I don’t understand football.
I’ve never understood America’s obsession with it and how people will dedicate their lives to following a sports team throw a ball around a field where each player makes hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used for much more beneficial purposes. I don’t even understand how the game is played, with my friends constantly growing frustrated explaining to me what I think are basic concepts like pass interference, when a player can take a field goal kick, and how many points a particular play is worth. It’s all like gibberish to me, though the one concept I do understand is that Tom Brady is a cheater and the Patriots suck.
But if there’s one thing I do understand, it’s all of the controversy that surrounds that NFL. If I was to ask you to name one controversy that’s happening in the NFL, you would have an obscene amount of options to choose from. There’s Colin Kaepernick, how plays kneel during the pledge of allegiance, the various domestic violence scandals that end in slap on the wrists for players, or how the NFL seems to control the narrative on all of these issues and downplays their significance. Controversy is easy to understand and one of the most shocking to me are the problems faced by the cheerleaders in the NFL. A Woman’s Work: The NFL Cheerleader’s Problem, is the story of that problem.
A Woman’s Work: The NFL Cheerleader’s Problem
Director: Yu Gu
Release date: April 27, 2019 (Tribeca Film Festival)
The documentary decides to focus on two recent court cases where a former cheerleader for a football team decides to sue said team for a lack of fair wages and an unrealistic pay schedule, among other reasons. The first case, involving Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields of the Raiderettes, details why she is suing the Oakland Raiders for absurd working conditions that resulted in her getting paid below minimum wage for multiple seasons where she would only receive at the conclusion of the season rather than every two weeks, despite not being labeled as an independent contractor. The second case addresses the massive story surrounding the Buffalo Bills and their treatment of their cheerleaders, the Buffalo Jills. The Buffalo Bills case takes up the bulk of the movie and explains how the cheerleaders were completely unpaid and are technically under contract by other companies and a whole host of legal loopholes that even the lawyers that are working on the case are shocked that the NFL tried to get away with, with the focus of that segment following former cheerleader Maria Pinzone.
The documentary is a slow burn, with the viewer frequently hopping back and forth between the Raiderettes’ case and Buffalo Jills’ case. There are multiple interviews with not only Lacy and Maria, but several other cheerleaders that have cheered for the teams as far back as the 1960’s. Because the movie focuses mostly on the ongoing Jills case, we spend more time seeing interviews and promo videos from the Jills and their various reactions, as well as the fan’s point of view on the Jills, who have been suspended due to the court cases since the litigation began in 2014 and shows no signs of returning because of it. A few other cases are mentioned very briefly, like how cheerleaders from the Jets are suing because of their lack of pay and outrageous working conditions, but the focus is squarely on Lacy and Marie. On one hand, I appreciate keeping the focus on the first case and then the biggest case, though if you’re going to mention other teams and have interviews from other cheerleaders on their own legal battles, why have them at all?
A fascinating point of interest that director Yu Gu takes is that she examines the criticisms that both women and all of the other cheerleaders that are suing the NFL not from the public, but from the other cheerleaders. Older cheerleaders are the first to reprimand the younger cheerleaders because of how much distress they’re putting their cheerleader family under. In their minds, being a Buffalo Jill or a Raiderette isn’t about the pay but being a part of a select community that cares and supports each other. However, that care and support instantly falls away as soon as one of its members stands up for themselves. Those people that wish to speak up should be isolated from the family.
A Woman’s Work doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situation and holds the owners and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell accountable for the poor pay, if any, the cheerleaders receive. But that tight, incendiary focus starts to fade as the documentary goes on. It instead focuses less on the working conditions that these women endure, and more on how Lacy and Maria lived their life before and after the trials, though the Jills trial is still ongoing. We see Lacy have children, move to England, and see how she continues to dance to this day, while Maria deals with the loss of her mother before her wedding day on top of the court hearings. It’s compelling stuff to be sure but isn’t exactly what we signed up for.
Things get even muddier when we’re trying to piece together the series of events. If this is a timeline of events where we’re meant to see why these cheerleaders decided to sue the NFL and the progress of their respective cases, then there should be a clear indication of how much time has passed. Occasionally a graphic will appear to show how long each cases has been going on for, but it comes up so rarely that the years start to mesh together. One section depicted how multiple cases outside of the main two were beginning to appear in court, but it was rushed through so quickly that I have no idea if the lawsuit began in 2016 or 2018, and that shouldn’t be an issue in a documentary like this.
But as a look into one of the NFL’s numerous controversies, it was eye opening to say the least. It takes a lot for someone like me to become interested in football in any form, but now I want to see justice for these women. I would have preferred if the documentary covered the case completely, since it ends with the message that the Jills case is still ongoing and how numerous other cases are popping up and most likely will continue to appear, but for raising awareness of an issue that not many people know about, it does a bang up job of it. It may meander a bit as it goes on, but A Woman’s Work is a fine documentary about an issue that anyone can take an interest in.