As the NBA starts a new season this week, the salary cap for players will climb to a record $70 million per team at the same time that a federal court considers charges that cheerleaders have been cheated out of fair pay.
This fall, legal claims of wage theft in professional cheerleading have spread from the NFL to the NBA, and basketball teams' treatment of female performers is under scrutiny.
Lauren Herington, a former dancer for the Milwaukee Bucks, sued the team in federal court in Wisconsin last month, charging that she had been paid well under the minimum wage during the 2013-14 season. Hers is the first suit of its kind in the NBA, and it could have implications both for the roughly 40 women who would qualify as members of a Bucks class action and for the league.
While dancing for the Bucks, Herington said, she spent full days practicing, performing and engaging in mandatory exercise and beauty regimens. The flat fees she received — $65 for games, $30 for practices and $50 for special appearances — translated to an average hourly wage of $5, according to her lawyers. On busier weeks, hourly earnings fell as low as $3, the lawyers said, less than half the $7.25 minimum required by both Wisconsin and federal law.
"They told us it was a full-time commitment with part-time pay," Herington said. "If we had an issue, we'd be shown the door."
Since last month, another plaintiff has joined Herington, and her lawyers said five others were considering doing the same. In a statement, the Milwaukee Bucks said the team would fight the suit in court.
"The lawsuit presents inaccurate information that creates a false picture of how we operate," Jake Suski, a spokesman, wrote in an email. "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."
NBA spokesman Mike Bass said: "Team dancers are ... valued members of the NBA family. As for all employees, we work with our teams to ensure that they comply with all applicable wage and working-condition laws."
Beyond wages paid, Herington's suit takes into account certain expenses that she said the Bucks required her to cover: special cleaning of her uniform, tanning sessions, false eyelashes, regular manicures and hair appointments, where highlights can run more than $100.
Similar allegations emerged against NFL teams last year, accumulating after a woman sued the Oakland Raiders. That case paved the way for subsequent cases against the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Most but the Bills case have been settled, although teams have avoided admitting wrongdoing. Last week, the Bengals proposed a settlement, according to the lawyer who brought the class-action suit; the team offered to pay $255,000, or $2,500 for every season a qualifying cheerleader worked for the team, from 2011 to 2013. The marginal difference between minimum wage and what plaintiffs in these cases were paid is not large, said Sharon Vinick, an employment lawyer who argued the first case of this kind, against the Raiders.
"That amount of money means nothing to these teams," Vinick said. "We're not talking about mom-and-pop struggling businesses that can't afford to pay. These are multimillion-dollar organizations that are choosing not to follow the law when it comes to compensating these women."
Responding to litigation, state lawmakers have sought protections for pro cheerleaders, some of whom are independent contractors rather than employees, an arrangement that can help insulate teams from liability. In the case of the pending suit against the Bills, for example, the dancers are contract workers.
In the wake of the Raiders suit, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of California introduced a bill that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last July, designating pro cheerleaders as employees and entitling them to paid sick leave, family leave and workers' compensation. It will take effect in January. In New York, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic has introduced a similar bill.
Although both pieces of legislation were inspired by the higher-profile allegations against NFL teams, the lawmakers are not limiting their focus to football. On Monday, Gonzalez and Rozic, together with another New York assemblywoman, sent a letter to NBA commissioner Adam Silver. They asked the NBA to disclose the terms and conditions of cheerleader contracts for all 30 teams. (The lawmakers sent a similar letter to the NFL last month; it has gone unanswered.)
"We want a clear understanding of employment status and pay scales," Rozic said, noting that a bit more information had been made public in the NFL because of suits and settlements, but no sense of NBA labor practices with respect to cheerleaders existed.