NFL Cheerleaders’ Complaints Go Beyond What We Know — And This Lawyer Wants Justice
Gender discrimination complaints brought against the National Football League by two former NFL cheerleaders have apparently spurred dozens of other cheerleaders to share their own allegations of discrimination, double standards, and sexual harassment. But just how many NFL cheerleaders' complaints are out there? A lawyer representing two of the cheerleaders who went public with their claims tells Bustle that she's aware of at least 60 other current and former cheerleaders with their own similar stories — stories that may never become public because of agreements that force the women's silence.
"What happened last week, which was new, is cheerleaders were messaging me that had also had a claim against teams but signed a nondisclosure agreement when they settled," Sara Blackwell tells Bustle. "So it’s very interesting, because now I’m thinking, how many of those are out there?"
Blackwell represents both former New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis and former Miami Dolphins cheerleader Kristan Ann Ware in their complaints against the league. Last week, she offered to settle her clients' complaints with the NFL for just $1, barring a few conditions, one of which is a face-to-face meeting with league Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Since Davis filed her complaint in late March, Blackwell estimates that at least 60 current and former cheerleaders have reached out either directly to her or to her clients to share their own stories of discrimination or sexual harassment. Blackwell says some of those women said they'd brought cases against the NFL, but had signed nondisclosure agreements as part of their settlements with the League.
"So you settle in arbitration, you sign a nondisclosure, and they sweep it under the rug and then you're not able to tell anyone what happened," Blackwell says of the women's experiences.
"These women are being told, 'There's a million girls who want your job, you're not special, we could put any pretty face in that uniform we want, so if you want to keep this job you keep your mouth shut.'"
Upon joining the squad, NFL cheerleaders are often required to sign arbitration agreements, which prevent them from suing their team or the NFL in court, according to Blackwell. She acknowledges that such agreements aren't just normal business practice, but are also often recommended by lawyers like her. Yet Blackwell says there comes a time when enough is enough.
"Once [complaints] start piling up it becomes something that I think needs to be brought out and disclosed," she says.
A spokesperson for the NFL tells Bustle in a statement that the League and its teams support fair employment practices.
"Everyone who works in the NFL, including cheerleaders, has the right to work in a positive and respectful environment that is free from any and all forms of harassment and discrimination and fully complies with state and federal laws," the statement reads. "Our office will work with our clubs in sharing best practices and employment-related processes that will support club cheerleading squads within an appropriate and supportive workplace."
Stories about the alleged sexual harassment, discrimination, and outdated rules that come along with taking up pompoms continue to emerge, however. Five Washington Redskin cheerleaders recently told The New York Times their squad had to pose topless in front of men who'd paid for the privilege of watching a 2013 calendar photoshoot in Costa Rica. During that same trip, some members of the squad were also reportedly told by their director that they'd be joining male sponsors as "personal escorts" for an outing to a nightclub. The cheerleaders who spoke to the Times all did so on condition of anonymity, as they signed confidentiality agreements when they joined the squad.
Blackwell says she's seen several common themes emerge when comparing individual cheerleader's stories: The accounts shared with her and her clients often involved supervisors "fat-shaming" sometimes to the point of an eating disorders or intimidation tactics designed to keep the girls quiet about handsy fans or harassment.
"These women are being told, 'There's a million girls who want your job, you're not special, we could put any pretty face in that uniform we want, so if you want to keep this job you keep your mouth shut,'" she says, adding: "That's not something you would tell a man."
"Obviously not every cheerleader has these experiences, but this is a very common theme which puts the women in these places of complete fear," she continues. "With high supply and low demand, that's when employers can take advantage of the employees. That's why we have federal and state laws to protect those people."
Davis, the former Saints cheerleader, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March after being fired for posting a photo to her Instagram account that which team executives thought was too sexy. She accused the team of gender discrimination on the grounds that it had different rules for its male employees — the football players — than for its female employees, the cheerleaders.
Other former cheerleaders have echoed that complaint. "It's such a double standard," former Baltimore Ravens cheerleader Kate Mayfield told The New York Times. "They explain it to us like the rules are in place to keep us out of trouble, because the league is going to protect the player if something happens. Because the players are, if it comes down to it, more important, even though we're also on the field."
Ware, a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader and Blackwell's other client, alleged in a complaint filed last month with the Florida Commission on Human Relations that her coaches subjected her to discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment after they learned she was a virgin for religious reasons. Ware alleges that despite taking her complaint to human resources first, the mistreatment continued; she accuses the team of not handling her complaint seriously.
But neither Davis, Ware, nor Blackwell appear interested in milking these complaints for huge cash settlements. Blackwell recently offered to settle the complaints with the NFL in exchange for $1; the promise that no cheer squad would be disbanded in retaliation against those coming forward for a period of five years; and, most importantly, a meeting with Goodell to discuss how the league can make meaningful changes to rules that apply to cheerleaders.
Blackwell gave the NFL until Friday to respond to her proposal. The League did not respond to Bustle's request for comment on the settlement offer.
"There's no strategy in my mind to wait to the last minute, but maybe they are," Blackwell says in reference to the league's silence on the proposal. "I presume they're not going to respond, but again, we're still hopeful."
Even if her clients' complaints don't lead to concrete changes to cheerleaders' workplace rights, she hopes that they do empower more women to come forward.
"You can't have rules that are different for men and women that keep women down," Blackwell says.