Such provisions are not unusual in the NFL, according to lawyers familiar with such contracts, and ex-Washington cheerleaders say that, while they took the policy seriously, it didn’t bother them — until recently.
In August, The Post reported that the team had produced lewd videos out of outtakes from the cheerleaders’ 2008 and 2010 swimsuit calendar shoots that include partial nudity. Now in their 30s and 40s, with careers and children, the dozens of ex-cheerleaders who appear in the videos are terrified the footage will appear online and are coping with a painful reckoning about their seasons with the NFL franchise.
“I would have hoped the team, because they held us to these high standards, would treat us with respect and uphold the same standards. Instead they violated our trust with what sounds like a soft porn video,” said Chastity Evans, who appears in the unofficial 2008 video and, like other cheerleaders, was afraid of getting fired just for being photographed with a drink in hand or being in the same restaurant as a player.
A love of dance drew them to the cheerleading squad, and the bonds forged with teammates they still consider sisters kept them coming back. But the meager pay, demands that they socialize with male suite holders and sponsors, and other indignities — what they then viewed as a reasonable exchange for the chance of a lifetime — loom larger knowing what they know now.
“I didn’t see it when I was younger, because I loved what I did,” said Evans, now 40, who cheered for five seasons. “I don’t think they viewed us as people. They viewed us as replaceable objects.”
In response to an email summarizing the allegations raised by former cheerleaders in this story, Washington’s NFL team declined to answer several questions and issued a statement.
“Like many companies and organizations, the Washington Football Team is examining its historical practices and behaviors,” the statement said. “We take the criticisms of our cheerleading program seriously and we remain committed to reviewing all programs thoroughly.”
Then-senior vice president Larry Michael told broadcasting staffers to produce the videos, according to two ex-employees, one of whom said the footage was to be assembled for team owner Daniel Snyder. Snyder and Michael have denied any knowledge of the videos, copies of which were obtained by The Post.
The videos include clips during which some of the cheerleaders’ nipples are exposed as they shift positions or adjust props shielding their breasts. Two of the women’s pubic areas are obscured only partly by body paint. The videos are set to the same three classic rock hits, including one each by the Rolling Stones and U2, bands Snyder said were his favorites in a 2011 interview.
Attorneys Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, who represent 12 of the ex-Washington cheerleaders, notified Snyder last month of their intent to sue the team over the videos.
The team this week agreed to the attorneys’ request for an “independent forensic investigation” to secure any copies of the 2008 and 2010 videos and any other unauthorized cheerleader videos that may exist in its computer system. Banks and Katz also have met with the NFL, which in August assumed oversight of an investigation into the team’s treatment of women.
“My clients worked hard and proudly cheered for the Washington Football Team and in return were exploited and humiliated,” Banks said. “We are exploring all legal options to hold accountable those who are responsible, to protect my clients from further harm and to effect positive change for all women who continue to work with the team.”
Attorney Gloria Allred said she represents another 20 ex-cheerleaders but declined to comment or make any of her clients available for interviews.
‘I feel violated’
Since hearing about the videos, ex-cheerleaders have been reconnecting via Zoom calls and encrypted messaging services, commiserating and frantically trying to determine whether they appear in the footage. The videos have reinforced the kinship among them but also sowed tension. Should they talk to the media? Hire a lawyer? Which one? The women also are fielding uncomfortable queries from family and friends about the calendar shoots, though in their opinion, the tough questions should be directed at team officials.
“I’m going to have two grown sons at some point, and what are they going to find on the Internet — some mom porn?” asked 37-year-old Lee-Ann Campbell, who appears in both videos, though she is less exposed than others.
A few of the women exposed in the videos were 18 or 19 at the time of the shoots, including Ashley A. Taylor. In a promotional video for the 2010 calendar, the camera focuses on her face as she talks excitedly about her first trip overseas. In the unauthorized version, her nipples are briefly visible, and she is silent during a topless beach shoot.
Taylor became a junior cheerleader at 8 years old and spent five years on the regular squad. “I invested 15 total seasons … half of my life,” she wrote recently on Instagram. “I grew up in this organization and trusted them, my family trusted them, but now I feel violated.”
The former cheerleaders also worry that instead of holding officials to account, the team will disband the program. The Buffalo Bills did that after cheerleaders sued in 2014, alleging they were paid less than minimum wage and forced to pass “jiggle tests” to prove their physical fitness.
“It shouldn’t be that because we’re asking for respect that we get punished and pushed aside,” said Michelle Moseley, 38, who cheered for seven years and appears in the 2008 video. “There is so much that is positive about the program.”
Like the cheerleaders he led, Donald Wells, who served as director from 1997 to 2009, is taking a hard look back at his experience with the team. He regrets that he could not have done more to protect the women. He also recalled a remark by Snyder that Wells said reveals his disrespect for the cheerleaders, their hard work and the value they brought to the team.
“You better keep them skinny with big tits or I’ll f---ing kill you,” Wells said Snyder told him at a 2004 charity event where the squad performed.
Snyder, who has been the team’s majority owner since 1999, declined an interview request for this story and did not respond to questions sent to his attorney and public relations firm about the comment Wells said he made.
Wells said he recently recounted the story to Banks, the attorney. “I would never have told anyone about that if it weren’t for the revelation that the videos were created of my cheerleaders without their knowledge,” he said. “I was embarrassed and scared if I said anything I might be fired.”
Low pay, long hours
Over the past six years, a procession of lawsuits against other NFL teams has revealed that, behind the glamour of performing on national television, many cheerleaders are subjected to sexist treatment and paid so little that they work as de facto volunteers.
Until about five years ago, the Washington cheerleaders earned $75 per home game. On game days, black luxury cars ferrying Snyder and his inner circle park in the cheerleaders’ practice studio at FedEx Field. The squad is allotted limited parking spots, so women said they had to carpool on game days, when they work as long as 12 hours.
“You weren’t even valued enough to park your own car to do your job,” said one former cheerleader, who like many of her teammates spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. “We did it because dance was our passion and this was a rare opportunity as adults to keep dancing and performing. The money wasn’t the goal. But looking back on it, it kind of cheapens the whole thing.”
The swimsuit calendar has been an annual staple for the team since 1998, predating Snyder and following the example set by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, widely credited with parlaying sexy outfits and performances into revenue-boosting celebrity appeal.
Washington cheerleaders were required to sell at least 50 calendars, a quota that lawyers who have reviewed other teams’ contracts said is not unusual in the NFL. Ex-cheerleaders said selling calendars made them feel like children pressed into fundraising for a school or Girl Scout troop — except in this case, they were raising money for a franchise recently valued at $3.5 billion. Former cheerleaders said if they didn’t meet the quota, they had to pay the team for the unsold calendars at the end of the season at the same time they received their one and only paycheck.
The decisions to pose topless or in body paint were their own, former cheerleaders said. But there was an understanding — or at least a perception — on the 40-member cheerleading squads that the sexier the shoot, the more likely to win a coveted calendar “month,” which helped them meet their individual sales targets.
One former cheerleader who was under 21 while on the squad said she felt the consequences of wearing more conservative bathing suits. She never got her own calendar month over three seasons. And at a time she was earning about $1,000 per year, she lost hundreds of dollars on calendars she didn’t sell.
As the team’s on-field performance has crumbled during Snyder’s tenure and the demand for high-end luxury seats has ebbed, Washington has leaned on the cheerleaders to help maintain revenue streams.
Former cheerleaders said they were dispatched to entertain corporate sponsors and FedEx Field suite holders at business events, yacht parties, private homes — even bar mitzvah parties — in addition to twice-weekly rehearsals and charitable appearances. The contracts reviewed by The Post required attendance at a minimum of 20 public events, just half of which offered additional compensation.
Through its public relations firm, the team said cheerleaders now are paid hourly for all public events. The team declined to disclose how much the team pays cheerleaders and declined a request by The Post to review a current cheerleading contract.
For years, the team’s annual calendar shoots offered another chance for fans to get close to cheerleaders. A flier obtained by The Post shows the practice dated from at least 2006, when the team offered a four-day, all-inclusive trip to the Dominican Republic for $5,000 per person. “Watch the closed photo shoots for the 2006-2007 Redskins Cheerleaders Calendar . . . Participate in interactive beach games with the Redskins Cheerleaders and top the day off with dinner with the ladies!”
Evans recalled the male onlookers — and that she was asked to take off her wedding ring. “I guess they wanted us to seem available,” she said.
In 2009, Moseley and three other cheerleaders were headed to a casino with season ticket holders and sponsors during a Super Bowl trip to Tampa, she said, when Dennis Greene, then-president of business operations, proposed a change in plans. He told two younger cheerleaders to put on bathing suits, put in drink orders and go out on a yacht with a male suite holder and friends they had never met, Moseley said.
“Had I not been there, had those girls not called me,” said Moseley, who said she told Greene her teammates would not be going on the yacht. “We were viewed as a commodity to sell and make money by any means necessary.”
Greene, who resigned in 2018 following a New York Times story that included allegations he had sold access to cheerleaders to meet sales targets, did not respond to requests to comment. The team said suite holders are no longer permitted on staff trips.
A double standard
The ex-cheerleaders weighing legal claims face significant but not insurmountable hurdles, said attorney Sharon Vinick, who brought successful wage-theft lawsuits against the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders.
The relevant state’s statute of limitations probably has expired, depending on where lawsuits are filed. The solution, Vinick said, is to argue “delayed discovery” — that the clock on the legal time frame for filing suit shouldn’t start ticking until the plaintiff learns of the violation rather than when it occurred.
The other challenge is that the contracts covering the cheerleaders in the 2008 and 2010 videos give the team what appears to be unfettered permission to use the women’s names, voices and images “in connection with any and all publications, broadcasts, websites, web postings, promotional photographs, promotional posters, and any other commercial or noncommercial products, including but not limited to calendars, team photos, T-shirts, videos, Internet content, and team marketing and sponsorship activities and materials.”
Vinick said she still thinks the former cheerleaders have a case. “There is no reasonable expectation that when these women are signing away the rights to their images that they signed them away to be sliced and diced into a porn video,” she said.
Founded in 1962, the organization previously known as the “Redskinettes” says it is the longest-running NFL cheerleading squad. Among the 26 teams with cheerleaders, there is no standardized contract, pay scale or union akin to the NFL Players Association. Typical of these contracts, lawyers say, is the contrast between the strict guidelines regulating the cheerleaders’ public image and the broad leeway granted the team to use their photos.
“The teams could post pictures of the girls in swimsuits, on the field with hardly anything on; they could post anything they wanted,” said attorney Sara Blackwell, who has advised several NFL cheerleading teams. “But on their own social media, the girls had to be very pure. Dress modestly. No alcohol in their hands. Basically, you had to look like a pure angel in social media or be immediately fired.”
Former Washington cheerleaders point to another double standard in the contract: that they “may not date, socialize, fraternize or flirt” with football players. The zero-tolerance policy, also common in the NFL, cost two Washington cheerleaders their jobs before the 2005 season. Both dated then-rising star tight end Chris Cooley.
Cooley said recently that he was never warned against socializing with cheerleaders.
“No one said anything to the players about who you do or don’t talk to,” said Cooley, who later worked for several years as a team broadcaster. “I didn’t feel like, in any way, that it was misconduct on my part.”
Cheerleaders, however, felt repercussions. When rehearsals were occasionally scheduled at the team’s facility in Ashburn, cheerleaders were told to stay in their cars until every football player had driven away after practice. Though the field was empty, cheerleaders had to wait for as long as an hour while players showered and left the building.
“If men can’t control themselves, if they look at you or anything happens, it’s your fault,” Moseley said. “Let’s not explain to the men in the organization that they need to treat women with respect. Let’s just hide you.”
Female office employees faced similar restrictions. A “conduct policies” email in 2017 formalized a long-standing protocol that women should avoid the ground floor, where they might pass by players.
Cheerleaders long have been instructed to leave a restaurant or bar immediately if a player walks in. Former members of the squad, as well as ex-director Wells, said they tolerated such rules because they were so devoted to the program and to one another.
“The women of the cheerleading program are held to a different standard than the men who worked at the organization,” he said. “I’ve never felt that was just.”
Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.