The Washington Redskins say they view their cheerleaders as first-rate representatives for the franchise, women who work full-time jobs — some of them doctors and business owners — and still find time to attend community events and visit troops abroad. They also use them and their sex appeal to peddle the most expensive seats at FedEx Field.
As the Redskins’ losses have mounted in recent years and the demand for high-end luxury seats and suites has declined, the team is using the cheerleaders as a sales inducement. According to a former Redskins front-office employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, that’s why several male sponsors and suite holders — and two team executives — were present at a 2013 calendar photo shoot in Costa Rica, as first detailed Wednesday in a New York Times report.
As the Redskins reacted with a mix of vague concern and mild resistance, the report caused the latest in a series of recent examinations of how the NFL and its teams treat cheerleaders. It also prompted further scrutiny into why the Redskins would reportedly invite fans to watch their cheerleaders pose topless for a calendar.
The Times cited five cheerleaders who said cheerleaders were also forced to attend a nightclub where they served as dates for suite holders and sponsors, all of them male. Also present at the event, according to the report, were now-former executive vice president of operations Lon Rosenberg and president of business operations Dennis Greene.
“There was no need for Lon Rosenberg to go down there,” the former official said. “He just went to ogle the girls and talk about it. They’d send suite owners down there, and that’s how Dennis Greene got people to buy suites. He’d say, ‘I’m going to give you a good deal, and you can go on a trip with the cheerleaders.’ ”
Rosenberg said he no longer works for the Redskins and referred any comment to the team. He did not respond to a follow-up email. In an email, Greene referred questions to the team’s public relations staff.
Another former Redskins employee said owner Daniel Snyder had little to do with the cheerleading team because the revenue it produced amounted to a “rounding error.” But the executives under Snyder responsible for selling the highest-priced tickets were involved.
“That’s an entirely different question,” the former employee said. “I don’t think it’s any secret that cheerleaders go to suites during games and that [they] sometimes go on away games when suite holders and the like are being entertained.”
The employee insisted he saw tight security present when cheerleaders interacted with suite holders. One current Redskins cheerleader, who granted an interview last month with the team’s approval, said she witnessed security eject a man who pecked a cheerleader on the cheek.
According to a 2003 Forbes magazine report, an NFL cheerleading squad generated roughly $1 million in annual team revenue. Under NFL rules, that is income that’s not subject to the league’s revenue-sharing rules but can be retained in full by the team. And that revenue has potentially increased over the past 15 years as teams have found new ways to monetize their modestly compensated, minimally clad cheerleaders.
While the former employee insisted the Redskins make “bupkus” from its cheerleading team, it is not for a lack of trying.
In May 2015, the Redskins promoted a tropical vacation with the team cheerleaders that included a five-night stay at Paradisus Palma Real in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. A Fox News travel story about the trip noted: “The price may be steep for some, but the cheerleaders say fans pay for the quality time with the women.”
The Redskins cheerleaders bring in revenue in other ways, starting with the $50 fee each applicant pays for the right to audition. The fee is waived for would-be cheerleaders who enroll in the “highly recommended” 10-class series of “Prep Classes” at $30 to $35 per class or the “strongly recommended” “Leg Up Series,” at $25 per class, for five classes that focus on preparing for different aspects of the cheerleader audition, including how to pose, apply makeup and walk in heels.
For tweens and teens who aspire to be NFL cheerleaders, the Redskins offer three programs led by Redskins cheerleaders this summer: a two-day cheer camp, junior dances camp and teen dance camp. Each series is $200.
The Redskins’ website also sells cheerleader merchandise. The 2017-18 Redskins cheerleader swimsuit calendar shot in Negril, Jamaica, retails for $30. Autographed calendars are $50.
A day after the Times report, Redskins President Bruce Allen said the team is “looking into” the troubling allegations. In a statement issued by the team, Allen said the team had spoken with “a number of” Redskins cheerleaders who provided accounts that “directly contradict” details in the Times story, which cited five cheerleaders present at the photo shoot who did not disclose their names because they had signed non-disclosure agreements.
“The Redskins organization is very concerned by the allegations involving our cheerleaders in the recent New York Times article,” Allen said in a statement issued by the team. “We are immediately looking into this situation and want to express how serious we take these allegations. Based on the dialogue we’ve had with a number of current and former cheerleaders over the past 48 hours, we’ve heard very different firsthand accounts that directly contradict many of the details of the May 2 article. I can promise that once we have completed looking into this matter, if it is revealed that any of our employees acted inappropriately, those employees will face significant repercussions.
“Our entire organization has great appreciation and respect for our cheerleaders. From the work they do in the local community, to visiting our troops abroad, and for always representing the Redskins organization in a first-class manner, these women are exemplary members of our organization and are worthy of our utmost respect. We are proud of these women and support them during this time. We will continue to take all necessary measures to create a safe and respectful work environment.”
Some former Redskins cheerleaders rose to the team’s defense. Charo Bishop, a member of the 2013 squad who traveled to Costa Rica for the photo shoot, tweeted a link to the Times story with the label #fakenews. Bishop did not respond to a request for comment.
The revelations have thrust the Redskins into the forefront of a national discussion of NFL teams’ relationships with their cheerleaders. At issue are questions about compensation, working conditions, restrictions on behavior and demands regarding weight and appearance.
Two former NFL cheerleaders, from the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, filed discrimination complaints against the league last month. The latest report on the Redskins practices makes increasingly clear, according to one scholar of labor law, that it’s in the NFL’s interest to set a leaguewide standard for cheerleader pay, working conditions and contracts.
“This is giving the NFL a black eye,” said Marquette law professor Paul Secunda, director of the university’s Labor and Employment Law Program. “Every time a situation arises — whether it’s the way these women are being treated by the Redskins or it’s the fact that they’re being paid less than minimum wage or not paid at all — it makes the league took greedy, makes them look misogynistic and makes them look as if they’re exploiting these women for their sexuality.”
The NFL has attempted to keep the issue at arm’s length, with spokesmen reiterating the NFL expects all employees to be have a fair workplace and that individual teams, not the league, set policies toward cheerleaders.
“The NFL and all NFL member clubs support fair employment practices,” the league said in a statement issued by a spokesman. “Everyone who works in the NFL, including cheerleaders, has the right to work in a positive and respectful environment that is free from any and all forms of harassment and discrimination and fully complies with state and federal laws. Our office will work with our clubs in sharing best practices and employment-related processes that will support club cheerleading squads within an appropriate and supportive workplace.”
Mark Maske contributed to this report.
Petula Dvorak: Cheerleaders cheer on the home team and urge them to fight. Now they’ve got to fight for themselves.