Three former Houston Texans cheerleaders filed a class-action lawsuit against the franchise and its director of cheerleading, alleging team officials forced them to work extra hours without compensation, exposed them to abusive, shaming behavior by the director and failed to protect them from physical abuse from fans.
Twitter direct messages, which two cheerleaders and their lawyer provided, show examples of cheerleaders being pressured to lose weight themselves or to urge teammates to lose weight. One unnamed plaintiff spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity. Paige G., who goes by her initials in the lawsuit, requested her last name not be used out of fear of retaliation against family members in the industry.
Paige G. said all Texans cheerleaders had to work hours for which they were not paid. She said she experienced no personal rebuke for her physical appearance and was never physically hurt. But she said she attached herself to the lawsuit and spoke out after growing disillusioned with behavior by Alto Gary, the director of cheerleader programs and cheerleader coach, that she either witnessed or teammates reported to her.
“I feel like it’s part of my duty as a human being to protect my friends,” Paige G. said. “I want to stand up people too afraid to stand up for themselves.”
Gary did not respond to multiple messages and an email seeking comment.
Amy Palcic, the Texans’ vice president of communications, said: “We are proud of the cheerleader program and have had hundreds of women participate and enjoy their experience while making a positive impact in the local community. We are constantly evaluating our procedures and will continue to make adjustments as needed to make the program enjoyable for everyone.”
The suit made the Texans the latest NFL team in recent months to a face a controversy over its treatment of cheerleaders.
In March, former New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis alleged in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint that the Saints had discriminated against her on the basis of gender when they fired her for posing in a one-piece outfit on Instagram. Former Miami Dolphins cheerleader Kristan Ann Ware filed a complaint in April alleging Dolphins officials turned against her after she revealed she was a virgin.
Anonymous former Washington Redskins cheerleaders alleged, first to the New York Times, that they had been forced to pose topless in front of sponsors at a 2013 Costa Rican swimsuit calendar shoot and then serve essentially as dates for suite holders at night on the trip.
In the Texans lawsuit, which was filed Monday in the Southern District of Texas, the cheerleaders allege they were “physically assaulted by fans” when they were required to stand in the crowd during games as part of a promotional campaign. When they reported the behavior, Gary “never took steps to report the assaults or take steps to insure the cheerleaders’ safety,” the lawsuit says.
The team changed its policies regarding cheerleaders going into the stands after the incidents, including an increase in security, according to a person familiar with the Texans’ response.
Paige G. said team officials outside of the cheerleading staff treated them well. But the unnamed plaintiff said the incidents fit a pattern that made cheerleaders feel unsafe.
During appearances, she said, the Texans would sometimes send a pair of cheerleaders to events without security. The cheerleaders said fans had easy access to them as they exited the stadium, without security present. “Young girls in cheer uniforms, we’re definitely targets,” the unnamed plaintiff said. “We did ask coach a lot, ‘Is security going to be there?’ And she would be like, ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’ ”
In one instance, according to the lawsuit and phone interviews, Gary told a Hispanic cheerleader that she could not keep her hair straight, and that if it wasn’t curly, she would “find another Latina girl to replace her.”
The Texans’ cheerleader contract included no provisions about weight, but it did specify that cheerleaders needed to keep up their appearance. Still, some women were told, “you need to lose weight,” upon making the team, the two cheerleaders said in telephone interviews. Paige G. said several teammates confided in her that Gary told some cheerleaders to not eat for a couple of days before a game.
The suit alleges that the Texans violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Cheerleaders were paid $7.25 per hour, which is the state minimum wage, but were required to work off the clock to keep their spots on the team, according to the suit.
“I knew what I would be making when I signed up,” the unnamed plaintiff said. “I didn’t know half the hours I worked, I wasn’t going to be paid for.”
Claims of wage violations among NFL cheerleading squads are not new. Between 2014 and 2016, the Oakland Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets paid settlements worth more than a combined $2.6 million to cheerleaders who sued for better pay. The Buffalo Bills shut down their cheerleading team, the Jills, after five cheerleaders filed a suit in 2014. Last fall, a judge ruled that the case against the Bills and the NFL could move forward as a class-action case.