The Washington Football Team plans to replace its troubled cheerleading squad with a co-ed dance team as part of its rebranding efforts — pulling the plug on the franchise’s “First Ladies of Football” after more than 50 years.
As part of the change, the team announced Wednesday it hired Petra Pope as a senior advisor to help with the transition. Pope comes from the NBA, where she was the former manager of the Laker Girls and helped launched the New York Knicks’ dance team.
The swap comes amid an overall rebranding effort for Washington, which abandoned the name Redskins last summer and implemented a temporary name. The team will remain the “Washington Football Team” for at least another season as the club searches for a new name.
But the change also comes during the NFL’s ongoing investigation into the team’s workplace after sexual harassment allegations. In recent years, the cheerleading program has also been mired in controversy. The New York Times in 2018 reported some of the team’s cheerleaders were uncomfortable and frustrated after the team invited a contingent of sponsors and suite holders to attend a topless photoshoot with the women. In July, the Washington Post reported the existence of secretly produced videos that featured outtakes of partially nude cheerleaders made during calendar shoots. According to multiple reports, the team reached a confidential settlement late last year with a group of former cheerleaders featured in the videos.
Last month, the team announced it would “temporarily pause” the cheerleading program and bring in an outside consulting firm to help rebrand.
In an interview, Pope said she felt comfortable joining the organization after speaking with owner Dan Snyder and his wife, Tanya. She said she plans to implement a “modern” approach and is convinced the Snyders share the same desire.
“I have a nice clean canvas and am able to come into this process with my own creative ideas, bringing that NBA flavor to the NFL,” Pope told The Washington Times. “The canvas is open … I’m going to move forward in an effort to catapult us into 2021.
“We have a new reimagined vision of what this (dance) team should look like. So athleticism, inclusion and diversity.”
Pope said she plans to hire approximately 36 dancers, male and female. The changes will be implemented as soon as next season, with Pope planning on bringing in a new staff to lead the dancers, as well. Other tweaks to the program include getting rid of calendar shoots.
Washington first launched its cheerleading program in 1962, with the squad eventually being dubbed the “First Ladies of Football.”
Pope, though, said the franchise wanted to rebrand the program to make sure the dance team “looks like everybody else in 2021.”
She said she understands some fans may be upset.
“Change is hard,” Pope said, “but I compliment the team for taking the chance for reimagining the entire franchise, not just the entertainment aspect.”
In a statement, team president Jason Wright called Pope the “ideal person” to lead the new dance team.
Pope has worked 33 years in the NBA. Besides her stints with the Lakers and the Knicks, she has also worked with the then-New Jersey Nets and has been a consultant for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers.
Pope said she’ll continue to evaluate other aspects of the dance team, including its role in the community. The cheerleading program, for instance, traveled often to military bases to greet armed serviced members. She said Washington’s human resources department will be “so honed in” on the new dance team to make sure there is a comfortable environment.
Last week, the NFL said it has still not received the findings of the investigation into Washington’s workplace. A group of former employees have demanded the report be made public when available.
“I have no concerns,” Pope said. “Tanya and Dan are committed — committed — to significant changes. I bought into it because it’s so true, it’s so real based on my numerous conversations. I’m super comfortable that at what they say will take place.”
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