On September 5, 2017, the Washington Redskins football team hosted the Philadelphia Eagles in their opening game of the season. Players on both teams decided to dedicate the game to raising money for and elevating awareness about international human trafficking.
Maybe they should have started closer to home. In a bombshell exposé written by Juliet Macur for The New York Times, Washington cheerleaders have gone public about their treatment by team officials—and it’s a story that will cause you to grind your teeth into enamel dust. In 2013, 36 cheerleaders went on a team trip to Costa Rica to model for a team calendar. Like so much that NFL cheerleaders do, this was an unpaid gig. To their surprise, upon landing, the cheerleaders say that their passports were seized by the team. Then, while preparing to be photographed on a private beach, they were asked to pose topless, even though there would be no topless pictures in the calendar. They also discovered that they had some unwanted guests: a select group of corporate sponsors—all men—who were on site to gawk at the cheerleaders as they posed. It was so uncomfortable that the cheerleaders formed human screens so their colleagues could change without being harassed.
Then, somehow, the story devolved further. After a 14-hour day, 9 of the 36 cheerleaders were told that their day was just beginning. Sponsors had picked them to be their “personal escorts” for the evening. Several started to cry. As Macur writes, “Their participation did not involve sex, the cheerleaders said, but they felt as if the arrangement amounted to ‘pimping us out.’ What bothered them was their team director’s demand that they go as sex symbols to please male sponsors, which they did not believe should be a part of their job.”
They were sent to a dark, near-empty nightclub in a van. Afterward, at “about two or three o’clock in the morning,” finally able to return to their hotel, they were stopped by Costa Rican police who asked for their passports. Their passports of course had been seized by the team. The cheerleaders thought that the police assumed they were sex workers, until they were able to prove otherwise.
Macur has more stories of parties on yachts for team sponsors, secret twerking parties, and more. It’s sleazy and reads like nothing less than the trafficking of these women. In commenting about their cheerleading program, all the team would say was, “The Redskins’ cheerleader program is one of the NFL’s premier teams in participation, professionalism, and community service. Each Redskin cheerleader is contractually protected to ensure a safe and constructive environment. The work our cheerleaders do in our community, visiting our troops abroad, and supporting our team on the field is something the Redskins organization and our fans take great pride in.”