Susette Walsh, a veteran Eagles cheerleader, was home watching her team lose to the New York Giants during last January's playoff game when she got the shock of her life. During the postgame show, a sportscaster reported that visiting NFL players had been peeping into the Eagles cheerleaders' locker room for years, secretly watching the women as they showered and dressed.
Walsh, 34, who spent six years cheering for the Eagles, including a stint as squad captain, felt her emotions sink from embarrassment to humiliation as she watched the report along with her husband and several friends. "I never went back into that locker room again," she said.
Instead, Walsh, an eighth-grade math teacher, and 43 other former Eagles cheerleaders have sued 29 National Football League teams and what could be hundreds of as-yet-unnamed players for invasion of privacy, emotional distress, negligence and conspiracy. Seeking unspecified damages, the suit names as defendants all NFL teams that have played at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium since 1983. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have not played at the Vet, and the Eagles themselves, whose locker room is in a different area of the stadium, were not named.
The lawsuit claims that visiting players -- whose locker room is adjacent to the cheerleaders' -- peeped at the women through holes in the walls and cracks between doors and the walls, and by scratching away at a window that had been painted over. The situation was "common knowledge among virtually the entire National Football League," the suit says, and the peep-show opportunity "was considered one of the special 'perks' of being a visiting team of the Eagles."
"We were doing everything you'd do in the privacy of your own bathroom in the locker room," said Walsh, who was on the squad from 1986 to 1988 and from 1998 until she quit after hearing the locker-room report. "It's disgusting that something like this could happen and go on for so many years."
An Eagles spokesman declined to comment on the suit, as did representatives of the Washington Redskins and the NFL.
Michael McKenna, the cheerleaders' attorney, acknowledged it will be difficult to bring the case successfully in court. Although he has taken photographs of the locker rooms showing peepholes and gaps between doors, "we're not exactly sure how they did it; we just know they did it because they told us," said McKenna, referring to news reports. But he added, "I'll take depositions from every player . . . if I have to."
The story, first reported by the New York Times and the subject of a spot on NBC's "Today" show, quoted an unnamed former Dallas Cowboys player as saying the peeping went on. Former Chicago Bears defensive lineman Mike Wells told Chicago's Fox television station in August that "you can see into their [Eagles cheerleaders'] shower room."
The plaintiffs say the revelations have ruined the pleasure they took in cheerleading.
"It's such a wonderful memory," said plaintiff Nicole McCarthy, 31, of the five years she spent cheering for the Eagles, which she has documented in scrapbooks, photos and memorabilia at her Collegeville, Pa., home. "Now to have this come out makes it feel tainted."
McCarthy attended college and law school while cheering for the Eagles. She joined the squad in 1989 after an audition. At 18, McCarthy was one of the youngest cheerleaders, who typically range from 18 to 30. Like many of the other women trying out, McCarthy had been a cheerleader in high school, and she had competed in beauty pageants.
In addition to being able to perform the dance routines, "we always had to look good," McCarthy said. "It was drilled into our heads, 'You represent the Eagles.' "
The cheerleaders -- many of whom have full-time jobs -- practice two nights a week and spend home-game days at the Vet. The squad makes charity and public appearances throughout the year, and some have appeared in calendars and videos. Although cheerleaders don't travel to away games -- which is why Walsh was watching the Eagles-Giants game from her living room a year ago -- McCarthy got to cheer at preseason games in London and Japan, all expenses paid.
The less than $40 a game that McCarthy was paid barely covered her makeup costs, much less helped put her through law school. But that was beside the point. "No one does it for the money," McCarthy said. "The money was a gesture."
After they first heard about the peeping, Walsh and McKenna tried to settle the matter privately with NFL teams. When that failed, Walsh and Nicole Sozio, another former cheerleader, filed a federal lawsuit in August against 23 of the visiting teams. When other women asked to join, McKenna said he filed the expanded lawsuit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court because of rules that limit federal civil suits involving plaintiffs and defendants who reside in the same state. Since then, 25 additional former cheerleaders have contacted McKenna about joining the lawsuit.
There are no current cheerleaders among the plaintiffs, McKenna said, because they don't fall into the category of unknowing victims, and none has contacted him anyway.
As for the Eagles, they were left out of the lawsuit not only because their locker room is removed from the cheerleaders' area, but also because "it's not lost on me that my jurors are going to be hometown fans," McKenna said. Nonetheless, if it turns out any of the Eagles sneaked peeks on their cheerleaders, he said, "they will be sued."
There's also a question of who is responsible for maintenance at the Vet. The stadium is owned by the city, and while McKenna considered suing the city as well as the Eagles for allowing the conditions under which the cheerleaders were spied on, he said the women were much more outraged by the intentional nature of the visiting team members peeping.
What the former cheerleaders want, according to McKenna, is an acknowledgment from the teams and players that the peeping occurred, an apology, and unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
But "it's not about money," said Walsh, who noted that many of the cheerleaders are professional working women. "These players need to be exposed. These are grown men and professional athletes; they're supposed to be role models. This is no way for them to be acting."