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Discrimination complaint, investigation reveal how much Saints try to control cheerleaders’ personal lives

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If you want to be a Saintsation, you have to give up control over your personal life, a new complaint alleges. But the cheerleaders have a reasonable proposal.

Detroit Lions v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Former New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis has filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after being fired from the team, according to a report from the New York Times. On Tuesday, the lawyer representing Davis and another former cheerleader, Kristan Ware, made a settlement proposal, also according to the Times.

That proposal is simple: they will settle their claims for $1 each if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s lawyers meet with a group of at least four cheerleaders to “prepare a set of binding rules and regulations which apply to all NFL teams.”

Sent to NFL lawyers on Tuesday, the proposal also would not allow teams with cheerleading squads to disband them in retaliation for at least five years. It’s an interesting development, and Sara Blackwell, the lawyer for Davis and Ware, said there’s no reason for the league to say no.

“We’re not asking them to admit fault, or to admit guilt, or even admit that there is anything wrong,” Blackwell told the Times. “But if they do want and expect that cheerleaders should have a fair working environment, as they have staetd, then it doesn’t make any common sense why the answer would be no.”

The original complaint helped expose just how unfair and strict rules for the Saints’ cheer team can be.

Davis was fired by the Saints for two reasons. The first came when she was accused, without proof, of being at the same party as one of the team’s active players. The second came days later when she posted a picture of herself in what the Times describes as a “one-piece outfit” to a private Instagram account.

The NYT investigation details how the franchise controls nearly all aspects of its cheerleaders’ — known as the Saintsations — public lives, from who they can be seen with in public to what they can post online and who can view it. Davis’ complaint has shed light on the wide-ranging anti-fraternization and conduct policies that create vastly different standards for players and cheerleaders.

According to the investigation, which culled its findings from the Saints’ cheerleader handbook, internal emails/text messages, and interviews with Davis, the Saintsations must:

  • set all social media accounts to private
  • block current NFL players from following them
  • not post any photos of themselves in Saints gear
  • must not attend any unapproved events where an active player may be
  • leave any unapproved events — sometimes as basic as dinner at a restaurant — should an active player show up
  • limit conversations with active players to, as Saintsations choreographer (and Bailey’s mother) Lora Davis puts it, “hello” and “good game.”

If Saintsations members follow these rules, then they’ll have the opportunity to take the field each home game. Once on the clock, they make $10.25 an hour.

The basis of Davis’s complaint is that while employed as NFL personnel, she was forced to follow rules that applied only to women. Saints’ players had no onus to follow strict fraternization rules with the team’s dancers.

Her case hinges on a key part of the league’s personal conduct policy, which applies to all employees. It prohibits “any forms of unlawful discrimination in employment based on an individual’s ... race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or sexual orientation, regardless of whether it occurs in the workplace or in other NFL-sponsored settings.”

“If the cheerleaders can’t contact the players, then the players shouldn’t be able to contact the cheerleaders,’ Sara Blackwell, Davis’ lawyer, told the Times. “The antiquated stereotype of women needing to hide for their own protection is not permitted in America and certainly not in the workplace.”

Davis’ complaint is far from the first legal action taken against the NFL by a team’s cheer squad in recent years. In 2013, it took a lawsuit to get the Raiderettes minimum wage and overtime pay. One year later, the team settled a wage-theft lawsuit with its cheerleaders for $1.25 million. The Bills disbanded their cheer team rather than face a legal challenge over alleged violations of minimum wage laws. In 2015, the Buccaneers settled a suit with their dance team for $825,000 after a former cheerleader claimed her hourly pay after all the program’s obligations came out to a paltry $2 per hour.

Each case followed a similar narrative; women had their personal lives controlled by a part-time job that offered little in the way of money but plenty in terms of intrusive regulations. Davis’ complaint is now shining that spotlight on the Saints, and it’s exposing the same kind of ugliness that has persisted on the league’s periphery for decades.

The Saints denied Davis was discriminated against.

“The Saints organization strives to treat all employees fairly, including Ms. Davis,” Saints lawyer Leslie A. Lanusse, told the Times via email. “At the appropriate time and in the appropriate forum, the Saints will defend the organization’s policies and workplace rules. For now, it is sufficient to say that Ms. Davis was not subjected to discrimination because of her gender.”

But recent history suggests New Orleans is running an antiquated game with its cheerleaders, a system that has led to legal battles and six- or seven-figure settlements over the past few years. The Saints worked to control as much of their private employees’ public lives as they could while they were under contract — but those rules were unreasonably strict for the Saintsations while holding much looser definitions for the team’s players.

That’s the heart of Davis’ complaint — and it may signal the start of some significant changes in New Orleans and throughout the NFL.

Pro cheerleaders are mistreated in general. The Times released a new report that detailed more instances in which pro cheerleaders say that groping and sexual harassment are part of the job, detailing uncomfortable fan interactions, and how they’re sent to remote locations without security.