Personal Foul: The NFL Washington* Cheerleading Squad & The Personal Conduct Policy

It’s been a roller coaster week for advocates of women in the sports industry.   Over the weekend, it was revealed that women employees at Nike fought back against a company-wide culture of  sexual harassment, culminating in the dismissal of six top level male executives.  Shortly thereafter, aspiring and current women sports executives cheered the news that Kim Pegula, co-owner of the Bills and Sabres, would assume the presidency of both sports teams in the wake of the departure of Russ Brandon.  Hours later, the New York Times, which has had the NFL in its cross-hairs recently, released another bombshell: an article describing the lurid details of a trip by the NFL Washington cheerleading squad to Costa Rica for a swimsuit calendar photo shoot.

While scantily clad women performing dance routines have been the norm on NFL sidelines for years, under Daniel Snyder’s ownership, the Washington squad has taken the practice to new lows.  As noted in the Times article, as early as 2009 a column in The Washington City Paper noted the group “was ‘bringing the craft closer to pole dancing with every season.'”  Perhaps the NFL should have taken note and intervened.  Apparently, that approach to marketing in and of itself did not constitute “‘conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL'” as defined in the Personal Conduct Policy.  That Policy, which has been used to discipline everyone from Ray Rice (for domestic violence) to Tom Brady (for having inferred knowledge of underinflated footballs), stresses that:

EVERYONE  who is part of the league” (original emphasis) is responsible for refraining from “conduct  . . . that is illegal, violent, dangerous, or irresponsible puts innocent victims at risk, damages the reputation of others in the game, and undercuts public respect and support for the NFL.  We must endeavor at all times to be people of high character; we must show respect for others inside and outside our workplace; and we must strive to conduct ourselves in ways that favorably reflect on ourselves, our teams, the communities we represent and the NFL.”

The sordid story published in The New York Times depicted a situation in which the cheerleaders were transported to an isolated resort and required to relinquish their passports.  They were photographed in nude or semi-nude poses while male sponsors and suite holders were allowed to watch.  After grueling 14-hour photo sessions, approximately 1/4 of the squad was “selected” to join the same sponsors and suite holders as escorts at a night club.  When informed of this “assignment”, several of the women broke into tears.  At the end of the evening, as they were herded onto a van for the trip back to the resort, police officers intercepted them and asked for their passports.  As reported by the Times, a Washington squad official observed, “‘I guess they thought you were prostitutes'”.

There are way too many parallels here to human trafficking.  In addition to the prospect of false imprisonment and coercion described above (it is to be noted that there were no allegations of forced sex), the article detailed numerous troubling aspects of the Washington cheerleading squad.  The women are required to maintain a certain weight, which fosters a culture in which digestive disorders are commonplace.  One high profile sponsor of the cheerleading squad and suiteholder hosted an infamous mandatory “team bonding” event on his yacht at which twerking contests were conducted for cash prizes.  The squad’s trips to Super Bowls were also paid for by this sponsor.  Notably, the team website also featured pictures of cheerleaders that allowed fans to choose “hot or not” by selecting a flame icon.

NFL cheerleaders have brought suit recently for everything from violation of minimum wage statutes to discriminatory firing. At the bottom of all of these, and as illustrated starkly by the Costa Rican saga, is a culture of disrespect and, in the case of Washington, outright sexual exploitation.   While the conduct may not have been illegal, Daniel Snyder’s franchise is at best acting irresponsibly.  Certainly, the Washington team is not displaying respect for its cheerleaders, some of whom expressed their concern that rape may occur if the current practices continue.

It remains to be seen if Commissioner Goodell will apply the Personal Conduct Policy to Daniel Snyder.  Continuing acquiescence in unabashed sexual exploitation of female employees while holding NFL players accountable for domestic violence is sheer hypocrisy.  It is past time for the NFL to face up to it.


*Out of respect for indigenous people who find the continued use of the Washington franchise’s team name offensive, this author will not use the “R” word.

Photo Credit: Brad Mills/USA Today Sports Images

Author: Helen “Nellie” Drew

Head shot of Helen A. Nellie Drew

Helen A. “Nellie” Drew is an expert in sports law. She can comment on professional and amateur sports issues ranging from NCAA compliance and Title IX matters to facility construction, discipline of professional athletes, collective bargaining and franchise issues.

Drew teaches a variety of courses that incorporate topics such as drug testing in professional sports and professional player contract negotiation and arbitration. Drew is especially interested in the evolving research and litigation concerning concussions in both amateur and professional sports.

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