Why NFL Cheerleaders Are Selling Themselves Short

NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 31:  Saintsations of the New Orleans Saints perform during a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 31, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Ravens defeated the Saints 14-13.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
Bailey Davis, pictured here in August 2017, was fired in January from the cheerleading team of the New Orleans Saints after posting a photo of herself in a lacy leotard on Instagram. Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Two former NFL cheerleaders who have filed discrimination complaints against the organization have agreed to settle their claims for $1 each if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will sit down with them for a meeting in “good faith.” According to the New York Times, which has reported in recent weeks on several allegations of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and extreme work requirements endured by league cheerleaders, the cheerleaders’ attorney sent a letter to an NFL lawyer on Tuesday requesting the meeting for the purpose of negotiating league-wide reforms.

One of the cheerleaders is former New Orleans Saints employee Bailey Davis, who was fired in January after posting a photo of herself in a revealing lace leotard on Instagram and being accused of attending a party with Saints players. (Saints cheerleaders are required to leave any restaurant or social gathering if a player arrives.) Even though Davis’ account was private, the team claimed she’d violated a rule that prohibits Saints cheerleaders from appearing seminude or in lingerie in photos. The other former cheerleader involved in the letter to Goodell is Kristan Ware, who worked for the Miami Dolphins. She says her cheerleading coaches mocked and harassed her after she posted a photo of herself being baptized and her fellow cheerleaders learned she planned to abstain from sex until marriage. Davis and Ware would be joined by two other as-yet-unnamed cheerleaders if Goodell agrees to the meeting.

Davis filed a gender discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Ware, who is claiming discrimination based on both gender and religion, filed hers with the Florida Commission on Human Relations. Both say the NFL maintains different standards for its male employees and its female ones. Football players, who are men, can post photos of themselves in whatever attire they please, pray on the field or in the locker room, fraternize with any other NFL employees, and market themselves on social media for sponsorship opportunities. Cheerleaders, who are women, are subject to harsh regulation of their personal lives, appearance, social interactions, and social media personas, with rules that vary by team.

The NFL’s public response to the formal claims and informal allegations of unfair treatment has amounted to one small globule of PR gobbledygook. “The NFL and all NFL member clubs support fair employment practices,” the league said in a written statement to the Times. “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.” By demanding to meet with Goodell and NFL lawyers, Davis and Ware are attempting to force the league to make those words mean something. By publicizing their request in the New York Times, they are taking the fight to the only audience that matters in professional sports—the viewing public.

If the allegations Ware, Davis, and other current and former cheerleaders have made are true, they deserve far more than $1 each. Companies sometimes settle sex discrimination complaints for tens of thousands of dollars, and occasionally for much more. Taking the claims to court could be even more expensive for the league, making the cheerleaders’ proposition a financially attractive one for the NFL. But by giving up the prospect of a lucrative settlement, Ware and Davis can partially shield themselves from malicious interpretations of their actions.

People primed to discredit or discount women’s accusations of mistreatment are quick to look for ulterior motives, including the promise of money. (See: the accusations made against the accusers of Bill Cosby, Roy Moore, and Donald Trump.) Even when women allege exploitation that warrants financial penalties, skeptics will use the possibility of money as reason to doubt their stories, as if no truthful person would ever seek damages for discrimination they endured.

Now that Ware and Davis have offered to forgo any possibility of financial gain, observers have one less reason to ignore their claims. Several other women in the public eye have used this strategy in recent months. Taylor Swift countersued the radio host she accused of sexual assault for $1 after he sued her for $3 million for allegedly getting him fired. She won after testifying in court last summer. Wendy Walsh, a former Fox News contributor who said last year that Bill O’Reilly reneged on a promise to get her a paid position after she declined his sexual advances, has explicitly noted that she will not seek any monetary compensation, even though O’Reilly and Fox paid multimillion-dollar settlements to other women who alleged similar instances of harassment. And several women who say they were sexually harassed or assaulted by Trump have declined to join lawsuits against the president, pushing instead for congressional ethics probes and a broader public reckoning with his alleged behavior.

In prominent cases like these, where either the alleged victims or perpetrators are public figures, taking money out of the equation is an act of ritual humbling before the court of public opinion. It’s also a symbolic recognition that, in some of these cases, that figurative court gets better results than an actual one. It didn’t take a sexual harassment judgment against Fox News to put O’Reilly out of a job—it took a cavalcade of advertisers, provoked by angry consumers, pulling their money from his program. Employment discrimination lawsuits can be hard to win, too. When previous members of NFL cheerleading squads have filed lawsuits for poor wages, some have won settlements and pay increases, but other indignities, such as regulations related to body hair removal and wearing sweatpants in public, have persisted. One team faced with a cheerleader wage-theft lawsuit, the Buffalo Bills, disbanded its cheerleading squad in 2014 rather than change its business operations.

The former cheerleaders who are currently alleging discrimination have surveyed this history and decided, rightly, that they have a better shot at justice in the court of public opinion than in a yearslong trial that may yield only incremental reforms, if any. They know the NFL has deep reserves of cash it could use to bury discrimination complaints, which would be much easier to do than reflect and improve on the league’s baked-in inequities. By taking their case straight to NFL leadership, they may also be better able to negotiate protections for their former colleagues. One of their major demands is a promise from all teams that they won’t shut down their cheerleading programs in retaliation, as the Bills did, for at least five years—a commitment that would be difficult for a court to enforce. A lawsuit poses a minor threat to the NFL’s finances, but a dragging in the press threatens its reputation, an asset far trickier to recover. Now that Davis and Ware have proved themselves willing to reject monetary incentives, it’s on the NFL to show the public where its own pure intentions lie.