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National Football League cheerleaders are calling on the NFL to release its full report into workplace culture after allegations surfaced that coaches had secretly distributed nude photos of them by email.
The emails, first reported by the New York Times Monday, were allegedly sent by then-ESPN commentator Jon Gruden to then Washington Football Team General Manager Bruce Allen (who had hired Gruden’s brother, Jay, to coach the team, then called the Redskins) and several other men.
Both teams have been hit by lawsuits from their cheerleaders in recent years; the Washington Football team for allegedly distributing a secret, uncensored video of a cheerleader photoshoot to executives; the Raiders for allegedly failing to pay its cheerleaders minimum wage. Both teams settled out of court.
The emails involving Gruden—who resigned as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders after the newspaper published his email threads full of racist, misogynistic and homophobic commentary—were some of the 650,000 that investigators reviewed during a continutation of an investigation into the workplace culture at the Washington Football team ordered by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (himself a topic of some of Gruden’s crude insults) last year. The investigation concluded in July with a $10 million fine against the team—one of the harshest ever levied by the NFL—and was reopened this summer in order to review the emails, which a spokesperson for the league said in a statement were “appalling, abhorrent and wholly contrary to the NFL’s values.”
The report has never been released to the public, or to the women who complained. Instead, the cheerleaders were left to find out about the topless photo incident in the press, nearly four months later.
“It’s despicable, really, to see that there is more evidence of exploitation and violation of these cheerleaders who I worked very closely with,” said Melanie Coburn, a cheerleader for the Washington Football Team cheerleader for four years and the squad’s marketing director for 10.
Many of the women who sued over the behind-the-scenes videos had signed NDAs as part of their settlement, Coburn added.
“They’re now coming out wondering, ‘What the hell, it's more than just these two videos,’” she said. “I can only imagine how they feel, and they have no voice.”
Coburn started a petition in February—months before the investigation concluded—calling on the NFL to release the report publicly and reinstate the cheerleading squad, which was changed to a co-ed dance squad following the settlement. She reiterated her call Tuesday, telling The Daily Beast: “I know that there’s a lot more where these emails came from.” More than 39,000 people had signed the petition as of Tuesday night.
Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, a former cheerleader for the Raiders, echoed Coburn’s message. The 35-year-old sued the Raiders for wage theft in 2014, setting off a rash of similar lawsuits by cheerleaders across the country. The team eventually settled with Thibodeaux-Fields and the 100 women who joined her suit in 2017, but the former Raiderette said she never received an apology.
She told The Daily Beast that the latest email scandal was further evidence of the “misogynistic, racist, very sexist culture” at the NFL, and called on them to release the full report.
“Everyone that pays and supports the NFL deserves to know what kind of people are running the show and what they’re supporting,” she said.
The Washington Football team in particular has been hit with a slew of allegations by current and former cheerleaders in recent years. In 2018, former executive Dennis Greene resigned after it was reported that he had sold access to a topless cheerleader photoshoot to wealthy patrons as part of a suit package. Five cheerleaders told The New York Times that they were also required to attend nightclubs with the men and act as their dates.
In the behind-the-scenes video incident, first reported by the Washington Post last year, Washington Football Team staff members were reportedly asked to take footage from the swimsuit shoot and edit it into a video featuring only “the good bits”—shots of bare nipples and pubic regions exposed while the cheerleaders were changing clothes or switching positions. The resulting 10-minute video was then delivered to team owner Daniel Snyder, according to the Post. (Snyder denied the allegations.)
Candass Correll, who cheered for the team from 2016 until this year, said she was frustrated that incidents like this seemed to take a backseat to allegations of racism or homophobia within the league. “This report has been going on for well over a year and we as the actual victims still haven’t seen it,” said Correll, who is Black. “If it wasn’t for [the New York Times article,] we would've never known that those pictures were going through the mail servers between these two really important people in the NFL.”
Women’s issues in the NFL, she added, are “not prioritized or quite honestly seen as issues, because they get swept under the rug, like, ‘Oh, that’s what they do, that’s what happens.’”
The 2020 investigation was seen by some as a way to address these issues, which have haunted the league for years. Attorney Beth Wilkinson interviewed nearly 150 current and former employees of the Washington Football Club over the course of the year. At the conclusion of the review, the NFL said investigators had found that bullying and intimidation “frequently took place” at the club, and that “numerous female employees reported having experienced sexual harassment and a general lack of respect in the workplace.” The club committed to 10 of Wilkinson’s recommendations, including regular culture survey and trainings, a more diverse workforce, and an HR employee assigned specifically to the cheer squad.
Still, Snyder was allowed to maintain his ownership and no written report was ever released. Both Fatima Goss Graves, the CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, and Kim Gandy, the former CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told The New York Times at the conclusion of the investigation that the sanctions were not enough, and that the report needed to be released in full.
Courtney DeYoung, a 12-year-veteran of the cheerleading team, echoed these comments Tuesday.
Asked what she wanted to see from the NFL, she said: “I would just say release the freaking report.”
“Let’s have some transparency and then let’s decide what to do moving forward,” she added. “Let’s stop protecting the boys club and just release it.”