The Washington Football Team Rebranded. Why Did It Get Rid Of Its Cheerleaders Over Zoom?
After being dismissed without warning, the Team’s former cheerleaders are speaking out.
Last year wasn’t a good one for Washington D.C.’s football team. After finally dropping its longtime “Redskins'' name and logo in 2020, the organization — now called the Washington Football Team — made it to the playoffs despite a losing record, only to be squashed in the first round by Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. But it was a far worse year for the Team’s cheerleaders, known as the First Ladies of Football. In the summer of 2020, a Washington Post investigation revealed the organization’s rampant culture of sexual harassment and verbal abuse of female employees, including the news that lewd videos of former cheerleaders had been filmed without their consent during bikini calendar shoots. Seven months later, without warning, the Team ended the cheerleading program — for good.
Despite the bright white smiles and sparkle-hemmed outfits, the world of NFL cheerleading is surprisingly unglamourous. In fact, it’s common for young women in the industry to make less than minimum wage, sign at-will contracts, and spend hours of unpaid time putting on the required full-face of makeup. But, as the Post’s investigation chronicled, some of the Team’s cheerleaders endured trauma far beyond poor working conditions. In an attempt to remedy the situation earlier this year, the Team reached confidential settlements with dozens of the former cheerleaders whose private parts were unknowingly filmed. Then, this July, the NFL finally concluded its year-long probe of the Team, confirming that the organization’s working environment was “highly unprofessional,” with frequent “bullying and intimidation” that led to a “culture of fear.”
And yet, it isn’t the Team that is being dissolved, but rather the cheerleading squad, to be replaced with a co-ed dance team. All that the Team is facing is a $10 million fine and the bill for the investigation, while owner Dan Snyder transitions his day-to-day CEO operations over to his wife, Tanya — now co-CEO of the Team. The cheerleaders, who had spoken out on numerous occasions, were mentioned in the report just three times: “If a program is retained,” they would no longer pose for bikini calendars, they would be assigned a designated HR employee, and the Team’s new “processes” would be “clearly communicated” to the cheerleaders. Snyder, who apologized in a statement, said he felt “great remorse for the people who had difficult, even traumatic, experiences while working here.” The NFL has not released the full report to the public.
Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, the attorneys who represented over 40 former employees including former cheerleaders, released a statement on the NFL’s investigation. “This is truly outrageous, and is a slap in the face to the hundreds of women and former employees who came forward in good faith and at great personal risk to report a culture of abuse at all levels of the Team, including by Snyder himself. The NFL has effectively told survivors in this country and around the world that it does not care about them or credit their experiences. Female fans, and fans of goodwill everywhere, take note.”
As the NFL and the Washington Football Team wipe their hands clean and prepare to move on from decades of scandal, former cheerleaders are left to dwell on the way in which their dismissal took place — and how it changed their lives.
Candess Correll, 26, a senior software engineer and former Washington Football Team cheerleader, tells Refinery29 that in early 2021, after five seasons cheering and two seasons as a captain, she was ready to hang up her pom-poms. Her tenure on the team had fulfilled her wildest dreams: She had grown up taking dance classes with Redskins cheerleaders and says that from a young age, she saw them as “the most stunning and accomplished and educated women.” But after the “five best years of my life,” she says she was at peace with her decision to retire.
The Team, however, had other plans. On Monday, February 8, while at her full-time job at Ernst & Young, Correll received a calendar invite from Chris Bloyer, the Team’s Senior Vice President of Operations and Guest Experience, for a Zoom meeting set to occur in about 30 minutes. It was ominously titled: “Important Meeting.”
Correll says she couldn’t believe the audacity of the hasty invite — especially considering that most of the cheerleaders had other jobs to off-set the squad’s meager salary. She declined the invite as a little act of defiance.
Later that day, Correll received a frantic call from one of the rookies on the team. Correll recalls laughing out of shock as she heard her teammate say: “Candess. They cut the program.” Her teammate also told Correll that the meeting was a Zoom webinar, meaning participants were unable to speak. Bloyer had turned off his camera, so the executive’s voice relayed the news through a black screen: The cheerleading program was being “paused” for a total rebrand that included reenvisioning the squad, as well as the overall role of game-day entertainment. The cheerleaders’ contracts were ending early, and the Team was releasing them from their duties for the rest of the season. Most upsetting to Correll, the position of their director, Jamilla Keene, one of three Black cheer directors in the NFL, had been eliminated. Keene had worked with the Team for nearly two decades.
“I want to honestly scream from the rooftops that Jamilla Keene is the absolute most iconic woman to wear the burgundy and gold,” Correll says. “Then this happens literally out of the blue during Black History Month. Here's this incredible Black woman who is great at her job, qualified, and she gets her position dissolved. It's just absolutely heartbreaking.” Other Team cheerleaders tell us Keene had been offered another position with the organization but turned it down. Neither Bloyer nor Keene could be reached for comment.
In roughly five minutes, the nearly 60-year legacy of the longest-running NFL cheerleading program had been upended. Just like that, the jobs most of the women had worked a lifetime to achieve no longer existed. While the cheerleaders were told they could re-audition for the new squad (across the NFL, it’s common practice for cheerleaders to re-audition each year to fight for their spots), the ones we spoke with tell us it was clear that the Team was going in a different direction. A video promoting the new dance team on Facebook featured three male dancers breakdancing and performing b-boy hip-hop, and two women dancers who were both previously unassociated with the cheerleaders.
Although the Team declined to comment for this article, in a news release, Washington Football Team president Jason Wright said: “The off-season gives us the opportunity to rethink the status quo… The time is right to reimagine our entire gameday experience.”
Despite the unexpected “pause,” some cheerleaders remained loyal to the Team. According to information provided by the Team and a public Instagram post, former cheerleader Jade Kenny was promoted to Assistant Entertainment Team Coach. On May 10, Kenny confirmed on Instagram that the new “Entertainment Team” had been selected.
Auditions for NFL cheerleading or dance teams are usually highly publicized, culminating in a live finals session with media in attendance. But other than an initial press release announcing the early-May date of the audition session, the Washington Football Entertainment Team auditions came and went in silence. Until the week of June 14, dancers who made the squad had not publicly announced their involvement with the team. Refinery29 contacted the Washington Football Team for comment on June 15, shortly after the team posted the first video of the new dancers. On June 16, less than 24 hours later, the teammates began posting on Instagram that they had made the team, calling themselves “NFL dancers” in their bios and, in some instances, avoiding the word “cheerleader” altogether.
The Team recently told ABC7 WJLA the new squad has 38 members, with 10 male teammates and 15 former First Ladies. That means less than half of the 36-member 2020 squad returned — many of whom were rookies during last year’s COVID season.
A spokesperson for the Team tells us the group includes dancers, gymnasts, and stunters, and that every former First Lady who auditioned made the squad. The vision for the new team, according to the spokesperson, includes a “fresh take on game-day entertainment that represents a new approach within the NFL,” “high-energy, positive, empowering performances [that] will blend unique, D.C.-inspired dance styles,” an emphasis on “partnerships with community and school dance programs,” and “best-in-class compensation for team members.” Those compensation levels have not been disclosed.
“I don't think anything's changed. I think it was all a stunt to get the old out, the new in, and make it appear to the public and to the fans that they've changed their ways.
Over four months have passed since the Zoom meeting, but the hasty “pause” of the cheerleading program continues to haunt many of the former cheerleaders. And while the Team has said its transition to a co-ed program — which is also being billed as diverse and more “athletic” — has nothing to do with previous troubling allegations, it’s hard not to connect the two events, considering over a dozen football teams have gone co-ed following similar allegations or lawsuits in recent years. After such unsavory accusations, it’s no wonder some of the former teammates doubt this public facelift will actually modernize the organization.
The Washington Football Team declined to make Snyder, dance team coaches, or new dance team members available for interviews or comment.
Melanie Coburn, 43, one of the First Ladies from 1997 to 2001 and the former Redskins marketing director for the cheerleaders, also believes the rebrand and a new co-ed dance team aren’t enough to fix the Team’s deep-seated issues.
“I don't think anything's changed,” Coburn tells Refinery29. “I think it was all a stunt to get the old out, the new in, and make it appear to the public and to the fans that they've changed their ways. But to be honest, they're addressing a symptom, not the root cause. The root cause is the leadership who is still there.”
Coburn has been vocal in the press and on social media in her support of the teammates whose time was cut short. She even started a petition asking the Team to reinstate the cheerleaders and demanding the NFL release the full results of its investigation into the Team’s corporate culture. The petition now has nearly 40,000 signatures.
As a former NFL cheerleader myself, I know how deeply misogyny can be embedded in an organization’s core. I also intimately understand how, before these cheerleaders had ever donned a rhinestone bra top for auditions, they were women with big dreams who made countless sacrifices to do what they loved and earn a spot on one of the biggest stages in the world: the NFL. But they are also workers who deserve fair wages, respect, and equality in the workplace — and not to be harassed while at work.
As Correll puts it: “Yes, I am grateful for my opportunity. But you're going to treat me right. You're going to pay me right. We're going to be valued employees, period. And we're not settling for anything less anymore.”
Nearly one month after the pause, Correll says she stopped getting responses from the HR department, and “in true Washington Football Team fashion,” Correll says the women discovered through a Good Morning America segment that the Team had hired seasoned NBA dance consultant Petra Pope. Pope would be spearheading the new co-ed team full of “super athletes who can do acrobatics, and combine hip-hop with tricks and stunts.” Over her nearly 30-year career, Pope has worked with the Los Angeles Laker Girls, launched the New York Knicks City Dancers, and redesigned the Brooklyn Nets dance team.
The Washington Football Team declined to make Pope available for an interview for this article, but Pope has commented on the new team elsewhere, repeatedly using buzzwords like “all-inclusive,” “diverse,” and “amazing dancers” as requirements for prospective teammates. She said she hopes “to do more things with the strength of a male,” and mentioned that former teammates were welcome to audition. Pope has also said she wants to move away from traditional all-women cheerleaders wearing short skirts and waving pom-poms, leaving some former teammates dizzied and confused by her comments.
“All of the words she's using to describe the new team are exactly what we already were,” Julia Camacho, a 28-year-old civil engineer and a two-year former cheerleader, tells Refinery29. “It definitely implied that the current team wasn't athletic, weren't dancers, weren't diverse, and to me, we're diverse in every way as far as choreography styles go, ethnic backgrounds, and upbringing.”
Camacho has a point. While racial equality in NFL cheerleading has long remained uneven, the First Ladies of Football were often regarded as one of the most diverse teams in the league. In 2019, the Pro Cheerleading Podcast conducted a diversity survey across cheer teams in the NFL, and found the First Ladies had 61.1% non-white members — the highest percentage in the NFL at the time. They accurately represented the larger DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) area, with the presence of Black, Latina, and Asian American teammates, including Camacho. Camacho’s aunt was the first Filipina Redskinnette, as the squad used to be called, and part of the reason Camacho fought so hard to be on the team.
As far as needing “male” strength for lifts? Camacho says she and her teammates had been flipping and stunting without men for years. “I'm offended because I'm an athlete and I don't need her to tell me that I'm not,” Camacho says. “But the thing is, when somebody like [Pope] says it in the media like that, then people who are ignorant and don't know what we do are going to believe that.”
NFL cheerleaders are still fighting the stigma that they have no talent aside from waving pom-poms while buff dudes run by. No one sees the countless, sweaty hours put into practice, strength training, community appearances, or the arsenal of routines the dancers memorize. No one sees how much the women adore their jobs. For far too many people, cheerleaders aren’t dancers, athletes, or employees: They’re hot props.
"We're going to be valued employees, period. And we're not settling for anything less anymore.”
But according to footage of the new Washington dancers, the team appears set to be a new power player among a spate of talented NFL teams. And that’s perfectly fine according to the former cheerleaders we spoke to: Neither Camacho nor Correll are fundamentally opposed to a co-ed team. Camacho says she’s just hopeful the dancers receive the respect and pay they deserve — meaning more than the $11.50 an hour the cheerleaders were making last year, according to both women. The minimum wage in Maryland, where the team practices and performs, is $11.75. In D.C., where many of the women live and work, it’s $15. But the team can get away with paying the women less because it is incorporated in the state of Virginia, where the minimum wage is $9.50. Camacho says the women also were not paid for the hours they spent doing their own hair and makeup in preparation for games and events.
While most of the women say they don’t cheer for the money, these wages provide insight into how the NFL — and specifically the Washington Football Team, which is currently worth $3.5 billion, according to Forbes — values its cheerleaders. Though cheerleaders’ pay is often shrouded in secrecy and rarely made public, Carreen Winters, a public relations consultant working with the Team, told The New York Times that the Team “plans to review the dancers’ pay and the possibility of offering them benefits.” Those plans have not yet been made public.
The Washington Football Team is hardly the first to add men to their squad, as co-ed teams have become increasingly popular across the NFL and the NBA in recent years (the New Orleans Saintsations added their first male member in 2018, and the Sea Gals became the Seahawks Dancers in 2019, for example). This newfound diversity can be a bright spot in a league that — despite releasing performative rainbow logos during Pride month — still clings to stereotypical displays of the gender binary.
Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies, the first male NFL cheerleaders to perform during the Super Bowl, joined the Los Angeles Rams in 2018 (I was a Rams cheerleader from 2017-2020). Both part of the LGBTQ+ community, they are far from the clichéd depictions of “masculinity” present in the NFL. They are also living proof that at least some NFL teams have the capability to broaden the definition of what it means to be a cheerleader, without sacrificing the spots of other members.
"If you really get down to the core of what happened, it’s that these women lost their dream, lost their career, and lost their job in a traumatic way.”
Latik Devine Jefferson, 24, a hip-hop and classically trained dancer from Brooklyn who cheered for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2020-2021, says his experience is an example of how the overall shift towards co-ed teams can make a seismic difference for young people. Jefferson says that navigating the Brooklyn arts scene as a boy was trying; most people wanted him to pick up a football or a basketball. Instead, last season, he became the first Black male cheerleader to represent the Eagles, crediting Peron and Jinnies for setting off a ripple effect and hopefully setting the stage for trans and nonbinary cheerleaders in the future, too.
“It’s super important for representation for little young boys to see us and know that their time could be next,” Jefferson tells Refinery29. “I want to change the stigma on what it means to be a male cheerleader in this field, an African American male in this field, and hopefully open up some doors for generations after me.”
For the Washington Football Team, moving to a co-ed squad did, in some senses, increase gender diversity. But the move also served as a cosmetic, PR-motivated fix for a deeper problem. And it’s not the first time this has happened. In 2014, after five former Buffalo Jills cheerleaders filed a lawsuit claiming wage theft and groping, the organization folded the entire team. After Sports Illustrated published an expose detailing the Dallas Mavericks’ toxic and misogynistic workplace culture in 2018, the organization disbanded the Dallas Mavericks dance team. And two years after the Milwaukee Bucks settled with a cheerleader who claimed she and her teammates were underpaid, the team transitioned to an “inclusive” co-ed dance team. Sound familiar?
But Mhkeeba Pate, 43, a former Seahawks cheerleader and the host of the Pro Cheerleading Podcast, says the situation with the Washington Football Team is different.
“It's unprecedented, for sure, because no other NFL program had this type of nasty sexual harassment and just horrible treatment of their dancers,” she says. “The deafening message that comes across from them choosing to disband the program is that if you speak up about anything going on in your program, or if you challenge the way that male executives talk to you or treat you, this is what is going to happen.” And while it is true that many other teams have faced serious allegations, the Washington Football Team remains the only NFL team to dismantle its all-women cheerleading program after a public sexual misconduct allegation against its team owner. Snyder has denied this allegation, though the former female employee was paid $1.6 million as part of a confidential settlement in 2009.
Like many of their teammates — whether they chose to re-audition for the Washington Football Team, other NFL or NBA teams, or stopped dancing altogether — both Camacho and Correll are moving on with their lives. Neither re-auditioned for the team. Camacho took a vacation, has been spending more time in the dance studio building up her technical skills, and recently dyed her hair a fiery red as she prepares to audition for a different pro team — maybe with the NBA this time. Correll says she is financially secure in her career at Ernst & Young and is teaching as many dance classes as she can.
But none of that makes the reality of the last six months any easier to process. Both women experienced significant anxiety, and Camacho says that therapy has helped her cope with her severed professional ties and the loss of a life-changing role model in Keene.
“We experienced loss in a traumatic way, so it's loss and trauma all at once,” Correll says. “And some people may say that I'm being dramatic, but if you really get down to the core of what happened, it’s that these women lost their dream, lost their career, lost their job in a traumatic way.” The experience has left her questioning more than just her dance career, though. “Now I'm just like, I don't even want to be a Washington Football Team fan anymore,” she says. “This is the football team that I grew up with and my family loves. It's right in my backyard. But because of how they handled this, I have such a sour taste in my mouth. So now I'm just like, do I even want to go to a game?”