Houston Texans Cheerleaders Say They Needed “Safe Words” & 6 Other Details From Their New Lawsuit
Two weeks ago, a former NFL cheerleader filed a class-action lawsuit against the Houston Texans that alleged she was body-shamed by her coaches and not compensated for her time. Now, five more former Houston Texans cheerleaders have filed their own suit with even more wide-ranging allegations. The claims in their complaint run from bullying and intimidation to body-shaming and physical assault.
In the lawsuit, which was filed Friday in U.S. district court in Houston, five former Houston Texans cheerleaders — Hannah Turnbow, Ainsley Parish, Morgan Wiederhold, Ashley Rodriguez, and Kelly Neuner — claim they were "subjected to intense scrutiny, harassment, threats of physical assaults, actual assaults by spectators, and cyberbullying by the coach and her staff" while employed by the team. In response to the allegations, the Texans' Vice President of Communications Amy Palcic issued a statement:
We are proud of the cheerleader program and have had hundreds of women participate and enjoy their experience while making a positive impact in the local community. We are constantly evaluating our procedures and will continue to make adjustments as needed to make the program enjoyable for everyone.
According to the complaint, the women's contract allegedly stated they would be paid $7.25 an hour "for each hour spent providing services as a Houston Texans Cheerleader." The women argue that rate should have covered time spent at practices, games, appearances, and photoshoots, as well as time spent in meetings, team-ordered beauty services, workouts at the gym and monitoring social media accounts as mandated by team rules.
But they allege the Texans didn't provide compensation "for many of those hours," and that they were "forced to make a number of appearances (including out of state travel) without compensation." And that's not even half of what the women claim they went through; the lawsuit contains several other notable complaints, including about how the women were allegedly treated by their coach, Alto Gary.
One Cheerleader Says She Was Assaulted By A Fan — And The Team Did Nothing
The cheerleaders' suit alleges the team did not provide adequate security and protection to cheerleaders, paving the way for a fan to allegedly assault one of the women. According to the suit, that cheerleader, who was left with visible physical injuries, reported the incident to Gary and her supervisor. The suit alleges the coach told the woman to "deal with it and move on."
Hannah Turnbow said in a press conference Friday announcing the lawsuit that she was that cheerleader referenced in the suit.
"My attacker was not approached," Turnbow said, as quoted by USA Today. "I was told to just suck it up.”
The Cheerleaders Say They Had To Use Safe Words For Protection
Cheerleaders not assigned to perform on the field during Texans games would "spend the minutes of each quarter being paraded throughout the stadium, suite to suite, with 'safe words' for protection," according to the complaint.
One of the safe words the cheerleaders apparently used might bring to mind a classic movie about the sport. "'Toro' means more than the Texans mascot. It means a woman does not feel safe," the lawsuit reads.
The Team Allegedly Body-Shamed Cheerleaders
The women allege in the suit that they felt the team used "hostile" methods that "fell nothing short of body-shaming" to ensure that cheerleaders maintained the required physique. These included shaming the girls in front of others, regular inspections and measuring, and forcing cheerleaders to wear multiple pairs of pantyhose to cover cellulite, according to the complaint.
Their Coach Allegedly Bound One Cheerleader's Stomach With Duct Tape
The lawsuit describes one particular incident where Gary allegedly used duct tape to bind one cheerleader's stomach skin down under her uniform.
"She proceeded to dangle the duct tape in front of the team, including Plaintiffs, during a game, threatening them that 'they were next,'" the suit reads. The suit also alleges the cheerleaders "were in a constant state of fear around Alto, anxiously anticipating whether they would be the next one subjected to her physical assaults."
The Cheerleaders Allege A Culture Of Cyberbullying
The five cheerleaders allege they were subjected to "cyberbullying [that] was pervasive and hostile." According to the suit, they were "repeatedly" sent emails, tweets, and other electronic messages from Gary and her staff that were "harassing, abusing, tormenting, and offending" in nature and were meant "to beat them down into a submissive state."
The women allege they were required to respond to these messages in a "timely fashion," but weren't compensated for any of the time they had to spend monitoring their social media and email.
The Women Claim McDonald's Pays More Than The Texans Cheer Squad
The women behind the suit hammered home the point that the cheerleading squad was a part-time job with full-time hours. The suit claims their wages were equal to or less than those of "employees at your local McDonald's."
A Team Full Of Replaceable "Yes Ma'ams"
The lawsuit alleges an unnamed staff member told Texans cheerleaders that one of the five plaintiffs "wouldn't make it back" on the team if she tried out again "because [she] questions Coach Alto too much." The cheerleaders were "reminded to just 'say yes ma'am,'" in order to avoid being reprimanded, according to the suit.
Former Houston Texans cheerleaders aren't the only ones to recently file lawsuits against their teams or against the NFL. A number of NFL cheerleaders have also alleged in recent years that they'd been misclassified as independent contractors, and thus unfairly denied workplace rights and fair wages. A former New Orleans Saints cheerleader and a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader recently brought complaints alleging gender discrimination against the league, too. As more women demand equal pay and workplace protections, it appears more and more cheerleaders are also standing up for their workplace rights.