National Post (National Edition)
FORMER CHEERLEADERS SETTLE WITH WASHINGTON NFL TEAM
`FIRST LADIES OF FOOTBALL' NOW FACE UNCERTAIN FUTURE FOLLOWING DEAL
Former Washington Football Team cheerleaders who appeared in lewd videos that team employees secretly produced from outtakes of 2008 and 2010 swimsuit calendar shoots have reached confidential settlements with the team.
“The matter has been resolved,” said Cindy Minniti, a lawyer representing the team and owner Daniel Snyder, when asked about dozens of ex-cheerleaders represented separately by attorneys Lisa Banks and Gloria Allred. None of the lawyers would provide any details on the terms of the settlements.
The cheerleaders retained Banks and Allred following an August report in The Washington Post about two 10-minute videos set to classic rock hits they said were made without their knowledge. In the videos, some of the cheerleaders' nipples are exposed as they shifted positions and adjusted props, and two cheerleaders' pubic areas are obscured only partly by body paint.
Two former team employees said then-senior vice president Larry Michael asked for the videos to be produced, and one of them said Michael told them the footage was to be assembled for Snyder. Snyder and Michael have denied any knowledge of the videos, copies of which were obtained by The Post.
The settlement was reached as the team awaits the findings of an NFL investigation into its workplace culture. That investigation, which is being led by lawyer Beth Wilkinson, was launched in July after The Post reported that 15 former female employees described being sexually harassed by male executives. Wilkinson's probe is “nearing its completion,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last week.
Meanwhile, the future of the cheerleading program is uncertain. The team announced Monday its intent to “temporarily pause off-season activity of game day programs including cheerleading and music” as part of what it cast as “the next phase of its rebranding journey.” That overhaul began last summer when it jettisoned its longtime name, viewed as offensive to Native Americans, following pressure from corporate sponsors.
“The time is right to reimagine our entire game day experience, to reinvent it in a way that reflects our modern identity and aligns with what today's fan seeks,” team president Jason Wright said in a news release.
The current, 40-member cheerleading squad was informed of the team's plans in a short video conference call Monday afternoon, scheduled about a half-hour in advance, according to one longtime member, who spoke to The Post on condition of anonymity because she wants to remain involved with the organization. She said many team members were at work or in class and could not attend on such short notice.
The news came as a shock, she said, because as The Post uncovered the lewd videos and reported on the NFL investigation, top managers had assured them in a series of meetings that they were valued members of the organization.
“They said they had our backs,” she said. “Then we were blindsided.”
Cheerleaders were unable to ask questions during the call. Four hours later, they received a brief email from human resources thanking them for their work and announcing that tryouts for next year are “postponed.” Typically, auditions are held in the spring, and cheerleaders spend the summer rehearsing. Cheerleaders are paid for attending practices and making appearances on the team's behalf during the off-season.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, cheerleaders did not perform on the field this past season and instead produced videos that were shown during games and on the team website.
“We're wondering what they mean by a `pause' and how long, and I guess it just means until they figure it out,” said the cheerleader, who added she and others have asked for a meeting with team officials but haven't got an answer. “Those videos and other stuff happened before any of us were on the team, and it feels like we're being punished.”
Wright said the decision to reassess the program is unrelated to the allegations made over the summer or the NFL investigation.
“Pausing all aspects of game day entertainment is solely based on transforming the fan experience in connection with the rebrand,” Wright said.
The only full-time job on the squad, the cheerleading director position held by Jamilla Keene, has been eliminated, though team executives said Keene may move to another role. Keene, who has worked as a cheerleader or in the team's front office since 2003, did not respond to requests for comment.
The disruption to the cheerleading program drew an immediate backlash from former cheerleaders, concerned that the announcement may signal the end of the team.
“This is victim-blaming and retaliation for everything that has happened in the past few months,” said Melanie Coburn, a former cheerleader who worked as the squad's marketing director from 2001 to 2011. “It's harder for them to work on the culture of the organization than to just cancel the team.”
Washington's cheerleaders are known as the First Ladies of Football and are the longest-running team in the NFL, with an active network of alumni that goes back decades.
“We have such a unique history, and to dismantle it in this way is egregious and unconscionable to me,” said Courtney DeYoung, who cheered for the team for 12 years, until 2007. “It's a sisterhood and a family.”
The team said it is creating a new executive position to oversee the fan experience as it seeks public input about a new name and improvements to game-day concessions and entertainment.
Banks said she would continue to press the NFL to publicize the results of its investigation, and she blasted the possibility of ending the cheerleading program.
“It seems that if you want to improve the game-day experience, you would first look at ticket prices, parking and food — not dismantling a popular and successful cheerleading program,” Banks said.