HOUSTON -- A day after a group of cheerleaders filed a potential class-action lawsuit in federal court against the NFL, alleging league executives and team owners conspired to suppress wages, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith excoriated the league for not doing more to pay the women fairly.
"I think the league should be better than that," Smith said during the annual NFL Players Association news conference, "and I think it requires better leadership, and I think it requires a better decision by a group of people that everyone in this business can be paid fairly, and we'll jump into any fight where we think people aren't."
Smith said he hadn't heard from the plaintiffs in the suit but has paid attention to legal action taken three years ago against individual teams that alleged wage and sex discrimination. The suits were settled for a reported $2.6 million.
"Let's just be blunt, they were being paid less than minimum wage, and so in a league that makes billions and billions of dollars, it took a group of women to come together to seek and file a wage and sex discrimination action against the National Football League only to have that settled," Smith said. "And now nearly a year later another case has popped up. So, one, we're a union and we believe that people should be paid their fair wage, and we have those fights with the National Football League."
After Smith concluded his answer, Panthers center Ryan Wendell jumped into the discussion, saying that his wife, Meridith, had been a cheerleader before they were dating and that it was "ridiculous" the way the women were treated.
"I encourage them in their efforts," Wendell said. "They deserve it, they're part of the show."
The suit, filed Tuesday in California against the NFL, alleges the teams collude to keep wages for the women artificially low.
This suit differs from the four filed against individual teams because it claims the NFL itself is a joint employer of the cheerleaders. As such, the claim has been filed in federal court. In the past, the league has argued that the 26 teams with cheerleaders employ the women.
A spokesman for the NFL said the league has no comment.
Since the suit was filed and two plaintiffs appeared on "Good Morning America," attorney Drexel Bradshaw said the women have been inundated with personal online abuse from NFL fans.
"They love the team just as much as the fans," Bradshaw said. "This suit isn't filed against the fans, it's filed against the billionaire owners of the league."
One of the named plaintiffs, Caitlin Yates, is declining further interviews. Another is named as a Jane Doe to protect her identity.
The suit refers to the cheerleaders as female athletes and claims that teams do not recruit the best performers among them -- unlike the way in which the best players compete for roster spots. The jobs make minimum wage, the suit alleges, but sometimes cheerleaders are not paid for appearances and practices. The cheerleaders still make significantly less than an NFL mascot, the suit claims, in a multibillion-dollar industry.
The counter argument is that cheerleaders don't perform for the money, but for exposure to other opportunities. And yet, cheering for a professional team is in many ways the acme of the profession.
"There are federal laws that prevent this type of abuse from happening," said Dan Werly, a sports lawyer with no link to the case. "So employees with less leverage aren't taken advantage of in this scheme."
Wendell said his wife sustained a concussion in a game and that cheerleaders risk a lot to be able to perform for teams they love. But low pay shouldn't be part of the equation, he said.
"I think the NFL touches its fans in a lot of ways," Wendell said. "NFL players can't be everywhere, so you have this proxy in the cheerleaders."
The continued low pay for the largest group of women to represent the NFL sends a message contrary to one the league is trying to cultivate.
Last week, the NFL held a career forum for women who play tackle football and who could be in the pipeline some day for jobs in scouting and officiating. On Friday, the league hosts its second annual women's summit, which this year will feature speakers to inspire teenage girls.
The league has hired women at the VP level and given them authority. Last year at the first women's summit, commissioner Roger Goodell announced a Rooney Rule for women to apply in all front office positions at the manager level and up.