“As we set out to modernize the Washington Football gameday, it’s important that we develop a top-notch entertainment program that keeps our fanbase excited and connected to the game and the team,” Washington Football Team President Jason Wright said in a news release announcing the new squad.
The team’s rebranding began in July 2020, when it jettisoned its longtime name, viewed as offensive to Native Americans, following pressure from corporate sponsors. Around the same time, The Washington Post published the first in a series of reports detailing female employees’ claims of sexual harassment and exploitation, prompting an NFL investigation into the team’s workplace.
Last season’s cheerleaders — informed of the program’s disruption last month in a hastily scheduled Zoom meeting — said they were not given a heads-up about the latest plans for the squad. A team spokesperson said they were not told about the plans because their contracts had expired.
Wright said last month the decision to reassess the program was unrelated to the allegations made over the summer or the NFL investigation, but many former cheerleaders saw it as a punitive move. They also are upset about the departure of Jamilla Keene, the team’s first African American cheerleading director, who has worked on the sidelines or in the team’s front office since 2003.
Keene did not respond to requests to comment. Her position was eliminated, and Donald Wells, the former cheerleading director who supervised Keene when she was a cheerleader, said she was not offered the opportunity to lead the new coed squad. A team spokesperson said Keene was offered “a role” with the new program but declined to elaborate what it entailed.
“Taking opportunities away from women and adding men to this team is not a resolution,” said Candess Correll, a 2020 team captain. “It’s a slap in the face to the legacy of the Washington Football Team cheerleaders.”
Founded in 1962, the squad claims to have one of the largest alumni associations. Earlier this year, Washington cheerleaders from past decades — now mothers and grandmothers — celebrated their history and sisterhood by creating a “Pass the Poms” video.
To chart its new course, the team tapped Petra Pope, a three-decade veteran of NBA cheerleading programs, to lead the new squad.
“The NBA has long embraced innovative dance and halftime shows, but most NFL teams have remained more oriented towards traditional cheerleading programs,” Pope said in the team news release. “Fans can expect an experience like none other — a gender-neutral and diverse squad of athletes and dancers whose choreography, costumes, props, tricks and stunts will rival the best entertainment across genres and really inspire and ‘wow’ our fans.”
Pope said through the team spokesperson that former cheerleaders can audition for the squad, which she said would be more “athletic” and serve as a model for the league.
“Hearing this new dance team being announced as diverse and athletic — those are just buzzwords and things we already embodied,” said Julia Camacho, who cheered for the team for the past two seasons. “It’s like it’s easier for the team to cut ties with the word 'cheerleader’ than to change the culture of the organization.”
Dozens of former cheerleaders reached a confidential settlement with the team, months after The Post uncovered videos made from 2008 and 2010 outtakes of cheerleader swimsuit calendar shoots. Attorney Gloria Allred, who represented about 20 former cheerleaders, said she hopes the team “focuses on becoming a leader in improving the pay and working conditions of cheerleaders and establishing a program which assures that cheerleaders are free of sexual harassment and exploitation.”
More than half a dozen football teams have added men to their cheerleading squads in recent years following lawsuits alleging that members were underpaid and subject to sexual harassment. Sara Blackwell, who represented former cheerleaders in complaints against the New Orleans Saints and New York Jets, said adding men is a “great idea” but doesn’t solve long-standing problems. She also suggested the team is protecting itself from potential gender discrimination suits in the future.
“You can change the name. You can change the performance,” Blackwell said. “But it’s the treatment of the cheerleaders that needs to be better.”
Mark Maske contributed to this report.