Bailey Davis Is No Longer An NFL Cheerleader, But She's Still Dancing
As a member of the New Orleans Saints Saintsations cheerleading squad, Bailey Davis was required to comply with the squad's rules and regulations, which included strict prohibitions against fraternizing with players — defined as exchanging anything more than a professional greeting — "posing for nude, semi-nude, or lingerie photography," or failing to meet the stated "fitness goals." Still, for Davis, being a Saintsation was the realization of a lifelong dream. Davis' mother, Lora, had been a Saintsations coach, coordinator, and choreographer for 18 years, since Davis was a year old, and Davis had grown up traveling to Saints games from her hometown of Ellisville, Mississippi.
Davis claims that in January of 2018, when she had been a Saintsation for three years, a Saints' HR representative, along with the Saintsations' head coach, called her into a meeting. According to Davis, they informed her that a rumor was circulating that she had been at a party also attended by a player. Later that month, Davis posted a photo on her Instagram account — which she had kept private in compliance with the Saintsations' rules — of herself in a black lace bodysuit. Davis claims she did not view as lingerie. According to The New York Times, the coach texted Davis that posting the photo had demonstrated poor judgement, "especially considering our recent conversations about the rumors going around about you." On January 23, Davis received a letter from the Saints, viewed by Bustle, informing her that her employment had been terminated, effective immediately, “due to failure to comply with Saintsations rules and regulations.” In March, the BBC reported that Davis had filed a federal anti-discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming that Saintsations athletes are held to more restrictive rules of conduct than the players based on gender.
(The Saints did not respond to Bustle's request for comment, but at the time Davis filed her complaint, Saints external counsel Gregory Rouchell told The Hattiesburg American, "The New Orleans Saints is an equal opportunity employer, and it denies that Ms. Davis was discriminated against because she is female. The Saints will defend these allegations in due course, and the Organization is confident that its policies and workplace rules will withstand legal scrutiny."
Bustle received the following statement via email from NFL Vice President of Communications Brian McCarthy:
"The NFL agrees that cheerleaders have the right to work in a safe, positive and respectful environment. All club employees, including cheerleaders, should be paid consistent with the requirements of federal, state and local law. The NFL has encouraged clubs that have cheerleaders to review all aspects of their cheerleader programs to ensure they are lawful and appropriate. In addition, the league has been working with the clubs that have cheerleaders to share best practices and employment-related processes regarding cheerleaders in order for each club to maintain an appropriate and supportive workplace.")
In the aftermath of her dismissal, other professional sports cheerleaders have come forward with their own claims of discrimination, poor pay, and sexual harassment. Two NFL teams are adding male cheerleaders to their rosters this fall. Davis' complaint is proceeding.
She currently lives in Ellisville, having moved back home to help care for her younger brother, a recent high school graduate who was just diagnosed with colon cancer. She teaches dance at her mother's local studio, Dance Arts. Sometimes she listens to vindictive Taylor Swift songs because they make it hurt a little less. And she’s still dancing.
Alexandra Svokos: What were your years as a Saintsation like?
Bailey Davis: My three years [with] the Saints, I was never completely happy with it — just the way we were treated, the way we were talked to — but there were so many parts that were amazing. I truly miss dancing, the games and my teammates.
After I came out [with my story], I realized [the poor treatment] was across the board, and all the cheerleaders that have come forward so far, we all have the same story.
AS: Were you nervous at all about coming forward with your story?
BD: I was worried about the fans. I was scared the fans were going to be mad at me for going after their team, but it's been the exact opposite. The fans have had my back. I ran into a woman in my hometown [of Ellisville, Mississippi] who had on a Saints shirt, and I said, "Oh, you're a Saints fan," and she said, "Yeah, I love that team but I hate what they're doing to the cheerleaders." That's the response I've had from the fans.
They said, 'Perception is reality in the workplace, Bailey. Perception is reality.' To this day, it literally haunts me. 'Perception is reality.'
AS: In an email she sent to the Saintsations dated Jan. 10, 2018, a copy of which you provided to Bustle, your coach stated that the social media restrictions were put in place in order to protect you and the other cheerleaders. Did you feel protected by them?
BD: No, I felt so stifled by the rules. I think that was just their excuse. I think [the Saints] like having control over it. They can put whatever on social media they want about us, they can promote us in any way, they can have us walking around in a two-piece selling a swimsuit calendar, and it made money for them, but we can't do anything on our own to promote ourselves. But the football players, they can. They can pose for ads. They can pose shirtless, and it's [the] same as athletics, but when I had a picture in a bodysuit, they told me it was slutty. And they said, "Perception is reality in the workplace, Bailey. Perception is reality." To this day, it literally haunts me. “Perception is reality.”
AS: What do you think they meant by that?
BD: [I think they meant] that the picture that I posted in the body suit made me guilty of sleeping around with players. [The HR representative] reminded me of what a terrible person I was over and over, after I had given three years to this organization. My mom has given 18. And he told me I've betrayed the Saints.
AS: When did you find out that the players weren't punished for allegedly fraternizing with cheerleaders?
BD: When I was in that first meeting, [an HR representative] said if a girl's name even came out of the locker room, she would be fired. If a football player knew a girl's name, she was fired. That's when I realized, this has been going on for so long.
I asked them if they had called any of the football players in, and they had said no. So it seemed like they only called me in about the rumor, and no football player was called in, and the human resources guy looked over at his assistant and said, "Well, I guess we should send an email to the players and tell them not to contact the girls." From what I've heard, that never happened. So it seems like it's completely on the women and the players have no consequences.
AS: How does that make you feel, that, like you said, it's all completely on the women?
They want us to be sexy and fun, but they want us to be sweet and respectful. 'Empower women, empower each other, be inspiring, but not too much.'
BD: It makes me angry. I understand [that] the players are making the NFL millions of dollars a year, but they're put on this pedestal, and we don't even have the opportunity to make more than minimum wage. Then we're given more rules and more guidelines, and it completely consumes our lives. We say it's a part-time job with full-time responsibilities, and it is.
AS: Is that what prompted the #leveltheplayingfield hashtag you've used on your social media account since your termination?
BS: #Leveltheplayingfield means to treat women with the same respect and consideration as men. There's just so many [unrealistic] standards for women, and the NFL is still stuck in the 1920s when it comes to those things. They want us to be sexy and fun, but they want us to be sweet and respectful. "Empower women, empower each other, be inspiring, but not too much. We've got to keep you at this level."
Cheerleaders aren't given enough respect, and that has a lot to do with the organization, the NFL. They put us out there that way, so if you don't treat us with respect in the organization, don't expect the fans to. Don't expect everyone else to. And the NFL has such a big platform in the world, if they're treating women this way and allowing all these things to go on, then what kind of standard are we setting for every other place?
AS: Who is helping you out and supporting you through this?
BD: Well, my lawyer, Sara Blackwell, has been a big support for me, and my mom. It was hard for me to see her leave the Saints [on my account]. I even told her if she wanted to stay with the Saints and let me do this on my own, I would be okay with that, and I would support her, but she decided to have my back, and she resigned. And I've had my hometown, of course. I come from a small town and they, I had their support when I made the team and it was a big deal for someone to leave and go do something like that, and so they've had my back through this too.
AS: Can you describe your conversations you had with your mom about bringing the suit forward?
BD: Well, after we spoke to Sara and we realized that it was blatantly gender discrimination, my whole family had a talk about it. It was obviously a big decision to move forward, and we knew it was going to be a long, tiring process. We knew the Saints weren't just going to settle. We knew they were going to deny fault.
I told my mom, “This job was my dream job, and it just got taken away from me. I don't want your dream job to be taken away from you.” And she said, "Bailey, this is not my dream job. This is not the organization I started working with 18 years ago, this is not the group of girls I started working with 18 years ago. You're my daughter, and you come first. Something better will come.”
AS: What have you been doing to maintain your mental health through all of this?
BD: I go to the dance studio, turn off the lights, and I [put on] a sad song and just improv and do contemporary and play around with ideas. That lets me express myself without crying. It allows me to be in a moment where there's no judgment, there's no phone, it's just me and music and getting back to the basics of dance and the reason I'm doing everything that I'm doing.
AS: Do you have an idea of what you want to do next?
BD: Well, I thought about trying out for a NBA dance team. I didn't do that. I'm going to wait it out a year and just keep teaching dance at my mom's studio. But I do eventually want to work with another company. I really want to perform at Disney. That's my next dream.
AS: What do you love the most about dancing and about being able to perform?
BD: Well, I've been dancing my whole life. It's always been there for me.
We had a choreographer come in one time for the Saints, and she said, "Treat dance well because it's always treated you well." And that's the truth. It's a form of fitness. It's telling a story with your body. It doesn't deserve the treatment that the NFL gave it.
AS: After all of this happened, did you consider doing something else?
BS: God willing, I will always be a dancer. It's what I've always strived for, and it's what I'm good at. I've always loved pushing myself to be the best at that, and I always wanted to see how far I can go. I think that's important for girls to do. Keep striving.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.