Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pity The Cheerleaders. Really.

(By Catherine Rampell, Washington Post, 28 April 2014)

It’s hard to have too much sympathy for cheerleaders. They’re pretty, perfectly proportioned and popular. If they didn’t persecute you personally in high school, a Hollywood facsimile probably at least bullied one of your favorite fictional protagonists.  Which perhaps explains why such scant attention has been paid to the plight of National Football League cheerleaders, who appear to be frequent victims of both wage theft and other, far weirder indignities (including elaborate rules about how to wash their vaginas; more on that later).  In the past few months, veterans of the Ben-Gals (who cheer for the Cincinnati Bengals), Raiderettes (Oakland Raiders) and Jills (Buffalo Bills) have filed lawsuits alleging that teams paid the cheerleaders less than minimum wage and subjected them to intrusive and belittling conditions.

Some of the allegations, like those regarding wage theft, seem pretty straightforward.  Raiderettes, for example, were paid $125 per game day but often nothing at all for the other appearances and rehearsals they were required to attend, one suit alleges. Factoring in all those time commitments, cheerleaders were reportedly paid as little as $5 an hour.  The teams say the cheerleaders are “independent contractors,” a designation that would exempt them from minimum-wage laws. The IRS says you can classify an individual as an independent contractor rather than an employee if you have “the right to control or direct only the result of the work” but the worker controls “what will be done and how it will be done.”

Yet to look at the rules and contracts required as a condition of cheerleaders’ pay, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that these “independent contractors” had control over anything, really.  The teams set the schedule and location for rehearsal and (often unpaid) promotional and charity appearances. A cheerleader’s hair color, makeup and level of tan-ness are dictated by the teams. In some cases the teams require the “contractors” to patronize specific salons to achieve the desired cosmetological results (and the cheerleaders have to pay for these services out of pocket, which the suits say cost hundreds of dollars each season). Cheerleaders say they were subjected to weekly weigh-ins or “jiggle tests” to assess whether they jiggled too much (in the wrong places, of course). Raiderettes deemed “too soft” could be benched the next game without pay- but would still be required to attend the entire game and participate in pregame and halftime activities anyway.  Then there are all the other really bizarre, often retrograde requirements that some teams have to regulate not only the cheerleaders’ professional appearances and performances but their private lives as well.

Here’s a selection of rules from the Buffalo Jills’ handbook, as published on Deadspin. It includes an entire section titled “General hygiene and lady body maintenance,” quoted here with typos intact:

“Do not be overly opinionated about anything.”

“When menstruating, use a product that right for your menstrual flow. A tampon too big can irritate and develop fungus. A product left in too long can cause bacteria or fungus build up. Products can be changed at least every 4 hours. Except when sleeping, they can be left in for the night.”

“Do not linger in restrooms having conversations and applying make up at length while other people are using the facilities.  When you wash, remember where your hands have been while washing, do not transfer dirt or germs to other areas of your body.”

“Intimate area’s: Never use a deodorant or chemically enhanced product. Simple, non-deodorant soap will help maintain the right PH balance.”

“When trying to ‘capture’ a small piece of food onto a utensil, it is acceptable to use another utensil for aiding it aboard. Never use your fingers.”

“Remove make-up every night before going to bed . . . Make-up left in the creases of your skin creates early wrinkles.”

“Don’t ask for cash gifts as wedding gifts (in print), Rely on word of mouth instead.”

Some of the rules read like they come from a 1950s etiquette guide; others, from Leviticus. In any case, the organization seems to have exerted a lot of control over cheerleaders’ lives, on and off the field, while still somehow classifying them as “independent contractors.”  I’m sure plenty of non-opinion-expressing, right-size-tampon-using women would kill for the chance to replace these disgruntled cheerleaders and bounce around in crop-tops before an adoring crowd. But that doesn’t mean employers are entitled to mistreat the lucky few ladies they do hire.  One of the points of labor law is to offer basic protections to workers for whom the balance of power vastly favors employers: people such as migrant farm workers, burger-flippers and, yes, pretty cheerleaders. Even workers who face great competition deserve to be shielded from abuse and exploitation by their bosses — perhaps especially so when those bosses come from a taxpayer-subsidized, multibillion-dollar industry like the NFL.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Stacks Of Possibilities

(By Ann Patchett, Parade Magazine, 12 April 2014)

As we celebrate National Library Week, Ann Patchett reflects on the modest spaces where she discovered a passion for reading. Her essay is excerpted from The Public Library by Robert Dawson—a photo survey of these vital institutions across the country.

Had I grown up down the street from the New York Public Library, I might have thought that libraries were defined by the size of their lions. If some of my earliest memories had been of Harvard’s Widener Library, I could have believed that sweeping murals by John Singer Sargent were baseline. But I attended a small Catholic girls’ school in Nashville, where our tiny library consisted of two rows of bookshelves, one on either side of the short hall between the classrooms and the nuns’ dining room. At the end of the bookshelves, Joanne Baily sat at a small table. Mrs. Baily was a mother who volunteered to help children find the book they might not know they were looking for.

Just about the time I read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I advanced to the upper school across the parking lot. The library there was a big step up. The books were kept in their own small room. I remember wanting to check out Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie because it looked romantic, but at the circulation desk I was denied. Sister Bonaventure, taking a long look at the cover (a painting of a girl looking vaguely pensive), deemed the book inappropriate. I went back for another novel, and then another, and every time was instructed to reshelve my selection. I finally decided that Sister Bonaventure did not approve of fiction. Testing my theory, I brought several books of poetry to the checkout and sailed through. That was how I came to start reading T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats and Sylvia Plath in seventh grade.

So while I went on in life to be deeply impressed by the Philadelphia Free Library and the Los Angeles County Public Library and our own stunning Nashville Public Library, my idea of what a library is remains simple: a collection of books, however many or few, that are loaned out and gathered back.  We may never have full equality in our legal system, or our schools, but in our libraries there is parity: All are welcome, all books are free, and, if you can wait a little while, all books are available.  These days, with the advent of the interlibrary loan system, that includes just about any book you might want. The one-room structure in rural Kansas is as rich in books as the aforementioned Widener.

Of course, my book-centric view of libraries could easily be seen as dated. Libraries have considerably more than books to manage these days. So why, in a time when libraries also serve as computer centers, senior centers, teen centers, classrooms, and homeless shelters, is there so much speculation that they’ve become irrelevant?  In 1897 Mark Twain wrote a note to a friend that read, “James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness; the report of my death was an exaggeration.”  Like James Ross Clemens, the book industry has endured a serious illness. The advent of ebooks caused a great deal of panic. But books, ever tenacious, have made a strong recovery. It is my belief that the publishing industry’s illness brought about the notion that libraries were on their last leg. Libraries, like Twain himself, had never been sick in the first place.

So, if you are fortunate enough to buy your own books, and you have your own computer, and you’re not in search of a story hour for your kids, then don’t forget about the members of your community who perhaps lack your resources—the ones who love to read, who long to learn, who need a place to sit and think. Make sure you remember to support their quest for a better life. That’s what a library promises us, after all: A better life. And that’s what libraries have delivered.