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Super Bowl’s Viral Audi Ad Highlights Wage Gap Issue as NFL Cheerleaders Sue League

Image: Houston Texans Cheerleaders perform for fans as they arrive for Super Bowl LI at NGR Stadium in Houston, Texas on Feb. 5, 2017.

Houston Texans Cheerleaders perform for fans as they arrive for Super Bowl LI at NGR Stadium in Houston, Texas on Feb. 5, 2017. Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images

Nary an eye was dry on Sunday when Audi's gender discrimination commercial aired during the Super Bowl.

The spot is a heart-tugging montage of one girl's tomboy childhood narrated by a fictional dad who wonders how to explain the wage gap to his daughter, and it resulted in positive headlines and social media chatter on Monday.

But there's a glaring irony in running such an ad during an NFL event: the National Football League is being sued by its cheerleaders in an antitrust case that alleges a nationwide conspiracy to keep the women's earnings so low, they'd make more money selling hot dogs at stadium concession stands.

The lawsuit, filed just days before the Super Bowl, names all 26 NFL teams that have cheerleading squads — an overwhelming majority in the 32-team league. Among them are 2017 Superbowl winners the New England Patriots as well as the opposing Atlanta Falcons.

The NFL's communications office, in an email to NBC News, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said at a February 2 press conference that the players union supports the cheerleader lawsuit.

"I think the league should be better than that," said Smith at the press 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."

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The case goes beyond merely asking for more money, illustrating an allegedly decades-old conspiracy in violation of federal antitrust law that's designed to keep cheerleader compensation as low as possible across all 26 squads.

The suit alleges that in annual meetings, contract negotiations, and other company venues, the NFL conspired to ban professional cheerleaders from being recruited by other squads and agreed to pay flat per-game rates so low that the nation's top professional cheerleaders had to work day jobs in order to support themselves.

A lawsuit plaintiff using the pseudonym Jane Doe said that NFL cheerleaders are told to "look pretty, you’re going to make the brand better — but this is all you’re going to get in the end so suck it up, have fun, and remember you’re lucky."

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Doe said that she worked in a pizza parlor to pay rent while performing on the San Francisco 49ers squad. In a statement via email, Doe said the team forced her and her fellow cheerleaders to buy stacks of calendars to resell. She received no compensation for posing for the calendar, or for similar promotional merchandise that the NFL created using her image.

In September, Forbes reported that the average NFL player salary was $2.5 million. One of the highest-paid players, Cam Newton, averages over $20 million per year after signing a $103.8 million contract at the start of the 2015 season.

In contrast, NFL cheerleaders were paid minimum wage across the board for seasonal work — a raise that came only after a series of 2014 cheerleader lawsuits accused some teams with paying zero dollars to their female athletes.

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Before the 2014 lawsuits, some NFL cheerleaders effectively paid to work: they were charged audition fees, asked to pay for their own uniforms and hairstylists, and were compelled to participate in unpaid photo and video shoots — then buy the resulting calendars with their own money to re-sell in a sort of pyramid scheme.

Prior to the lawsuits, premium squads like the Oakland Raiderettes paid a low $125 per game to cheerleaders. The Buffalo Bills' cheerleading squad, at the lowest end of the scale, did not pay at all.

Not much has changed. While the league's cheerleaders now get paid an hourly minimum wage, it still adds up to an annual salary of barely more than $1,000.

Yet the typical cheerleader who makes it to the NFL has spent decades training as an athlete: They are expected to be in peak physical condition, with extensive training in gymnastics and dance. High school and college cheerleading tournaments are highly competitive, Olympic-style showcases with stunning feats of aerial flips and high-energy choreography. And cheerleading ranks as one of the most dangerous sports for high school girls to participate — even in practice.

Former Oakland Raiders cheerleader Caitlin Yates said in a statement emailed to NBC News that even the mascots — who do little more than wear a furry costume — were paid more than ten times what cheerleaders earn.

"We’re not asking to be paid like the football players are," said Yates. "But if you look at the mascot, who's paid between $25,000-$60,000 a year, it’s just not fair for what we put into it."

The mascots also typically receive benefits like health insurance and retirement packages, while cheerleaders do not, advocates say.

Attorney for the cheerleaders Drexel Bradshaw called the NFL's treatment of its sideline stars "a national scandal among billionaire NFL owners who have paid the women far below their fair market value for decades."

"The free market and legal systems are supposed to protect women as much as men," Bradshaw said in an email to NBC News. "Here, they failed by not allowing the women to compete, to cheer on different teams, to work for the highest bidder. They are not even allowed to discuss what they are earning."

One would have to wonder how the dad in the Audi commercial would explain to his daughter why football players are paid tens of millions of dollars per year to show their physical prowess on the field, while the female athletes alongside them must sling pizzas to pay for the privilege.