleaders $75 a game (but do toss in a couple game tickets and a parking pass). In exchange for practising twice a week for three hours at a time, and showing up five hours before each game, the Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders take home $100 for each of the 10 required home game performances. Even the famous squad Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders – featured recently on a reality TV show – gets only $150 for each home game, and no pay for rehearsals.

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Whatever you think of cheerleading in general, that's awfully low, when you consider how much money these teams make. Judging, however, from the stern warnings about the job's level of commitment (i.e. don't apply if you can't keep up), there are no shortage of candidates. As a female colleague observed, there are no doubt more than a few starry-eyed applicants willing to do the part-time job free. (And, as The Atlantic points out, there are perks for the best of the squads, including paid appearances and occasional tours.)

But paying nothing just because you can – and because your employee knows there's someone else waiting in the wings to grab their spot – is exploitation, whether you're hiring a company intern or a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

To see exactly how cheerleaders are valued by their organizations, all you have to do is read the Raiderettes' "super-secret" training manual, reported by the Los Angeles Times this week. After the chapters on nail polish repair and smiling, there's the section of "fraternization." (According to the Times, the Raiders say they are the only NFL team that doesn't expressly forbid dating between players and cheerleaders – although, as the manual states, they would prefer it didn't happen.) While "a few relationships," have led to "a few happy marriages," the manual mentions a previous example of a player who threw Halloween parties, attended by Raiderettes, in which the reputation of the team was sullied when the player was suspended for drug use and "date rape." (Otherwise known, legally, as rape.)

To those Raiderettes who attended, the manual reportedly warns, "just think how narrowly you missed having your photo in all the local papers and/or being assaulted." Due to these given hazards, players' parties are off-limits. Oh, and the manual offers this follow-up advice: If you do date a player, make sure he isn't married. "In most cases, he won't tell you." (So the manual, as L.A. Time writer Robin Abcarian points out, is basically acknowledging that the team's players are cheaters and sexual predators?)

Then there's this final "know your place" warning that some teams have dispensed with cheerleaders altogether: "Because of morality problems with their squad, they decided cheerleader were too much trouble to deal with."

So, to any young women dreaming about being NFL cheerleader, be clear about the rules: take your pittance pay, dutifully shake your pompoms and understand that any team "morality problems" involving adultery or assault are, essentially, on you.

Something to think about when the cheerleaders flash their, um, smiles on screen this Super Bowl Sunday.

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