For three years as a member of the New Orleans Saints cheerleading team, the Saintsations, Bailey Davis complied with the eight-page booklet of team rules. Sometimes they made her angry, but she loved performing and had worked her entire life to make it to an NFL sideline, so she accepted what was asked of her.
Davis could not publicly identify herself as a Saintsation on social media or in any other way — if she wanted to make money teaching a dance class, she couldn’t cite being at the top of her craft as a credential. She could not wear clothes with a Saints logo on her off days. She could not use her last name during public appearances. She, and the other New Orleans cheerleaders, could spend no more than four seasons on the Saintsations. And yet, she had to represent herself as a “role model” and avoid “questionable social interaction” or risk termination.
The form of social interaction most scrutinized was contact with players. It was forbidden in any form. If an NFL player liked her social media post, it was incumbent on her to figure out how he found her page and unlike it. She could not be in the same section of a club, party or restaurant as a player, regardless of who arrived there first.
Despite her efforts to follow rules, Davis was fired in January after a rumored encounter with a player at a party and a picture the Saints considered racy posted to her Instagram account. Davis subsequently filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Saints and the NFL, claiming female cheerleaders and male players unfairly faced different standards.
The rules that led to Davis’ firing and complaint filing, first uncovered last week by the New York Times, typify attitudes and treatment toward NFL cheerleaders. After a flurry of movements nationwide meant to empower women and increase equality between genders, rules that have been overlooked or accepted for years in the NFL may no longer be compatible with the cultural moment.
“There’s a long-standing history of the NFL not dealing with these workplace inequalities,” said New York Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, who has introduced legislation to improve conditions for cheerleaders. “I think finally they have to confront it. The social and political discourse in this country right now is such that there’s no way around it.”
The NFL did not take a clear stance on the case between the Saints and Davis, saying the league and its teams support fair employment practices.
“Everyone who works in the NFL, including cheerleaders, has the right to work in a positive and respectful environment that is free from any and all forms of harassment and discrimination and complies with state and federal laws,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
But the drumbeat may only be starting, across all professional sports. Last year, the Milwaukee Bucks settled a class-action lawsuit brought for $250,000 over wages former Bucks dancer Lauren Herington claimed were below minimum wage. The Bengals, Raiders and Jets have all faced legal action over wages and treatment of cheerleaders. Ryan Stephan, the Chicago lawyer who represented Herington, noticed Davis’ case and believed it was both due and only a starting point.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Stephan said. “I think the claims being made by the plaintiff in the Saints case about disparate treatment between players and dancers is going to become something more familiar that’s pretty big. I think there is a viable case for action. And from a fairness standpoint, I don’t think it’s fair. It’s not equitable.”