When the Washington Redskins took their cheerleading squad to Costa Rica in 2013 for a calendar photo shoot, the first cause for concern among the cheerleaders came when Redskins officials collected their passports upon arrival at the resort, depriving them of their official identification.
For the photo shoot, at the adults-only Occidental Grand Papagayo resort on Culebra Bay, some of the cheerleaders said they were required to be topless, though the photographs used for the calendar would not show nudity. Others wore nothing but body paint.
Given the resort's secluded setting, such revealing poses would not have been a concern for the women — except that the Redskins had invited spectators.
A contingent of sponsors and FedExField suite holders — all men — were granted up-close access to the photo shoots.
One evening, at the end of a 14-hour day that included posing and dance practices, the squad's director told nine of the 36 cheerleaders that their work was not done. They had a special assignment for the night. Some of the male sponsors had picked them to be personal escorts at a nightclub.
"So get back to your room and get ready," the director told them. Several of them began to cry.
"They weren't putting a gun to our heads, but it was mandatory for us to go," one of the cheerleaders said. "We weren't asked, we were told. Other girls were devastated because we knew exactly what she was doing."
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.
The Redskins' weeklong trip to Costa Rica in 2013 — for which the cheerleaders were paid nothing beyond transportation costs, meals and lodging, the team said — provides a vivid illustration of how NFL teams have used cheerleaders for far more than sideline dancers during games. Their treatment has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks since two former NFL cheerleaders filed discrimination complaints and described a hostile work environment in which they were often dangled as sex objects for the titillation of male fans away from the games.
Interviews with dozens of current and former NFL cheerleaders revealed a common perspective: They enjoyed performing at games, developing friendships with other cheerleaders and participating in charity work, which included visiting hospitals and going overseas to entertain military troops. But they were disturbed by some of the extracurricular requirements that put them in what they considered unsafe situations.
This account of the Redskins' calendar shoot at the Occidental Grand Papagayo is based on interviews with five cheerleaders who were involved, and many details were corroborated with others who heard descriptions of the trip at the time. The cheerleaders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were required to sign confidentiality agreements when they joined the team.
"It's just not right to send cheerleaders out with strange men when some of the girls clearly don't want to go," one cheerleader who was there said. "But unfortunately, I feel like it won't change until something terrible happens, like a girl is assaulted in some way, or raped. I think teams will start paying attention to this only when it's too late."
Stephanie Jojokian, the longtime director and choreographer for the Redskins' cheerleaders, disputed much of the women's description of the Costa Rica trip. She vehemently denied that the night at the club was mandatory and said that the cheerleaders who went were not chosen by sponsors.
"I was not forcing anyone to go at all," Jojokian said. "I'm the mama bear, and I really look out for everybody, not just the cheerleaders. It's a big family. We respect each other and our craft. It's such a supportive environment for these ladies."
In a statement, the Redskins said: "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."
'Describe your perfect date'
After Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999, the cheerleading program was given a makeover. He brought it in-house — it had operated independently — and its style became increasingly risqué.
Snyder was "bringing the craft closer to pole dancing with every season," said a 2009 column in The Washington City Paper, which referred to an advertisement on Snyder's WTEM-AM sports talk radio station that year. In the ad, breathy male voices discussed a listener contest in which "five lucky winners" would have Redskins cheerleaders wash their cars. One man asked the other if he would like the cheerleaders "soaping up and scrubbing you."
In an interactive feature on the Redskins' website, fans were able to play a version of the "hot or not" game, clicking on a flame to pick between images of two cheerleaders. In online video interviews in the past, the cheerleaders were asked, "Describe your perfect date" and "What's the first thing you notice about a man?" (Since publication of this article, the "hot or not" interactive has been removed.)
Many Redskins cheerleaders understand the team's approach — sex sells — and remain enthusiastic supporters of the team. They said they were troubled, however, when their safety was not taken seriously. There is no leaguewide policy for security, or a union to protect them.
A half-dozen Redskins cheerleaders said Jojokian seemed especially focused on preserving relationships with businessmen who supported the team and her nonprofit dance company, Capitol Movement.
"There was a lot of pressure by the director for us to be a part of that party atmosphere with sponsors because we knew she picked favorites that way," one cheerleader said of Jojokian, who in 2011 told women auditioning for the squad, according to WJLA-TV in Washington: "Don't cover your chest area too much. We'll assume you are trying to hide something."
In an interview on Tuesday, Jojokian choked up when she considered that some cheerleaders felt she did not fully support them.
"It breaks my heart because I'm a mom and I've done this for a long time," she said. "Where is this coming from? I would never put a woman in a situation like that. I actually mentor these women to be strong and to speak up, and it kills me to hear that."
The Redskins, who said that only six sponsors, including two couples, attended the calendar shoot trip, made available for interviews two cheerleaders who were captains of the squad in 2013. Both women, who spoke on condition of anonymity, praised Jojokian and said she never forced the cheerleaders to do anything they did not want to do. They said they thoroughly enjoyed their experiences as Redskins cheerleaders.
Regarding the evening out with sponsors in Costa Rica, one of them said, "It was actually just a night of relaxation and to be away from it all."
A recent contract for Redskins cheerleaders said off-the-field work would include "community and charitable events, youth camps, etc." There was no mention of having to entertain men who financially support the team, and these appearances raised flags for some cheerleaders.
In 2012, Jojokian, a former squad director and choreographer for the NBA's Washington Wizards, announced a mandatory team-bonding boat trip. At a pier in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood where the cheerleaders were to board, they discovered that it was not the commercial party boat they had expected. It was a yacht with several men aboard — including a familiar face, William R. Teel Jr.
Teel, 52, was a longtime Redskins suite holder and a local businessman with close ties to the team. He lent cornerback Carlos Rogers $125,000 in 2009, and later sued Rogers to get the money back.
He also maintained a close relationship with the cheerleading program. For about a decade, one or both of Teel's companies, Energy Enterprise Solutions and 1 Source Consulting, sponsored the cheerleading program and, for a few years, Capitol Movement, Jojokian's dance company. As an Army veteran, he said he was drawn to sponsor the cheerleading team because of the many trips it took to entertain U.S. military troops overseas.
As a sponsor, he helped judge cheerleader tryouts and occasionally was invited to buy package deals to attend calendar shoots. Teel also paid for Redskins cheerleaders to go to Super Bowls.
Jojokian said that Teel always made deals with the cheerleaders "on his own" for those Super Bowl trips and that those trips were not sanctioned by the Redskins. Teel said, however, that he always worked through Jojokian to determine which cheerleaders would participate on his trips and that he always provided security.
Jojokian said that she, too, was not expecting to see strangers on Teel's boat that day. "I didn't necessarily feel that we were bonding in a way that was helpful for the whole season," she said.
Five cheerleaders characterized that 2012 team-bonding party as a wild gathering, where men shot liquor into the cheerleaders' mouths with turkey basters. Below the deck, men handed out cash prizes in twerking contests. No cheerleaders claimed that they were touched inappropriately, and the two team captains said the trip was pleasant. One added, "They were all adults and got out of the experience what they wanted to get out of it."
One cheerleader a few years later was told what to expect at the annual affair. "I'd been given a heads-up that we were going on this particular man's yacht and that he had a lot of money — and that you could make a lot of money there if you wanted," one cheerleader said, referring to the prize money in the dance contests. "But that was not for me, and lots of us felt the same way. But we were too scared to complain. We felt that our place on the team would be compromised if we did."
Teel, whose name is still painted on two prime parking spots at FedExField though he no longer owns a suite at the stadium, was adamant in saying that nothing inappropriate happened on his boat and that he always treated the cheerleaders with respect.
"I have five sisters," he said, adding that at his boat parties "no one was allowed to be disrespected."
He added that the Redskins had asked him if they could use his yacht for the 2012 cheerleading team's event.
"It wasn't just alcohol, it was a fully catered event at my cost, by the way, in appreciation for the work they do," he said. "The people who wanted to get off, got off. The people that wanted to stay, stayed. I don't believe that anyone was pressured by their management to attend events or to be nice to sponsors. The team bonding was just team bonding. Were people dancing? Yeah, but I don't know about money for a contest."
'Like a human barricade'
For the Costa Rica trip, the cheerleaders had a dress code: white tops, khaki bottoms and heels. Straw hats were permitted, while flats were definitely not.
Their suitcases were packed with bathing suits, which they had to purchase for the photo shoots, and food. Disordered eating was common on the team, several of the cheerleaders said. Laxative abuse was prevalent.
Many NFL teams, if not all of them, have weight restrictions in cheerleaders' contracts, forbidding them to gain more than a few pounds. The Occidental Grand Papagayo is an all-inclusive resort, but the women did not feel they could indulge in the buffets. Besides, they said, they often were too busy to eat proper meals.
They said their hotel rooms turned into markets, with stacks of fiber and protein bars, rice cakes, peanut butter and cans of tuna.
During the photo shoots, they were anxiously aware when the sponsors and other guests were watching.
"At one of my friend's shoots, we were basically standing around her like a human barricade because she was basically naked, so we could keep the guys from seeing her," one of the cheerleaders said. "I was getting so angry that the guys on the trip were skeezing around in the background."
The nine cheerleaders picked to escort the sponsors to a nightclub boarded a hotel van without any Redskins management. When they showed up at the club, it was dark and nearly empty, several of them said. But the men who had requested them were there.
The cheerleaders said they were further bothered by the fact that Redskins officials were there, too. Jojokian was not, but Lon Rosenberg, the senior vice president for operations, and Dennis Greene, the president for business operations, were. A former Redskins cheerleader who volunteered as a sideline assistant during games was encouraging the women to drink and flirt, the cheerleaders said.
"The issue was that management seemed to condone all of this," one cheerleader who was there said.
At the end of the night, at about 2 or 3 a.m., the women returned to the waiting van, only to be stopped by several police officers who asked for their passports. They did not have them because the team had taken possession of them upon arrival. (The Redskins said it was team policy to collect passports for all international travel as a security precaution.)
"I guess they thought you were prostitutes," a man affiliated with the cheerleading squad told them after they were allowed to leave.
They returned to the resort, but several women on the team decided not to return to the squad the next season. What happened in Costa Rica, they said, made them feel worthless and unprotected.
"You kept telling yourself that it was going to get better," one of those women said. "But it never got better. Finally, I had to admit to myself, this is not what I thought it would be."
Jojokian said she recalled the cheerleaders saying they enjoyed the night at the club in Costa Rica. When she asked the women how the party was the next morning, "They were like, that was fun," she said. "I'm like, glad you had a good time — don't get the other girls jealous that they couldn't get to go."
She added: "No sponsor is worth these children's safety and well-being at all.
"I have to really reflect and think because I try to teach these women, these cheerleaders, to speak up, not just to me but to anybody. They shouldn't deal with anyone who is hurtful or harmful."