The Washington Redskins describe their cheerleader program as a "safe and constructive environment." But a New York Times expose found that might not actually be the case.
The Times reported Wednesday that Washington cheerleaders were forced to pose topless with male suite holders at FedExField during a 2013 photo shoot in Costa Rica. The cheerleaders all said no sex was involved, but at least one described the feeling as being "pimped out."
"They weren't putting a gun to our heads, but it was mandatory for us to go," one of the cheerleaders told Times reporter Juliet Macur. "We weren't asked, we were told. Other girls were devastated because we knew exactly what [squad director Stephanie Jojokian] was doing."
During an interview with NPR, Macur said none of the cheerleaders were named in her story due to confidentiality agreements they signed with the team. She also said one of the contracts required cheerleaders to do outside appearances, including charity events and visits to hospitals.
"But what was evidently unsaid was that these women would be mandated to go out with sponsors and entertain them," Macur said.
The report also outlined several other instances of the cheerleaders forced into uncomfortable positions, such as a mandatory boat trip with sponsors in 2012 that was described as "a wild gathering, where men shot liquor into the cheerleaders' mouths with turkey basters. Below the deck, men handed out cash prizes in twerking contests."
On Thursday, Redskins president Bruce Allen said the team was investigating the allegations, but added that conversations with cheerleaders contradict some of the claims made in the story.
"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 first-hand accounts that directly contradict many of the details of the May 2 article," Allen said in a statement posted on the team's website.
Allen said that the team was "very concerned" by the allegations outlined in the Times' story. He added: "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."
On the Today show on Friday morning, two former Redskins cheerleading captains told hosts Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb that claims they were forced to go topless were inaccurate.
"We can't discount the experience of other members of the team," said Charo Bishop, who took part in the trip to Costa Rico. But Bishop said that claims the women were forced to go topless were "simply not true… all optional."
"Some girls were excited to do those things," Bishop said. "I think that being friendly and receptive and welcoming to sponsors is completely different than being an escort."
Former cheerleader Rachel Gill also said the term "topless" was misleading, since the photos were being used for the team's annual cheerleader calendar and show the women covered.
"We always have the option to say no," Gill said. "We are never forced or told something we don't want to do."
Following the interview, the Times' communications department posted a message on Twitter directed at the Today show. The message claimed the show booked and then canceled Macur and suggested Today didn't contact the Times for a response.
In a statement to the Inquirer and the Daily News, the NFL did not directly address the allegations made in the Times story. The league simply said the NFL and its teams support fair employment practices.
"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," the league said in the statement. "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."
While the story was picked up by major sports outlets like ESPN, Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated, NFL.com has not reported on the allegations.
"That's not surprising; one way to keep a story from becoming a story is to not acknowledge the story," Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio wrote Thursday.
It's an odd situation for the NFL. Despite working for and representing teams in the league, many cheerleaders are actually employed by third parties or paid as independent contractors, so they're not actual NFL employees. The individual arrangements differ from team to team.
The Eagles and their cheerleaders have also remained quiet on the subject. The team did not respond to a request for comment, and Eagles cheerleaders have not commented publicly on the controversy.
In March, former New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis filed a gender-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after she was fired over a photo she shared on her Instagram account and over claims she attended a party with players — rules she denied violating.
"They told me that it was distasteful. I had a 'dirty face' in it, which made it distasteful," Davis told Today host Megyn Kelly in March. "Also, that it called my character into question, and that I was inviting players to contact me."
"The Saints organization strives to treat all employees fairly, including Ms. Davis," Leslie A. Lanusse, a lawyer who is representing the Saints, said in an email to the New York Times. "At the appropriate time and in the appropriate forum, the Saints will defend the organization's policies and workplace rules. For now, it is sufficient to say that Ms. Davis was not subjected to discrimination because of her gender."
In 2014, cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills claimed they were told to do jumping jacks during tryouts to see if "their flesh giggled," and were forced to don bikinis and do back flips for wealthy sponsors during a golf tournament. The cheerleaders, known as the Buffalo Jills, were disbanded after five former cheerleaders filed a class-action lawsuit claiming they weren't paid for the hours they worked. In October, an appeals court upheld a ruling allowing the former cheerleaders to recover their wages at their regularly hourly rate of $35 an hour.