Two ongoing discrimination claims filed by former NFL cheerleaders could come to a swift conclusion if commissioner Roger Goodell chooses to accept a tempting offer: They would drop the lawsuits in exchange for a sit down meeting with Goodell, $1 in damages, and not much else.
As reported by The New York Times, the goal of the proposed meeting would be to establish “a set of binding rules and regulations which apply to all NFL teams” when it comes to cheerleading squads. The settlement proposal also would bar teams from disbanding their squads for a period of five years, lest any team balk at the aforementioned league-wide regulations.
“We’re not asking them to admit fault, or to admit guilt, or even admit that there is anything wrong,” Sara Blackwell, the attorney representing both cheerleaders told The New York Times. “But if they do want and expect that cheerleaders should have a fair working environment, as they have stated, then it doesn’t make any common sense why the answer would be no.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Bailey Davis and Kristan Ann Ware, who were previously employed by the New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins respectively. Davis was kicked off the New Orleans Saints cheerleading squad, the Saintsations, after she posted a photo to her private Instagram account wearing a bathing suit. Via a strict interpretation of the Saints’ rulebook, the team determined that Davis was promoting an in image in which she appeared “nude, seminude or in lingerie,” and fired her in January.
Here’s the photo in question, which, yes, isn’t that dissimilar from her workday uniform.
But as The New York Times noted, that’s just one aspect of the draconian rules the Saints enforce when it comes to the Saintsations. They’ve installed a “Handmaid’s Tale”-like “anti-fraternization” policy that puts the onus on cheerleaders to stay away from the players at all costs while the players themselves are given free rein to initiate social contact without fear of punishment or the loss of employment.
If a Saint or any NFL athlete accidentally saunters into a restaurant where a cheerleader happens to be dining, the cheerleader must leave immediately. They are also prohibited from any contact on social media and must immediately block any NFL player who reaches out to them. No such restrictions are placed on the players themselves.
For Wade’s part, she alleges she was let go for discussing her baptism on social media and her overt expressions of her faith rankled the Dolphins. Again, the Dolphins have never placed any restriction on their players’ expressions of overt religiousness. She was also grilled about her sexual behavior, or in this case, the lack thereof.
“My coaches sat down and said, ‘Let’s talk about your virginity,’” Ware, who quit the squad a year ago, said. “And I thought, ‘That isn’t right.’”
As Jessica Luther wrote at NBC News, for years, the few available job opportunities in professional cheerleading combined with the fact that cheerleaders, unlike the players, don’t have a union working on their behalf meant teams could enforce all manner of proscriptive and at times near-puritanical demands. Their weight, appearance, and behavior, both online and off, was under constant scrutiny, even when a cheerleader wasn’t on the job. (For example, the Buffalo Bills had rules in place regarding genital grooming.)
And even if a cheerleader was willing to look past all that, they were paid well below minimum wage and forced to make all manner of appearances, often unpaid, at team-related functions and events where sexual harassment was commonplace.
“The club’s intention is to completely control the behavior of the women, even when they are not actually at their workplace,” said Leslie Levy, an attorney who represented cheerleaders in separate lawsuits filed by cheerleaders over unfair wages.
“It’s an issue of power. You see a disparate treatment between the cheerleaders, and the mascots and anyone else who works for the team. I can’t think of another arena where employers exert this level of control, even when they are not at work.”
Blackwell knows that she is risking a great deal by pinning everything on a single meeting with the NFL commissioner.
“I understand that they could meet with us, patronize us, and do nothing in the end,” she said. “I understand that risk. But it’s a risk we’re willing to take to try to have real change.”
Share image by Cpl. Michelle M. Dickson/Wikimedia Commons.