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‘How could you do this?’ Mississippi Saintsation who blew the whistle on NFL talks about backlash

Saints fans march through city to boycott Super Bowl

New Orleans Saints fans still aren't over the officiating in the NFC Championship, as the took to the streets to protest the Rams taking on the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
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New Orleans Saints fans still aren't over the officiating in the NFC Championship, as the took to the streets to protest the Rams taking on the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

Bailey Davis, the former New Orleans Saints cheerleader who last spring took on the NFL and one of New Orleans’ most beloved institutions, has had quite a year.

Appearances with high-profile personalities in television turned her into a feminist folk hero after she complained about being fired for posting a photograph of herself in a lacy outfit. Yet those actions also made her the target of online attacks, not only from angry men, but also from cheerleaders who say she has made it harder for them to do their jobs.

“It’s, ‘You got what you were asking for, you whore,’ or ‘You knew what you signed up for, you slut,’” Davis said in an interview at her home, about a two-hour drive north of New Orleans. “It’s completely degrading to me as a person and to women everywhere.”

When Davis filed a sex discrimination case last year in late March against the Saints, accusing the team of having two standards, one for cheerleaders and another for players, she assumed few people would notice. As a cheerleader, she danced on the sideline on game days in front of tens of thousands of people but was largely anonymous.

Notice they did.

Davis has been besieged with news media requests from countries as far away as Germany and India, but also shunned by many friends and by her fellow cheerleaders. Her experience echoes those of others who have spoken out during the #MeToo movement and demonstrates the pitfalls of going against powerful institutions like the NFL and its teams.

“We weren’t sure if anybody was going to be interested in it or if it was even going to matter,” Davis said of her complaint.

Davis, 23, spent much of her childhood in a small town in Mississippi aspiring to be an NFL cheerleader. She was not surprised that the Saints adamantly denied discriminating against women or that they threatened to sue her for defamation. A year on, the team and the former cheerleader continue to argue the case in front of an arbitrator, who will determine whether she is eligible for damages. Sara Blackwell, Davis’ lawyer, said she believed the arbitrator would rule by summer.

“I don’t want to have to be dealing with this lawsuit,” Davis said. “But I have to remind myself I’m doing it for the cheerleaders, and for this culture to change.”

Greg Bensel, a Saints spokesman, declined to comment about the case or to make an executive available to discuss the accusations against the team.

Still, Davis’ calling out the Saints has led teams to re-evaluate their cheerleader squads. The Saints have given their cheerleaders more modest, one-piece outfits, ditched their annual swimsuit calendars and hired their first male cheerleader.

“Now they look like Rockettes,” Gayle Benson, the owner of the Saints, told The New Orleans Times-Picayune in reference to the more restrained uniforms. “They look like professional dancers … rather than other things.”

The Washington Redskins, who have been accused by some cheerleaders of sexually exploiting them on a 2013 trip to Costa Rica, also chose more conservative uniforms for their cheerleaders. The Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders now wear less revealing uniforms, which show no bare midriffs.

Six former cheerleaders with the Houston Texans sued the team, accusing it of failing to pay them a minimum wage and of providing unsafe work conditions. The case was referred to an arbitrator. The Los Angeles Rams, who were not accused of any wrongdoing, added two male cheerleaders to their squad.

The NFL rebuffed an offer by Davis’ lawyer to give its teams free training on how to treat cheerleaders more fairly. Davis and another cheerleader also offered to drop their cases if they could meet with Commissioner Roger Goodell. He demurred.

But Blackwell, the lawyer, was able to meet with Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president for social responsibility, and league lawyers. Several months after Davis’ story broke, the general counsels for the 32 NFL teams discussed how to handle the accusations raised by cheerleaders. Among other things, they considered whether to tone down the cheerleaders’ image to make them more “family friendly,” according to Vanity Fair.

An NFL spokesman, Brian McCarthy, said the teams, not the league, hired and managed cheerleaders.

In a statement, he added: “Last year, the league office worked with clubs that have cheerleaders and encouraged them to review their programs to ensure that they were both appropriate and lawful. Since then, it is our understanding clubs made changes, which include providing additional security for public appearances, providing revised social media policies and providing more organizational support for cheerleading directors.”

Davis did not expect empathy from the NFL, but longtime squadmates were another story. After an initial flurry of “atta girl” text messages from members of the Saintsations, the Saints’ cheerleading team, she was deleted from cheerleader chat groups. Few of them called when Davis’ younger brother, Justin, was given a diagnosis of Stage 4 colon cancer last summer. Friends who were planning to visit Davis in Florida, where she was staying after she left the Saintsations, canceled their trip.

“They were texting me: ‘How could you do this? This is going to make us look bad,’” Davis said.

People hearing about her story from a distance have been more supportive. Scores of women, including some former NFL cheerleaders, have thanked her for sticking her neck out and pushing for equal treatment. Many of these women saw her on “Megyn Kelly Today,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” or, most recently, “The Scarlet Letter Reports,” a Facebook Watch show hosted by Amanda Knox about women who have been publicly shamed.

Davis never imagined she would become a whistleblower. But her dismissal by the Saints — ostensibly over a photograph she posted on Instagram that the team deemed too risqué, as well as accusations that she fraternized with a player — changed her attitude.

Her complaint exposed rules for cheerleaders that she said belonged to a bygone era. Davis said cheerleaders had to avoid contact with players, in person and online, even though players were not penalized for pursuing such engagement with cheerleaders. The cheerleaders had to block players from following them on social media and could not post photographs of themselves in Saints gear. They were told not to dine in the same restaurant as players, or to speak to them in any detail. If a Saints cheerleader entered a restaurant and a player was there, she had to leave. If a cheerleader was in a restaurant and a player arrived afterward, she had to leave.

After her three years on the sideline and many years of watching her mother work as a choreographer for the Saintsations, Davis’ love of the NFL vanished. She recoils when she enters a restaurant and sees an NFL game on a television there. She looks away when she sees fans wearing Saints jerseys and shirts. She walks out of the living room when her brother compartmentalizes her legal battle and watches the Saints on television.

Davis keeps a low profile most days. She dropped out of the University of Southern Mississippi, where she was studying communications, and works at her mother’s dance studio. She helps her mother care for her brother. She wants to return to performing, though not on an NFL field.

For now, she is focused on finding balance after a tumultuous year. In January, she began a 21-day social media “cleansing” that included abstaining from checking her Instagram account. This has helped her avoid online bullies and reflect on why she filed her claim.

”Supporting the NFL is supporting a culture that is discriminating to women, puts women down and is all about money and power,” she said. “The whole culture is so outdated.”

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