Several former professional cheerleaders thought they had landed the opportunity of a lifetime performing for the Houston Texans, but nine women are suing the NFL team, alleging harassment and unfair pay, which they claim was all part of a culture within the organization meant to humiliate and intimidate them.
“You kind of just learn to bite your tongue and to deal with it,” said Ainsley Parish, one of the women suing the NFL team. “I was so thankful that I was chosen for that experience. And now I just look at those girls on the field and I feel sorry for them.”
Iconic feminist attorney Gloria Allred is representing five of the women. She is helping to bring their story center stage in what is the latest chapter in women fighting back and saying “no more.”
“Its women refusing to suffer in silence about economic inequities on fairness in the workplace,” Allred told ABC News. “They're not going to allow fear to be used as a weapon to silence them. And these young women that I represent, they want change in order to assist other women coming up who want to be NFL cheerleaders.”
“I believe that they are being targeted and discriminated against because of their gender,” she added.
Another group of former cheerleaders are also suing the NFL team, as well as the cheerleading coach Alto Gary. Two of these women, Danielle and Ashlyn, are speaking publically for the first time and sharing their story exclusively with ABC News.
“I wanted this for years,” Danielle said. “It was number one to me. I was consumed with it. It was my whole life.”
Both women were rookies last season. Ashlyn turned 18 just days before trying out for the team.
“Making the team was everything you thought it could be. It was glitter, glitz, glam,” Ashlyn said. “And then the bad things started happening. The harassment, the bullying… People were being called ugly names. And we were being called ‘jelly belly’ and ‘chunky cheeks.’”
She said her body still looked like a teenager’s when she made the team but that summer, things changed and she said her coach noticed.
“I woke up and I looked like a woman and not like a 12 year old girl,’ Ashlyn said. “So things started going south whenever I started developing in certain areas. And she didn’t like the way I looked anymore.”
At one point, Ashlyn said Coach Alto pulled her aside and told her, “You look like you ate a plate of salt.” She also said Alto told her she looked like she had gained the “freshman 15,” referring to her weight.
Even now, having left the team, Ashlyn, now 19, says she still worries about her weight constantly.
“I was very impressionable… [and] I was young and called fat multiple times,” she said.
These women said because there was a culture of body shaming, some of them and their teammates felt like they couldn’t eat.
“I've had a girl that, basically when we were at an outing she was just eating and she's, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I haven't eaten in three days.’ And I'm like, ‘Are you serious?’ And she didn't say anything else. And she just kind of caught herself,” said one of women, Ashley Rodriguez.
Danielle says she too faced harassment from Couch Alto about her appearance, specifically her race. At one point she said she was told she had to have curly, not straight, hair.
“She [the coach] said, ‘You’re replaceable. There are millions of other Hispanics in Houston that would take your spot,’” Danielle said. “She did not have to use the term ‘Hispanic.’ Don’t get me wrong I’m proud to be that, that makes me proud. But as an employee, she shouldn’t separate me from anybody else.”
These women say the harassment extended into the stadium on game days. Former cheerleader Jackie Chambers says part of her job was to entertain fans in the stands and in the suite boxes. She said the work could be dangerous and required the women to have a safe word – “Toro” -- to alert security if something got out of hand.
“You could not guarantee that if you said your safe word you would be heard,” Chambers said. “It’s loud, people are drinking. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of people in a small space…sometimes if we get lucky we’re with an officer, otherwise we’re with a stadium employee. Who knows if they would hear us, who knows if they were paying attention.”
Chambers says a fan sexually assaulted her in the stands during a game.
“We’re running back down the bleachers… a man reaches over from his chair into the aisle as I’m walking down and runs his hand all the way from bottom of my boot heel all the way up to the center of my crotch and grabs,” she said.
Chambers said she reported the incident to her coach but says she never heard of any follow-up.
“A lot of people are going to think, ‘Oh well you’re in a little outfit, you're a cheerleader, you’re young, you’re cute, you’re in the stands, this is what you signed up for, and people are going to do whatever,’” Chambers said. “I don’t care. Whether it’s your mom, whether it’s your sister, whether it’s your daughter, and someone grabs someone else’s crotch - it’s not ok.”
Chambers said she expected the organization to do something about it to ensure something like that wouldn’t happen again.
Despite their contracts stipulating a 30-hour work week, they say they had to be on call 24/7 and were consistently not paid for required activities – including some events and the hundreds of hours spent traveling to and from events across the state.
In a video posted on the Houston Texans’ website, Danielle talks about the long hours she put in, saying in part, “Working a full time job and being a cheerleader is trying to find a balance. And I think I’m learning how to manage my time - that’s my biggest surprise so far is the time.”
She told ABC News that Coach Alto would say to them, “This is a part time job with full time hours.”
“And she wasn’t lying,” she added.
In fact, in that same video, Alto says that she thought “time management” was the “hardest adjustment” for new cheerleaders coming on to the team.
Another requirement the women say they weren’t paid for was keeping up their social media presence.
“This was never outlined to what extent social media was - the time it was going to take before we signed our contract, ever,” Chambers said.
The women say they were required to tweet multiple times a day during football season and expected to respond to emails and direct messages sent to them within 10 minutes. If they didn’t, they say there were consequences.
One former cheerleader named Paige said, “They actually would send an email out to a specific person, ‘You know, you didn’t reply to this, we expected a prompt reply.”
And if not, Chambers added, then the email would say that it could “affect how the rest of your season plays out.”
What’s more, the women say that despite being on-call 24/7, they were never paid for this extra work.
“If you even average spend about five minutes per tweet - it’s a lot of money we got cheated out of,” Paige said.
“You’re promoting the Houston Texans and you’re not getting a dime for it,” Ashlyn added.
Last week, four of Allred’s clients came to New York with a copy of their lawsuit against the Texans to hand deliver it to the office of the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“There’s a lot of nerves for all of us. We’ve never been in this position before,” said Kelly Neuner, one of the cheerleaders who went to Goodell’s office. “We have everything to gain by putting the spotlight on this, by also trying to affect change so that girls are treated fairly and paid fairly and paid for the stuff that they do.”
ABC News reached out to the NFL for comment but has not received a response.
“People ask, ‘Well, didn't you know that you were only going to earn minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, when you did this?’ The answer is no, they didn't know until they saw the contract. That's after they were selected as cheerleaders,” Allred said.
“This is not a minimum wage job,” she continued. “This job has value to the team and to the brand. And they work hard to bring value to this team. And that is reflected in the income stream, the revenue stream to the Houston Texans. In plain English, they're making money off of these cheerleaders.”
Another Texans cheerleader Hannah Turnbow says she had to work a second job to make ends meet and that other women on the team had to do the same.
“We love the NFL fans, we love our Houston Texans fans, and we really drop our lives for them, and for them [The Houston Texans] to kind of throw it in our face and say, ‘You can work all these hours, do all this stuff for us, bring in all this revenue for us, but you're only worth $7.25,’” Turnbow said.
Kelly Neuner said some of the cheerleaders were still in school and struggling to make time for their studies and their other jobs on top of the Texans’ job demands.
“Then not also paying us the hours fully that we did work for you, that's just like a slap in the face,” she said.
Another one of Allred’s clients, Ashley Rodriquez, said some of the women were scared to speak up.
“They got comfortable and us as cheerleaders, as employees, because we were too scared to speak up,” she said “The NFL is billions and billions of dollars of a corporation. And… it brings fear to you, and you think you're so little. And they put that, they instill that to you, that you're nothing.”
In a statement to ABC News, the Houston Texans said, in part, that they, “Look forward to vigorously defending ourselves against these allegations. We appreciate the Houston Texans Cheerleaders for the positive impact they have made in our community and for the outstanding way they have represented our organization for nearly two decades. If there are things we learn from this process that we feel will make our cheer program even better, we will make the necessary adjustments. We do not tolerate mistreatment of our cheer team or our employees at any time.”
Bruse Loyd, the attorney representing four of the former Texans cheerleaders said, "The change is coming. What the question is - are you going to come along with it, or be on the wrong side of it? … We’re on the right side of history. And we’re going to make a difference.”
Chambers said all the Texans cheerleaders love the team and their host city of Houston.
“It’s unfortunate… that [the Texans organization is] missing that opportunity year after year after year,” she said.
“There’s no union [for cheerleaders],” Chambers continued. “The thing here is that T for Texans -- but T for Trailblazers. And we want the Texans to initiate this change. Because we’ know they’re capable of it. And we know how awesome they are, and we’ve all been fans for a long time. And we’re hoping that the rest of league will be able to follow their leadership.”
These women say they have a sisterhood and there may be strength in numbers, but they feel there is even more strength in each other.
“I couldn’t have made being a Houston Texans Cheerleader possible if it wasn’t for my teammates. I’m very thankful for that part,” Ashlyn said. “I’m grateful for these girls and I’m very proud of all of them who are behind this team to make a change.”
Danielle agreed that her teammates mean the world to each other.
“I think we were a phenomenal team and I think it’s a shame that our coach didn’t see that,” she said. “Because the more she would bully us and the more she would harass us, the stronger we got… and so we share a bond and we’ve had experiences together that we’ll never forget. And we won’t be a cheerleader again. But I get to keep these girls forever.”