Ex-Cheerleaders Fight Back Against the NFL

Bailey Davis posted a picture of herself in a bathing suit on Instagram. This is ordinary enough, except she did so while working as a cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints. She was fired for breaking the rules of “appearing nude, seminude or in lingerie.” (The bathing suit, as Deadspin noted, is less revealing than the cheerleading outfits themselves.) Kristan Davis spoke publicly about her decision to not have sex before marriage. Hardly something that would raise an eyebrow, but doing so led to her being fired as a cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins.

These two women were punished for thinking that their bodies and minds were not merely NFL commodities. And now they have struck back, suing the NFL for wrongful termination. Their attorney Sara Blackwell dropped a bombshell this week by announcing that her clients would be willing to drop their lawsuits for settlements of one dollar for each plaintiff, and a face-to-face “good faith” meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, with no guarantees, to discuss the creation of clear, league-wide guidelines to follow going forward.

This is a labor issue, and one that we should not take lightly. It’s about the reality – not the NFL conjured fantasy – of what it means to be a cheerleader and whether these workers in that grueling job have basic workplace rights.

The NFL gave us no comment on the specific offer for a one-dollar settlement and a meeting. But they did provide this generic statement:

The NFL and all NFL member clubs 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. 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.

That’s all they gave us. We were however able to speak to Sara Blackwell about her reasoning for going all in to secure a meeting with Goodell. The aim is to get them to live up to the content of the above statement, which is openly flouted by many teams. 

“The NFL keeps saying that the cheerleaders deserve the right to fair and professional environments that are free of harassment and free of discrimination and that’s what we are saying, as well,” says Blackwell. “And we’re not asking for anyone to admit fault. We’re not asking for a chance to yell at anyone or accuse of anyone. We don’t need anyone to say, ‘I did wrong.’ We just want to clear up [the rules] with the NFL, who say they think that cheerleaders deserve [an appropriate and supportive workplace]and say, “so do we.” And so let’s just have a conversation about it.”

What makes this exceptional is that Davis and Wade are putting aside their own individual grievances for a greater good. They are willing to forgo any settlement they could receive and are aware that they will not be rehired. As Blackwell said to us,

I was very grateful that they cared enough about this issue to be willing to make that kind of sacrifice. We sign away the rights to sue them or bring a claim against them just to have a meeting, and at the same time, they could laugh at us the whole time, make fun of us, sit in the room without speaking. They could make a joke of us and that’s a risk that my clients are very well aware of and that I’m aware of – and we hope that’s not the case. … All we’re doing is saying, ‘Now you’re bound by these rules and regulations: “an environment that is professional and fair and free of discrimination and harassment.” Let’s just have a discussion and let’s just try to come to an agreement when we’re both on the same side.

They have persisted despite a significant and painful backlash. But they have also received an outpouring of support from younger cheerleaders and a great deal of supportive media attention. It’s all for naught, however, if it doesn’t work. As Blackwell said, “If we don’t create change and if change isn’t something that ends up happening, I think it’ll be a really strong blow to Bailey and to Kristan and to myself because of how hard we’re working and what we’re risking for this.”

This is a labor issue, pure and simple. I asked Blackwell to explain the gap between a cheerleader’s life and the fantasy.

I think that these teams have done a really great job of keeping the realities of what their life is like, a secret. I’m learning the reality on a daily basis because of cheerleaders that are contacting me, and from hearing stories from my clients. People have no idea that to be a professional cheerleader, you have to be bound by all of these awful, unlawful and egregious rules. So a lot of cheerleaders accept whatever the rules are, it doesn’t bother them. They don’t care whether they’re lawful or unlawful. I’m not saying every cheerleader has a problem, but I know that there are a lot of common issues within these teams that are unnecessary and unlawful that can be fixed.

Let’s see what happens. They are asking for a meeting. It seems like the least, quite literally, that the NFL could do.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com