The Washington Football Team executive kept his video off the entire Zoom call.
None of the cheerleaders he was about to let go could see his face. They were all put on mute, so they couldn’t ask questions. The team was in a new phase of “rebranding,” they were told. And the whole cheerleading program – 36 women in total – was being put on “pause.”
And in that brief, faceless call, it took just four minutes for Erica Hanner's dream job as an NFL cheerleader to be ripped away from her.
This account comes from Hanner, formerly a cheerleader for the Washington Football Team, and several of her former coworkers.
In response to the allegations, Washington Football Team president Jason Wright stressed, “The off-season gives us the opportunity to rethink the status quo. Over the last year, we've created an enhanced online fan experience, and we've seen how effective our new media properties and modern approaches have been in engaging fans even when they can't be at the games. He added, “The time is right to reimagine our entire gameday experience…”
Cindy Minniti, counsel to the Washington Football Team, added, “Our decision to pause now was ultimately made with respect for the time and talent of our cheerleaders. We didn’t think it would be fair or respectful to select a new squad, have them start practicing and then pause the program once the new VP was hired and the game day experience review began. In addition, despite the fact that COVID restrictions limited cheerleader appearances during the 2020 season, team leadership decided to compensate the cheerleading team as if it were a normal season.”
The cheerleaders, however, contend the manner in which they were told was disrespectful. Hanner and four of her former teammates spoke to Know Your Value about what happened during that Feb. 8 call and the days after, maintaining they were prematurely dismissed—collateral damage in the team's efforts to move on from a variety of controversies and scandals
The ex-cheerleaders who spoke to Know Your Value also detailed a culture where they were underpaid, undervalued, and underappreciated while the team made big bucks off their public appearances.
"We were shocked" after the Zoom meeting, said Hanner, who had just completed her third season. "None of us had any idea that this was coming…It hurt a lot, honestly. I was speechless for probably 10 minutes after. I stood there staring at my phone saying, 'This can't be real. Did that actually just happen?'"
The Washington Football Team has had a tumultuous year. After years of obstinance in the face of protests, the team in July finally abandoned its racially-insensitive "Redskins” logo and name, which had been used since 1933. In addition, 15 female employees of the NFL team came forward last summer, saying they were sexually harassed while working for the club, with the allegations spanning from 2006 to 2019.
It was really disheartening to hear that news from my teammates while I was literally standing next to my father's casket. I was crushed.
Shannon Shepherd, former Washington Football Team cheerleader
And last month, the team reached a settlement with former cheerleaders, who appeared in lewd videos without their knowledge during swimsuit calendar shoots in 2008 and 2010. It came after former team employees reportedly told the Washington Post they were assigned to make the video at the order of team president Larry Michael, who is no longer with the team. Another employee alleged that team owner Dan Snyder was also involved in ordering the videos. Both Michael and Snyder have denied any involvement in the behavior of their employees. And the details of the latest settlement with the cheerleaders have not been made public. The cheerleaders Know Your Value spoke to emphasized that none of the women from the 2020-2021 season were on the team during that calendar shoot.
For Candess Correll, a team captain who just finished her fifth season, the Washington Football team's efforts to rebrand are not the issue. "It's been something that I've been completely supportive of," Correll said. She initially denied the Zoom invitation because she found the short notice given unprofessional. "How they went about this was very unprofessional and it doesn't make sense," she said.
"If you're rebranding, and this could be a part of the game day experience in the following seasons, why are we not given a seat at the table? That makes absolutely zero sense. No one knows our program better than us. No one loves our program more than we do."
The Zoom call that changed everything
The cheerleaders told Know Your Value that on February 8 they received an email around 3:30 p.m. that they were to attend an important Zoom meeting at 4 p.m.
Chris Bloyer, the senior vice president of operations and guest experiences of the Washington Football Team, joined the call with his video off. Jordyn Cristaudo, a captain of the team who just finished her seventh season, recounted to Know Your Value how Bloyer quickly told the women that the team is working on phase two of rebranding, were going for a new vision for the team, and that the entire cheerleading program was going to be put on "pause" immediately. The teammates were put on mute, so they could not ask any questions, said Cristaudo and Hanner.
Given the short notice, only about half the team made the phone conference in time. Others did not find out they were being let go until later that evening.
Shortly after the call, they received an email from HR saying, "Thank you for your hard work during this unique season. As previously mentioned on our call earlier, we are in the process of re-imagining our game day experience. We have engaged [creative agency] Code & Theory to assist us and will be hiring a new VP of Guest Experience. While this is being developed, we are going to temporarily pause off-season activity of gameday programs, including cheerleading tryouts for next season. Given that tryouts are postponed and that there are no other appearances scheduled for the 2020 cheerleading squad, we are considering this the end of the 2020 cheerleading campaign. Again, we thank you for your efforts this past season and look forward to what the future holds for the team, and the entire gameday experience."
The women are part-time employees who fill out W-2s. They said they signed their last contract in June and were under the impression they were to extend until the summer of 2021, when they were told auditions were to be held this year. No severance was offered, and the cheerleaders Know Your Value spoke to said they signed their contracts electronically and were never sent a copy of their contracts. Several have reached out to human resources to get copies of their contracts but didn't receive responses via phone call or email.
Hanner said during the off season, the hours range from a few hours to 10 hours a week and entail prep classes.
Minniti told Know Your Value, “Cheerleaders are employed on a seasonal basis from June to March; the program pause intentionally comes at the conclusion of one season but before tryouts for next season so there is adequate time to evolve the entire gameday experience.”
The captains of the team stressed they too were not tipped off before the call, said Cristaudo. Some of the cheerleaders said their director, Jamilla Keene (who did not respond to requests for comment), was only made aware of the decision a few hours before the call.
Shannon Shepherd, who planned to retire after finishing her fourth season, was at her father's funeral when she received the Zoom invitation. Several of her teammates who attended the event in support broke the news to her. "It was really disheartening to hear that news from my teammates while I was literally standing next to my father's casket," Shepherd told Know Your Value. "I was crushed."
A culture of disrespect and feeling undervalued
The cheerleaders are all quick to point out that they aren't doing their job for the money, but rather for the love of the sport. Hanner, for example, says she gets paid $11.50 an hour and only made around $5,000 last year, supporting herself as a personal trainer on the side. Others have other part-time jobs or are students.
Both Shepherd and Correll have demanding full-time jobs. Shepherd works as a criminal paralegal, often coming to practice in the evening directly from work. Correll is a senior software engineer for Ernst & Young as well as a part-time dance instructor. But the balancing act is worth it, Correll explained, because she loves both professions. "Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way," she said.
The cheerleaders receive no health benefits and are in charge of covering their own healthcare, even though they are athletes that work in an industry where injuries are commonplace. They also pay for their own makeup and nail care in an industry where image really matters.
These types of conditions are not unique to the Washington Football team. In 2014, Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders, filed a class-action lawsuit against the team for violating labor laws, paying her and her teammates less than minimum wage, and for not compensating them for mandatory practices and public appearances. Eventually, the Oakland Raiders settled for $1.25 million.As of 2020, 10 out of 26 NFL cheerleading teams have been sued for wage theft, unsafe work conditions, sexual harassment and discrimination.
There's a sense that "well, if you don't like this, there's a thousand other people who will take your spot," said Hanner, who has gotten to go on "trips of a lifetime" as a cheerleader to places like Mexico, Niger and Kuwait -- part of a military appreciation tour where they were paid about $90 day. "We're not doing it for the money… We're doing it because we love it, and it's our passion."
Other Washington Football Team cheerleaders detailed having to work in poor conditions, including frequent cockroach sightings in the studio and locker room and flooding in the locker rooms when it rained. Cristaudo described a season where it flooded so much that the women at one point "had water up to our ankles." The cheerleaders said they voiced their concerns to Bloyer during their annual meetings, but they fell on deaf ears. Bloyer did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations.
The news of the program’s “pause” nonetheless came as a shock to cheerleaders, especially given the drive for cultural change which they feel they’ve pioneered. The First Ladies of Football has more African American women than any NFL cheerleading team, and is among the most racially diverse in the league. In addition, just three teams have Black directors, who are tasked with hiring talent. Jamilla Keene, the First Ladies of Football’s director, is one of them.
“It sucks that we worked so hard to do that and to change that culture,” Shepherd explained. “For it to be dismantled or pushed to the side without any explanation is kind of a smack in the face.”
There was no sitting on the sidelines during the pandemic. While the cheerleaders performed only at one game in person, their routines were recorded and played on the screens during games or were streamed online. Even though they didn't perform live, their physically and emotionally demanding practices continued as well, both in-person and remote.
We will no longer stand down and be quiet. This is not just about getting the Washington Football Team to bring the cheerleading team back. This is about giving opportunities and equality to the women in this industry and allowing them to fully realize their dreams with the NFL without feeling undervalued and underappreciated. We aren't here to bash the NFL. We're here to try to make things better for girls just like me and all of my sisters moving forward so that everyone knows how much we truly bring to each organization beyond the sidelines.
Erica Hanner, former Washington Football Team cheerleader
It's unclear when and if the Washington Football Team will hold auditions again. Moreover, several of the cheerleaders said they would be hesitant to try out, given their alleged treatment.
Correll said she would not advise anyone to audition if the cheerleaders are not treated better in the future. "If we're going to bring this program back, it needs to be right. It needs to be fair. These women need to feel a part of the franchise, as well as loved and appreciated. So if that's not the case, then I don't advise anyone to show up for auditions if nothing changes."
Legal experts say this is a common situation for NFL cheerleaders. Based on contracts and employment situations such as these, the team likely didn’t do anything that violated contracts nor laws, and that the cheerleaders likely have no legal recourse.
“…Whether or not they were covered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, their contracts almost certainly allow them to be terminated for just about anything,” said Danny Cevallos, MSNBC and NBC News legal analyst, adding NFL teams have historically considered cheerleaders as independent contractors.
The cheerleaders say the issue isn’t about legal recourse, however, and it’s the unfair, industry-wide, accepted practices that need to be changed.
"I understand, business is business, there are things going on with rebranding, and you're not sure what game day entertainment is going to look like during a pandemic. We're adults and we understand. We are asking for the respect and appreciation for what we do," said Hanner, who said as someone who directly deals with fans, the cheerleaders would have loved to be part of the rebranding discussions.
Cristaudo added, "I hope in the rebranding process that the ladies who have been part of this team and who have worn this uniform and done this job have a say for what this new vision is for the team…I just hope that this pause is released and if they are going to have a team, that they make things better for the women and make the women feel part of the organization and valued, because we do bring a lot."
They also wish they could have asked questions upon hearing the news they were being let go and given the opportunity to receive more information.
"Our main concern right now is just reaching out and having some platform to let these people know that we're people, too. We have feelings and we go through life," Shepherd said. "I think people often forget that and just think, 'Oh, they're beautiful, they're dancing, it's glamorous.' But we go through things too, and it would be nice to at least have that decency, where we're able to ask questions."
They also want to be put on salary or paid more hourly and given benefits. The moment comes as an opportunity for change, Hanner explained.
"We will no longer stand down and be quiet," she said. "This is not just about getting the Washington Football Team to bring the cheerleading team back. This is about giving opportunities and equality to the women in this industry and allowing them to fully realize their dreams with the NFL without feeling undervalued and underappreciated. We aren't here to bash the NFL. We're here to try to make things better for girls just like me and all of my sisters moving forward so that everyone knows how much we truly bring to each organization beyond the sidelines."
Editor’s Note (Feb. 24, 2021, 8:04 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this article said the Washington Football Team’s cheerleaders were allegedly fired. We have rewritten the article to describe the team’s action as a premature dismissal.