Earlier this year, NFL cheerleader Bailey Davis was fired for violating a social media policy.
The 22-year-old former cheerleader for The New Orleans Saints posted an image of herself in an all-black bodysuit on her private Instagram page in January. The organization claims the images goes against their policy of posting photos on social media that appear nude, semi-nude or in lingerie, the New York Times reports. There was also an allegation of Davis attending a party with a player (which also violates her contract), an allegation she denies.
On Monday, Davis, wrote her story in Cosmopolitan, adding that she didn’t think the photo of her was particularly “sexy.”
“I had it taken for my portfolio, to show at future dance auditions. It was a full-body shot because I wanted to show off my physique, my athleticism. I liked that you could see a little bit of bicep. As far as baring skin, it wasn’t any different from our Saintsation uniforms. When I was fired, the human resources director told me I had a dirty face in the photo,” she wrote.
Davis, who signed a contract with the Saints and followed strict rules on how she looked, what she ate and who she interacted with, later realized these same rules didn’t apply for the players of the organization.
“I assumed the Saints players were following them, too. But no, it was up to the women to keep up that separation,” she continued. “They told us, ‘We have these rules in place to protect you from ‘the predators,’’ which is how they describe the players. ‘You’re pretty girls. If they see you, they’re going to want to talk to you.'”
Taking legal action
On March 23, Davis got in touch with lawyer Sara Blackwell based in Florida (where Davis currently resides) and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming unequal treatment based on gender. On Monday, the New York Times also featured an investigation highlighting some of these “unfair” rules across the NFL.
For The Saints, as they reported last week, this can range from cheerleaders not being able to dine at the same restaurants as players or speak to them. Cheerleaders are not allowed to have public social media pages and must block players who try to get in touch with them. Other rules include not being able to post photos of NFL team’s gear and maintaining an ideal body weight.
The Saints did not respond to Global News’ request for comment during publication, but recently told the New York Times that Davis was not “subjected to discrimination because of her gender.”
“The Saints organization strives to treat all employees fairly, including Ms. Davis,” a representative told the publication.
Blackwell tells Global News she has also taken additional steps to request a hearing with the NFL commissioner and because Davis’ original contract forbid her from taking legal action against the team, she can still bring a claim towards the league as a whole. Blackwell adds while Davis’ case is one part of the puzzle, recent media coverage has shown just how unfair some of the rules can be.
“Cheerleaders work their whole lives to become these athletes that they really are and they deserve to be treated as athletes and human beings,” she tells Global News. “Just because their job isn’t the same as football players, they still deserve to be treated like humans.”
Davis’ story has also started the #leveltheplayingfield movement, Blackwell adds, advocating for cheerleaders and football players to follow the same rules.
She adds while her client isn’t fighting for equal pay between cheerleaders and athletes, they should still be treated the same working under one organization when it comes to aspects of social media or social gatherings.
“Male players are able to contact female cheerleaders and cannot be punished,” she adds, “but cheerleaders have a manual book. If they have any contact with players they are immediately fired. Why don’t they have the same rules?”
Blackwell argues if the league is claiming these rules are protecting women, why is it that only women have to follow these rules? The other issue is around social media use, she adds. Saints cheerleaders are forbidden to have public accounts and cannot post photos in uniforms. They can’t be seen with alcohol, show off their bodies or interact with any player — even if the player reaches out to them first.
An era of personal branding
Career and communications coach Fiona Bryan of Toronto, says with everything happening with social media and privacy, nothing is truly private — even if your social media pages are closed.
“Privacy is an illusion now,” she tells Global News. She adds in Davis’ case, she signed a contract that forbid her from posting certain images on social media even if they were on a private page. “She signed something, is it fair? Probably not, but if she signed it and broke the rules, private is barely private.”
She says while she understands the importance of personal branding on social media pages, it can get tricky when employers get involved. And if you legally sign a contract, you are obliged to follow those rules.
“The company has found something that offends them and it goes against what they believe in.” She adds many of her clients prefer not to be “public” on social media and as a general rule of thumb, she says we need to be a lot more careful what we have on sites like Instagram and Facebook.
Carrying the conversation
Jeffrey Montez de Oca, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, who has been writing about the NFL and gender in particular, says the league has a history of being conscious of their branding.
“It’s important to remember the history of American football, filled with controversy, violence and drugs,” he tells Global News. “When players act immorally, all of that potentially hurts the sales of products, games and merchandise.”
He continues in the ’60s, the league started getting more strict on how employees — both players and cheerleaders — behave themselves. He notes some players were penalized for wearing certain colours outside of their awareness months, adding when it comes to rules and regulations cheerleaders have to face, it’s not off-brand for them to be strict.
However, he does note that with all-female cheerleaders, a lot of the focus was put on sexuality.
And with everything that has happened in the NFL in the last few years in terms of movements, including bringing more awareness around domestic violence, and former players like Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, Montez de Oca says these cases trigger reactions.
“I see this story being a story for a while… but never at the level of domestic violence or protesting during the anthem,” he says. “It’s unfair treatment on the job and we all experience that. That’s the nature of labour in a capitalist society.”
Blackwell is currently waiting to hear back from the NFL.