NFL Cheerleaders Aren’t Safe, And Jon Gruden’s Emails Prove It

Jon Gruden received topless photos of NFL cheerleaders. It’s exactly the sort of behavior that makes cheerleaders the NFL’s most vulnerable community.

Washington Football Team's dancers cheer at a game.
Washington Football Team's dancers cheer at a game.
Washington Football Team/NFL/WUSA9

Yesterday evening, The New York Times dropped a bombshell report that famed Raiders coach Jon Gruden had resigned from his post following the league’s discovery of Gruden’s “casual” misogynistic and homophobic language in emails spanning seven years, from 2011 to early 2018. Rich Bisaccia, the Raiders’ special teams coordinator, has been named interim head coach.

One of the more shocking revelations was that he called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a “faggot” and a “clueless anti football pussy.” He also said that the Rams shouldn’t draft “queers” (referring to the first openly gay player Michael Sam) and denounced female referees. The emails confirm what critics of the NFL have long suspected: Despite its many claims of reformed wokeness and care for its players’ wellbeing, the NFL not only employs but empowers prominent men — from coaches and commentators to owners and presidents — whose predatory actions and derogatory language undermine the very message the NFL trumpets on a daily basis. 

But at the bottom of the thirteenth paragraph, buried in the middle of the Times’ sprawling report, sits one of the most unsettling pieces of evidence: Gruden exchanged emails with Bruce Allen, the former president of the Washington Football Team, and other men that included topless photos of women in only bikini bottoms, including one photo of two Washington team cheerleaders.

Read that again. Though Gruden wasn’t the coach of the Raiders at the time of the email in question, one of the most highly respected figures in the NFL, who interacts with and has regular access to his team’s own cheerleaders known as the Raiderettes, casually had topless photos of NFL cheerleaders sitting in his inbox, perpetuating the same misogyny the NFL condones. The existence of this photo is not news (the Washington Post reported this incident, as well as the production of lewd videos of the Washington Football Team cheerleaders, earlier this year), but the confirmation of its distribution by some of the NFL’s top dogs is brand-spanking-new information. This detail has hardly been mentioned in the coverage of Gruden’s firing by most mainstream sites.

In a statement posted to Twitter, Gruden wrote: “I love the Raiders and do not want to be a distraction. Thank you to all the players, coaches, staff, and fans of Raider Nation. I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt anyone.” But by engaging with nonconsensual topless photos of the women that dedicate much of their time, energy and measly income to cheering on the NFL’s golden boys and spouting off the teams’ carefully crafted talking points, Gruden recklessly injured an entire community of past and present NFL cheerleaders, and the wreckage is devastating. I should know. I was an NFL cheerleader for three years.

Gruden’s emails prove what I have long known — that NFL cheerleaders are not safe within the patriarchal boys’ club of the NFL. They have no protection. Unlike the players who have fought tirelessly for their own rights through the formation of the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) and their annual collective bargaining agreement (CBA), cheerleaders do not have a union. Their contracts are left up to the individual teams, and NFL cheerleaders are rendered vulnerable and powerless to the influence, advances and abuse of men within their respective organizations. And because cheerleaders are paid pennies in comparison to the multi-million dollar salaries the players receive, they do not have a voice. When it comes to advocating for their own rights, they’re left with an unthinkable ultimatum: Speak out and risk losing their job, their source of income and their dream, or stay silent and allow the cycle of abuse continue.

Thus, the NFL’s most powerful men are enabled to repeat their offenses — making lewd comments about the cheerleaders or forcing them to be photographed nearly fully nude while creepy male sponsors ogle nearby, captured in a nauseating sequence. 

The worst part? The emails, which haven’t been made public in their entirety, are merely an unexpected consequence of the NFL’s “independent” investigation into the toxic and sexist corporate culture of Dan Snyder’s Washington Football Team. The NFL, as far as we know, has not reviewed the full trove of Gruden’s emails — only those related to the actions of disgraced WFT employees. We don’t know what’s laying in waiting in the bowels of his Raiders inbox. Hell, we don’t even know what the NFL has uncovered in the WFT investigation. According to the New York Times, Goodell reportedly received a summary of the investigation’s findings last week. But, in an unprecedented move, the commissioner continually refuses to release the report. I would assume there is a mountain of incriminating evidence and to release the investigation would wipe out quite a few VIPs within the league, but obviously the investigation was ordered by a commissioner who is employed by the same people who are likely to be implicated. That’s just a guess, but you know how the saying goes: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

While misogynistic fans and critics of the cheerleaders focus on the fact that their shimmery tits are on display — nevermind the women’s tireless work and artistry — they miss the chillingly real issue inherent in NFL cheerleading: The NFL will never elevate the needs of its cheerleaders. NFL cheerleaders will never be a priority to the league, despite their loyalty to the NFL and to their craft. And so long as they remain sidelined in the corners of the stadium, as well as in the corners of public consciousness, they will remain forgotten, leaving the window for predatory team employees to take advantage of them, to sexually harass them and — in one alleged case that makes me sick to my stomach — sexually assault them.

NFL cheerleaders don’t often get a say. So I’ll speak for them. Fuck the NFL. Protect the women who adore their jobs. And for fuck’s sake, release the rest of the 650,000 emails and the investigation’s findings, so that we can hold the bad actors accountable once and for all. No more hiding, Goodell. It’s time to offer up some sacrificial lambs.

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