By Mason Johnson

There are hundreds of athletes in the NFL who, like every player in pro football, have spent their entire lives physically training to become the best at what they do and, despite spending every waking second keeping their bodies in perfect shape…

… get paid less than the minimum wage.

I am, of course, talking about the many cheerleaders who represent NFL teams across the country (except for the Bears, Packers, Lions, Browns, Steelers and Giants, who don’t have cheerleaders).

Yes, cheerleading and football have many differences, but the fact remains: to do either in the NFL, you need to be an amazing athlete who’s worked extremely hard to get where you are.

Yet one set of athletes here — the men playing football — make millions of dollars, while the other set — cheerleaders — sometimes don’t even make enough to live.

When cheerleaders have to literally sue their NFL team just to earn livable wages, the message becomes clear:

Women are worth less than men.

I’m not naive. I understand that the individuals who win games and draw eyeballs will always be paid more. But the extraordinary pay disparity between these two sets of top-tier athletes is astounding.

Admittedly, the NFL probably doesn’t spend its time devising supervillainesque plans to keep women down. It’s their apathy about women, when it comes to both their attitude toward domestic violence and fair wages, that sends the message, “We just don’t give a crap about almost half our audience.”

That’s a pretty terrible message to send in a country where, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “42.4 million women experience rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”

One in three women have experienced physical violence by a partner, and the NFL doesn’t care. Why would they? It doesn’t hurt their stream of money.

In only finding the time to respond to issues of domestic abuse when its arm is twisted behind its back (or when TMZ’s video of a football player punching his soon-to-be wife goes viral), the NFL is setting a sad standard — domestic abuse only matters when their reputation and revenue streams are on the line.

Because if the NFL did care about women, it would be actively fighting against domestic abuse even when it’s not in the news cycle.

Currently, the NFL, a nonprofit with a boss who made $44.2 million last year, does little in the way of charity work for women (or, one could argue, does little in the way of charity work). There’s the pink campaign, but that has been scrutinized intensely the last few years, as claims that only 8 percent of sales of NFL pink merchandise go to cancer research.

So what — besides doing everything they can to ignore domestic violence — does the NFL do for women?

And to be clear, whether they ignore it or not, the NFL has a domestic violence problem.

Here are just a handful of NFL players who have been accused of or committed abuse against women in recent years:

Chris Cook, Chris Terry, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, Ben Roethlisberger, Darrell Russell, Darren Sharper, A.J. Jefferson, Fred Davis, Daryl Washington, Ahmad Brooks, Jovan Belcher and of Chicago’s very own Brandon Marshall.

Can the NFL control what players do behind closed doors? Can they control what their viewers do behind closed doors?

No, but they could at least send the message to both their players and their viewers that women matter. No, not just when it comes to ratings, but when it comes to fair wages and domestic abuse, too. Because whether they admit it or not, domestic abuse is a problem in the NFL and across America even when it’s not making huge headlines.

So NFL, pay your your athletes well, even the cheerleaders. Educate your viewers on domestic violence, both in the context of the NFL and the country as a whole.

Prove that you think women have a worth, even when it’s not a news story, and your players and viewers might start to believe you.

Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.