The Washington Football Team has scrapped its cheerleading program after many accusations of sexual harassment from the women on the squad, which will be replaced with a coed dance team next season.
The cheerleading group, founded in 1962 as the Redskinettes, called itself the First Ladies of Football and was the longest-running cheerleading team in the National Football League.
Petra Pope, a former manager of the N.B.A.’s Laker Girls dance team, was hired this week to overhaul the Washington team’s game day entertainment. In an interview on Wednesday, Pope said she wanted to create a more diverse and athletic team and move away from traditional all-female cheerleaders wearing short skirts and waving pompoms.
“This will be an all-inclusive, diverse, super athletic team,” Pope said. “We’re looking at everything. These dancers will be highly respected for their skill set.”
Some other N.F.L. teams — such as the Los Angeles Rams, the Seattle Seahawks and the New Orleans Saints — already have dance squads that include men.
The former cheerleaders can try out for the new dance squad, which will most likely be made up of 36 men and women, Pope said, adding that she would not know how many men would join the team until auditions were completed in the coming weeks.
The shift is part of a broad rebranding of the franchise that includes changes to the team’s nickname and logo, the personnel in the front office and the game day entertainment. In July, the team dropped its longtime name and logo after complaints from Native American groups and others who considered the name a racial slur.
The move to coed dancers comes three years after several cheerleaders told The New York Times that the team had been “pimping us out” by forcing them to cozy up to sponsors. They complained that the team director had required them to attend gatherings and present themselves as sex symbols to please male fans or sponsors, which the cheerleaders did not believe should be a part of their job.
On a trip to Costa Rica in 2013 for the cheer team’s annual calendar shoot, five cheerleaders said, male sponsors were invited to photo shoots where the women were scantily clad or, at times, naked.
Those cheerleaders said many women on the team had long been afraid of coming forward with accusations of sexual harassment because they feared that the team would get rid of the program, as some other teams had done when cheerleaders spoke out about concerns like low pay. In 2014, Buffalo Bills cheerleaders sued the team for not paying them for all the hours they worked, and their squad was soon disbanded.
“It’s like the women there have been brainwashed to think it’s OK to be treated like garbage,” Allison Cassidy, a former Washington cheerleader, said in a 2018 interview. “So many of them are afraid that pointing out injustices will lead to the program folding, or that will lead to the collapse of their social circle, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Former cheerleaders for the Washington team said they had been expected to mingle and flirt with fans in the corporate suites and at tailgate parties on game days. Cassidy and others said they had been sent to promotional events where they were sexually harassed by men and generally felt unsafe.
Last year, cheerleaders made similar harassment accusations against the N.F.L. team. Later in the year, the team reached a settlement with several former cheerleaders, according to a person with knowledge of the deal who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
The Washington Post also published an investigation into the mistreatment of the team’s female employees, citing 15 former workers in the team’s front office as sources.
The team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, fired several top executives who were connected to the harassment accusations, and he hired a Washington-based law firm, Wilkinson Stekloff, to look into the cheerleaders’ allegations. The N.F.L. took over the investigation, which is continuing.
Pope has worked for 33 years with dance teams in the N.B.A., including those of the Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. She said the Washington dance team would do more stunts and use more props, “merging the athleticism of cheerleaders with the athleticism of hip-hop, jazz and ballet dancers.”
Whether the transition to coed dancers will lead to a thorough break from past traditions is unclear, but the N.F.L. franchise plans to review the dancers’ pay and the possibility of offering them benefits, said Carreen Winters, an outside public relations consultant working with the team.
Pope said the new dance team would have new outfits that were “fashion forward.” She said the dancers would be involved in the community but was unable to say whether the dancers would continue to visit suites at the stadium and other venues where they would have close contact with fans. The dance team, though, will not be involved in any calendar photo shoots, she said.
“All dancers will be respected,” she said, adding that her goal was “to create a really modern team that reflects where we are in 2021.”
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