A new report on the harrowing experience Washington Redskins cheerleaders had on a team-sponsored trip to Costa Rica raises a (final?) red flag about the organization’s culture.
It is perhaps difficult to be surprised anymore by anything we learn about the way NFL cheerleaders are required to look, dress and conduct themselves.
We know that the Carolina Panthers cheerleaders, the TopCats, can only drink water when the Panthers are on offense.
We know that Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders, per their handbook, are expected to “maintain ideal body weight.”
We know the New Orleans Saints fired cheerleader Bailey Davis after she posted a picture of herself in a one-piece bathing suit on her private Instagram account, because that apparently violated their handbook’s rules on “from appearing nude, seminude or in lingerie.” She has since filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
And while stringent rules governing the way NFL cheerleaders should conduct themselves — at work or in their personal lives — such as these are repugnant, many will argue that the women knew the cost of buying into the organization and signed on to be bound by these rules when they accepted their positions.
While that kind of argument does nothing to address the sexism and unfair labor practices inherent in these rulebooks, these are standards disclosed to the women who cheer for NFL before they sign on.
That’s why a report Wednesday by New York Times sports reporter Juliet Macur about the experience Washington Redskins cheerleaders had on a trip to Costa Rica in 2013 for a calendar photoshoot still manages to be shocking. This trip, per the details in Macur’s report, existed entirely outside the handbook, the norm, any conception of decency.
It’s important to have the complete context and details of this photoshoot before we go any further, so here they are, courtesy of the conversations that Macur had with five of the cheerleaders involved:
For the photo shoot, at the adults-only Occidental Grand Papagayo resort on Culebra Bay, some of the cheerleaders said they were required to be topless, though the photographs used for the calendar would not show nudity. Others wore nothing but body paint. Given the resort’s secluded setting, such revealing poses would not have been a concern for the women — except that the Redskins had invited spectators.
A contingent of sponsors and FedExField suite holders — all men — were granted up-close access to the photo shoots.
One evening, at the end of a 14-hour day that included posing and dance practices, the squad’s director told nine of the 36 cheerleaders that their work was not done. They had a special assignment for the night. Some of the male sponsors had picked them to be personal escorts at a nightclub.
“So get back to your room and get ready,” the director told them. Several of them began to cry.
At the nightclub, senior members of the Redskins executive staff were present, including senior vice president for operations Lon Rosenberg and president for business operations, Dennis Greene.
“The issue was that management seemed to condone all of this,” one cheerleader told Macur.
Indeed, like many of the issues within the Redskins culture, this one seems to stem from the top down.
The changes that the cheerleading program has undergone since Dan Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999 have been well-documented. He brought the cheerleading program in house, and has always asked his Redskinettes to participate in activities outside of performing on the sidelines of actual games, from washing cars in bikinis to appearing in calendar shoots.
College cheerleading and dance teams are scholarship sports in many cases, thanks in no small part to Title IX. But when these women graduate, there aren’t many opportunities to continue performing at a professional level. While we’re not here to discredit anyone’s reason for wanting to become an NFL cheerleader, at its core, we can all agree that college cheerleading is an athletic pursuit not dissimilar from gymnastics. NFL cheerleading, increasingly, has become more about selling the sex appeal than the stunts.
It’s also almost impossible to make a living doing it; Ravens cheerleaders reportedly make $100 for regular cheerleaders and $125 for the captains per performance. Given all the rehearsal time that goes into preparing for those performances, it doesn’t amount to a livable wage. It’s almost as if the system is designed for the women to have to agree to promotional appearances and calendar shoots to make a living!
I’ve also mentioned women almost exclusively in this conversation, but it’s worth nothing that men are employed by NFL teams as cheerleaders, as well. But they sure as hell aren’t held to the same standards as the women in the same role, and, according to Synder, they aren’t actually cheerleaders anyway.
Some NFL teams don’t even have cheerleaders — six, to be exact. But the solution might not be for the league to do away with them altogether. Why not treat cheerleading like what it is — an athletic pursuit — and hire cheer coaches who can help the athletes prepare for competitions? Why not organize and sponsor such competitions?
Let’s get back to the Washington Redskins and Dan Snyder. How many more examples of the toxic culture surrounding this team do we need to declare that it’s broken beyond repair?
If Washington’s senior vice president for operations and president for business operations are present at off-shore events that make the Redskinettes feel uncomfortable at best and unsafe at worst, it’s safe to assume that Synder was complicit. And while it’s easy to trade away a toxic player or coach, it’s harder to enact the kind of culture changes Washington so clearly needs at the highest level — ownership.
But the truth, Redskins fans, is that Synder needs you more than you need him. He needs your money, and he needs your support.
Are you proud to support this team? Are you frustrated that you’re not able to simply consider the on-field product and instead have to think about racist logos and mistreated cheerleaders?
Don’t take out your frustration on the media (me) — take it out on the owner of your team. You can speak with your wallet. You can speak with your Twitter account. You can speak with your willingness to show up on game day.
Washington Redskins fans deserve better than a franchise that takes so many missteps off the field it makes it impossible for anyone to focus solely on the product on the field. And, most importantly, anyone employed by the Redskins organization, from cheerleaders to players to ticket vendors, deserves to feel safe on the job.