Former NFL Cheerleaders Sound Off on the League’s Misogyny

“Why do we keep getting ignored?”

October 13, 2021 4:18 pm
Former NFL cheerleader Candess Correll is speaking out about harassment of her colleagues in the wake of the John Gruden revelations
Former NFL cheerleader Candess Correll
Logan Bowles/NFL/Getty Images

Former NFL cheerleaders are fed up. And for what it’s worth, I am one of them.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had resigned over homophobic, racist and sexist emails. The remarks were discovered as part of the NFL’s investigation into the Washington Football Team’s toxic workplace culture and sexual harassment of its female employees. 

But one of the most upsetting revelations — and a part of the story that was hardly a central focus for most media outlets — was that Gruden had received photos of topless Washington Football Team cheerleaders from his pal Bruce Allen, the team’s former president. The news served as a smack in the face to former and current cheerleaders, who have spent years cheering on the men of the NFL with unquestioned loyalty. Aside from decency, respect and meager wages, cheerleaders have never asked for much. And they certainly never asked to be sexually abused at work — objectified by the very men who sign their paychecks.

Former Washington Football Team cheerleader and team captain Candess Correll told InsideHook this morning that she believes Gruden’s emails prove once and for all that women’s issues in the NFL are not a priority, calling the controversy “not just inappropriate and disrespectful, but also criminal.” Correll, now a senior software engineer, believes the only way forward for the league’s cheerleaders is to unionize.

“Until cheerleaders are considered human enough in the sports realm to be unionized, these things will likely continue to be swept under the rug,” Correll said. “As a former NFL cheerleader of five years, I still am not privy to the full extent of the issues some of my peers have faced.”

In the broader context of the NFL’s investigation into the Washington Football Team, this incident isn’t just newsworthy — it’s a critical red flag that shines a spotlight on the way in which some of the league’s most powerful men might be regularly sexually harassing NFL cheerleaders without their knowledge or consent. How many other photos or videos were taken? How many other coaches or executives engaged with the topless photos or sent them around? What did they say behind closed doors? How many bad seeds are there really? And when will the league stop protecting them?

Worse, however, is the implication that Gruden’s emails are just the tip of the iceberg. One wonders whether, if sexual harassment was the only offense — and the offenses didn’t also include blatant racist and homophobic language involving players, or criticisms of Goodell himself — these allegations might never have seen the light of day, and these women would never have the opportunity for justice.  

“We absolutely need the full report to not just hold the people who have done wrong accountable, but to also properly move forward and enforce regulations so that this does not happen again,” Correll said.

Mhkeeba Pate, a former Seattle Seahawks cheerleader and the host of the Pro Cheerleading Podcast, says she finds Gruden’s emails “damning.” But she’s more pissed off by the longstanding tradition of the NFL’s indifference towards its cheerleaders. 

“It’s just mind boggling how the NFL can refuse to accept the responsibility that they hold over NFL cheerleaders,” Pate told InsideHook. “I’m really agitated because they have this privilege of ignoring the voices of women, no matter how many articles, no matter what is said or what is done. Why do we keep getting ignored?”

It’s good that this issue is receiving national attention, and it’s promising that the NFLPA plans to petition the NFL to release the emails and findings of the Washington Football Team investigation. But cheerleaders’ rights still may not be a chief concern for the NFLPA, evidenced by the fact that representatives from the NFLPA didn’t speak up for cheerleaders when they had the chance over a year ago. 

In July of 2020, The Washington Post first detailed rampant sexual harassment that had plagued over a dozen former Washington employees. Then, in August of the same year, the Post dropped a second bombshell report that detailed how Washington owner Dan Snyder had allegedly directed his broadcaster and senior vice president Larry Michael to cut together a video of the “good bits” from the cheerleaders’ annual bikini shoot — footage in which they were unknowingly exposed while shifting between poses and adjusting props. And in February of this year, when the Washington Football Team prematurely dismissed its all-female cheerleading team over a Zoom webinar with zero explanation or heads up, the NFLPA did not speak out on their behalf. 

“I wish that it was just about how all employees were being treated, including the cheerleaders,” Pate said. “I wish that was enough to trigger a response from people to support the women who were truly the victims of this whole situation.”

Lisa Banks, one of the attorneys who represented 40 former Washington Football Team employees, including several cheerleaders, posted a statement to Twitter yesterday urging the NFL to release the findings of the Washington Football Team investigation into the “widespread sexual harassment and abuse” taking place within the organization.

Melanie Coburn, one of the First Ladies of Football (the Washington cheerleaders) from 1997 to 2001 and the former Redskins marketing director for the cheerleaders, also shared renewed interest in the petition she started in February of this year, which demands that “the NFL must do the right thing and make the sexual misconduct investigation of the WFT public AND hold Dan Snyder accountable for the history of serial sexual harassment within his organization.” The petition has over 39,000 signatures and counting.

Other former cheerleaders and journalists shared their dismay at the developing situation. Freelance journalist Paige Skinner, who has been covering cheerleaders consistently for years, reminded Twitter users that “cheerleaders aren’t the problem. Misogyny is never a woman’s problem to fix.” 

Former Los Angeles Rams cheerleader and current journalist Lisa Guerrero responded to one troll who asked: “Serious question: Is there a point to having cheerleaders at the NFL level anyway? So creepy old men can ogle them? I know they work hard and they love what they do, but 7 teams don’t have them, and seem to be doing fine.”

“Everybody has their own experience,” she wrote on Twitter. “My concern is for the women who are unsafe or taken advantage of NOW. No, I wasn’t paid what I should’ve been & I pushed for more protections then. As long as they’re wearing the uniform, they are brand ambassadors & should be treated w respect.”

“For years I have been writing, tweeting and speaking out about the NFL’s toxic, misogynistic  culture around cheerleaders. It’s been like screaming into the wind. At least now more proof is coming out about it … Unfortunately, decades too late,” Guerrero added. 

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