On Wednesday at 10:45 a.m., I got a text message that read, “Boom.” It contained a link to an ESPN exposé about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders that a source had told me was coming, but that was all I knew. “Cowboys paid $2.4M over cheerleader allegations,” the headline read. I clicked the link to find out the who, what, when.
“Four members of their iconic cheerleading squad accused a senior team executive of voyeurism in their locker room as they undressed during a 2015 event at AT&T Stadium,” the story read. According to ESPN’s reporting, the executive was hiding behind a partial wall in the cheerleaders’ locker room and pointing his iPhone at them, like he was taking pictures or recording a video, while they changed.
The details immediately called to mind episode seven of our podcast America’s Girls. It looked at how to manage ugly voyeurism when low-key voyeurism had been the marketing plan. The Dallas Cowboys weren’t the only NFL franchise that had this kind of problem. Back in the early eighties, a peephole was allegedly placed in the locker room of the Philadelphia Eagles Cheerleaders, so players from visiting teams could spy on them as they undressed. The peephole remained an open secret around the league—a scenario that had a cringe-inducing similarity to the premise of the 1981 teen romp Porky’s—until a lawsuit brought the practice to an end. But this wasn’t just an NFL problem either. The tricky business of flaunting sex while trying to control sex was an American problem in the decades after the sexual revolution, and for the past five-plus years, as #MeToo accusations have exploded across social media, we’ve been living amid the fallout.
The Cowboys cheerleaders had stayed mostly above the fray, despite working for an owner, Jerry Jones, who had a way of crash-landing in a ditch. The Cowboys got hit by a fair-pay suit in 2018, but after more than a year of reporting, I could not unearth much when it came to recent allegations of sexual harassment or assault. There were a few anonymous quotes about icky fan interactions, and I’d heard occasional whispers of more disturbing incidents, but nothing I’d been able to confirm. Nondisclosure agreements, a history of litigation, loyalty to the mother ship, fear of Cowboys leadership, mistrust of journalists in an era of epic partisanship and outrage, a culture of secrecy that might impress the Mafia—the reasons for these tight lips were legion.
And then the payouts, however many there were. The Cowboys are the most valuable brand in professional sports, worth more than $6 billion, so I suspected there were a lot. Meanwhile, they paid their “iconic cheerleaders” $15 a game until the nineties, when their pay was raised to $50, eventually topping out at $400 a game plus hourly wages for rehearsal. Cheerleaders from across the decades told me stories about living on crackers, skipping insurance, even selling free promotional products under the radar to make rent. But the four cheerleaders involved in this voyeurism scandal would land in a different financial category. “Each of the women received $399,523.27 after the incident,” the story read.
That’s a rounding error for Jerry Jones, but it would be a life-changing amount for most of us. It galled me that the Cowboys refused to pay their cheerleaders a living wage, only to pay them off handsomely behind closed doors. That $2.4 million settlement could have covered all the cheerleaders’ measly $15 per game for more than 550 seasons.
But who had been implicated in this thing? That’s what I needed to know now. My eyes scanned to find the name.
Rich Dalrymple. Well, that came as a surprise. The Cowboys’ PR guy and famous fixer, Jerry Jones’s right-hand man.
“Dalrymple had a long personal history with the Cowboys and Jerry Jones and was seen by the owner as a member of the extended Jones family,” the story read. This was rich, indeed. What to do when the PR guy creates a massive PR problem?
Dalrymple released his own statement earlier this week denying any wrongdoing in the incidents. “One was accidental and the other simply did not happen,” he said. “Everything that was alleged was thoroughly investigated years ago, and I cooperated fully.”
I’d never met Dalrymple. I think I emailed him once about a game, many moons ago, but when I reached out for our podcast in November 2020, I was redirected to another PR guy, Joe Trahan, who was perfectly lovely except for the part where he was also a stone wall. The Cowboys never participated in our podcast. The settlement story sounded like one reason why.
I texted the article to several cheerleaders. “Oh gosh,” one of them replied. She’d had no idea. Another wrote back soon after. “I heard rumors about this at the time, but I have no details.” Four never responded. Another spoke with me on the phone for half an hour, but like the others, she asked that I not use her name.
“I could see it happening,” she said. The locker room has two entryways, and she figures the one security guard on duty was stationed at the main one, while Dalrymple could have entered from a hallway that leads off the field to a second door. “At least the girls were able to catch him,” she said. “But he continued to work there. That’s one of the worst parts.”
One former cheerleader happy to use her name was Shannon Baker Werthmann, a golden girl during the seventies’ peak-fame era and the group’s choreographer through the eighties. But she was also a busy grandmother (the kids called her “Glamma”).
“Can we talk this afternoon?” she texted me, and I was bummed, but of course the answer was yes.
Shannon was one of my most reliable sources during our podcast. She watched a very strict environment transition to a more libertine one in 1989, after Jerry Jones bought the team and started showing up to cheerleader practices with his buddies and his cocktails (episode five of the podcast). Shannon is one of the most important figures in the entire history of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, a star on the squad who also became a brand architect. But in 1991, Shannon was fired by newly appointed (and still-reigning) director Kelli Finglass. So Shannon knew things, and she’d talk—but not yet.
The phone rang. Actually, the phone rang all day.
“Is this a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, or what?” It was Mike Rhyner, founder of the Ticket, a popular sports radio station in Dallas. He’s retired these days, though he’s in search of a home for his interview podcast, Your Dark Companion, and he had a lot to say on this topic (and many others). “I saw the headline, and then the byline, and I was like: ‘Uh-oh.’ ”
ESPN reporter Don Van Natta Jr. is known for what we might call barn burners. “Whenever he does a story, it’s right and it’s big,” Rhyner said, in a whiskey-gravel voice that made everything sound like a movie trailer. “Here’s what I wonder,” he said. “This happens to any other team, in any other sport—I don’t care if it’s the Dodgers or the Lakers or the Yankees—the owner has to immediately begin the process of stepping away and selling the team.”
I reminded him that Dan Snyder, the owner of the recently renamed Washington Commanders, had not stepped down after a media explosion over, among other things, an incident wherein someone in the organization was allegedly told to splice together video clips of cheerleader nip slips and other unsavory blooper moments from their 2008 swimsuit calendar shoot in Aruba (discussed in episode seven, and covered extensively by the Washington Post). Those swimsuit shoots had become big business across NFL franchises, and in 2013, eager cheerleader fans could pay $6,999 to go on a team-sponsored vacation and watch those iconic Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders pose on sandy Mexican beaches in person. Anyway, Rhyner admitted the Snyder situation was weird, but he told me the Washington owner wasn’t nearly as high-profile as the Cowboys’ notorious gunslinger.
“Jerry has so ingratiated himself into the way the NFL does business that he’s defined it,” he said. “He showed them how to raise the value of their product more than anyone ever had, or ever will again.”
As for Dalrymple, Rhyner liked the guy, and Dalrymple liked him back. “He always said it was because I didn’t play the game, and I didn’t bite down on the easy side of a story,” Rhyner said.
Rhyner was surprised by the ESPN piece. “Doesn’t sound like the Rich I know, but that’s the thing—we don’t know these people. They use us, we use them, and we’re all just f—ing each other in the endgame.” I was starting to wonder if Mike Rhyner in retirement was actually better than Mike Rhyner on the air, but I digress. “His job came real easy to him,” Rhyner continued. “He was the macro guy. He dealt only with the big names and always had a minion or two around to deal with the local grind. Maybe he was bored. Or maybe it was one of many times he did something like this, but this time he didn’t get away with it.”
Dalrymple got along with most reporters. PR guys usually do, at least the smart ones. Earlier in February, when he announced his then-mysterious retirement, sports Twitter filled with paeans to his work, his character, his contributions. “End of era in Dallas,” read one tweet. “Love this guy. Glad I got to hang with him for 25 yrs,” read another. Everybody loved Rich. Well, not everybody.
“I liked him okay,” said the great Dale Hansen, a recently retired TV sports anchor who is always good for bucking a trend. Thirty-two years ago, Dalrymple replaced Dale’s best friend, Greg Aiello, as PR guy when he arrived in Cowboysland a year after then-coach Jimmy Johnson. So Dale didn’t think of Rich as a buddy or anything. It was a business arrangement.
I’d texted Dale earlier in the day to ask if he wanted to speak on Dalrymple, and he texted back, “About what?” And then a few minutes later, he wrote, “OMG!!,” which delighted me, because can you even imagine that big bear of a man, with the golden voice that fills a room even before he enters it, saying the words “OMG!!”? But times are strange, and so here we are. I called Dale in Waxahachie, where he lives with his wife, his dogs, his cats, at least one parrot, and a donkey named Edward R. Burro, among other animals.
“Is this legendary sports reporter Dale Hansen?” I asked.
“Nah, just a washed-up guy sitting in a recliner,” he said, not missing a beat.
One nice part about interviewing Dale Hansen is you don’t have to ask many questions. He just launches into commentary. “I was stunned,” he started. “But then again, I’m always stunned by that kind of behavior. Really? You walked into a cheerleaders’ bathroom because you didn’t want to use the bathroom twenty feet away?” He chuckled, and the laugh had a husky gravel. “But what do you do with the fact that there’s no photos on his phone?”
Good question, Dale Hansen. But first you must believe there really was a thorough internal investigation, that anyone (especially the Cowboys) can accurately investigate themselves, that some kind of “forensics” can determine whether a photo has been deleted. And you have to believe Dalrymple when he claims he only had a work phone, and no second phone for personal use (I did not, but Hansen did, though he also admitted he barely understood the one phone he had).
“Just show us the time on his key card,” he said. “If he walked in and out, that’s easy enough to prove.” Dalrymple was a rare employee with a key to the cheerleaders’ locker room, and if he entered the locker room to use the bathroom—bizarre, since a bathroom was located in the hall, but okay—then he’d be inside for, what? Ten seconds max? “Make it public and we’re done now,” Hansen said.
But the Cowboys weren’t sharing that information. Thursday morning, Van Natta addressed this point of contention on the Dallas sports talk show The Fan. According to Van Natta, Dalrymple claims he was in the locker room for a few seconds, and the cheerleaders claim he was there for three minutes. Surely surveillance cameras could solve this. But if the Cowboys had that footage, they weren’t sharing it.
Hansen didn’t see the $2.4 million payout as an admission of guilt or wrongdoing, necessarily. He’d known too many rich people who made rich-people decisions. “In Jones’s world, two point four million? That’s nothing,” he said. “And if he can bury that story and doesn’t have to deal with the public fallout, I can see him doing that.”
This world is filled with people who take the easy way, even if that happens to be the expensive way. Not Dale Hansen. He once got into a long, drawn-out fight with the folks at Rooms To Go furniture over $12.86. (FWIW, I’m on Dale’s side.) But anyway, not everyone is as stubborn and/or principled and/or prideful and/or worried about $13 as Dale Hansen, and so the payout could be seen as somewhere between practical and craven.
“Now, Jones is crazy, as you well know,” Hansen continued. “Maybe Jones just thought [the voyeurism incident] was funny. He thinks a lot of things are funny the typical person doesn’t.”
But the upskirt photos of Charlotte Jones that Dalrymple allegedly took in the war room during the 2015 NFL draft, another little grenade in ESPN’s story? That one was hard to square. “I find it hard to believe someone is snapping shots up your daughter’s dress and you go: ‘Okay,’ ” said Hansen.
So maybe the Cowboys reviewed the video of that episode and decided it never happened. Maybe they know it never happened, but the angle and the grain of the video make it hard to discern, and therefore possible to read alternate scenarios, and so they refuse to share the video. (I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.) And it takes real balls to snap upskirt photos of the boss’s daughter in a room where that very powerful boss is sitting. Then again, that alleged incident came only a month before Dalrymple was accused of voyeurism in the cheerleaders’ locker room, and something tells me Rich Dalrymple, high-profile fixer, had some problems in his own soul that might have needed fixing.
Dale Hansen had more questions: Who leaked this? Why? And why now? This story has been sitting around for more than six years. What’s the endgame? Who knew what? Didn’t I find it suspicious that the story broke the week after the Super Bowl? (I did, but not in any nefarious way.) The leak was the question I wanted to solve, but I didn’t have any leads, and I wasn’t sure I ever would.
That Wednesday afternoon, another Hansen was trying to get ahold of me. Debbie Bond Hansen, the cheerleaders’ assistant director under Suzanne Mitchell, who briefly took over as director after Suzanne stepped down in 1989. But Debbie, a woman of almost overweening conviction, left her position when, at least according to her, Jerry Jones asked her to loosen the rules and change the uniform (episode five). Debbie had questions about the Dalrymple allegations and settlement, too. She wrote them out in one long stream of consciousness in an email.
“Why just 1 security guard? Why wasn’t this freak fired? Why weren’t the police called? Why weren’t charges brought against him? Why wasn’t he fired after the Charlotte Jones incident? How many times has he done this? WHO ELSE WAS INVOLVED? Where is Kelli’s voice?”
She meant cheerleaders director Kelli Finglass, who had so far remained quiet on this incident. I didn’t know where Kelli’s voice was; I’d been wondering for a while. As a cheerleader in the eighties, she was known to be funny and bubbly, with a radiant smile. But many Cowboys insiders had commented on how the job, or the fame, or the pressure, or the who knows what, had changed her. “She’s gone corporate,” Hansen said.
I was planning to speak to Kelli before this story hit. She didn’t participate in the podcast, but she’d messaged me through Instagram on the evening of the last episode that America’s Girls was the best journalism she’d seen on the DCC. We had plans to meet soon, and in the meantime, we’d been playing friend footsie over Instagram, where I found her clever and direct, with charm to burn. So I was looking forward to sitting across from her in some yet-undisclosed location, but when I reached out Tuesday to arrange our interview, I didn’t hear back, which now made perfect sense. I had no idea if she’d ever contact me again.
“It probably goes without saying that I would love to speak with you about this, on or off the record,” I messaged her Wednesday afternoon, but the words sat there for hours, looking lonely and cold.
Another text at 8:32 p.m. “I have a quiet place in my closet whenever you want to call me.” It was Shannon Baker Werthmann. I was in the middle of a (very interesting) interview with Cindy Villarreal, a former Miss Texas and the cheerleader who quit the squad in 1989 after being asked to do an appearance on Jerry Jones’s private jet (episode five).
Cindy had given me great material, but it was almost too much to hold. All of it was. The contradictions, the possible cover-ups, the constant status seeking, the low-down sadness of it all—I’ll have to tell you about it another time, though by this point, I wasn’t even sure anyone cared.
My tweets that day had gotten very little pickup, and I hate that I cared, but I did. I could almost feel the scandal slipping out of the news cycle before it had even been digested. A few more days of Van Natta on the circuit, a week or so of local news coverage and sports-radio chatter, maybe a story on Jezebel, where a former Rams cheerleader named Emily Leibert was kicking ass and taking names. But Leibert was also on vacation. I knew because she’d recently published an interview with me that went up hours (minutes?) before the scandal hit.
One of the many things we discussed was why it seemed like feminists didn’t care about cheerleaders. I’d had a similar conversation with Columbia University professor Frank Guridy, who wrote about the cheerleaders in his book The Sports Revolution: How Texas Changed the Culture of American Athletics. I’d had a similar conversation with Dana Adam Shapiro, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker who made a 2018 documentary about Suzanne Mitchell and the cheerleaders, Daughters of the Sexual Revolution.
Over on the official Facebook fan-group page for Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, the administrator kept posting one adorable shot of a cheerleader after another, as though nothing had ever happened. (The scandal was mentioned discreetly the following day in a message that explained they would not be accepting posts on the subject out of respect for the privacy of the four women at the center of the ordeal.) Why did it seem like people who loved the cheerleaders didn’t want to talk about these topics, and people who wanted to talk about these topics didn’t love the cheerleaders? It depressed me. All this drum beating for women, all this clamor for change, but nothing was shocking here, and the world was melting, and maybe it was hard to convince people to care about voyeurism in an enterprise in which voyeurism had been the game plan all along. A line from Rhyner echoed in my head: “It’s the Cowboys’ world, and we’re just playing in it.”
It was late, and I was chain-smoking on the outdoor couch, even though I knew I shouldn’t be, and I didn’t care. “I’m doing it for Texie,” I texted Shannon, referring to the cheerleaders’ feisty original choreographer, Texie Waterman, a chain-smoker also known to throw back a few rounds.
“Same page, we are!” Shannon texted back. She was not a smoker, but she was drinking a bourbon and Coke. Texie, who died in 1996, had been Shannon’s mentor.
I called Shannon sometime after 9 p.m. My eyes were so blurry everything in my periphery had become a haze. “How are you doing?” she asked. Her voice on the other end was so grounding. Shannon was like the opposite of Cowboys brass: open, fair, kindhearted.
How was I doing? Hard to say. Exhilarated, exhausted, ready to give up, just getting started. We spoke in quiet voices, like two people in an echoey room.
“I am so tired of women having to put up with so much,” she said. “It sickens me. My husband is sitting here going, ‘I hate my gender.’ And I told him, ‘The good guys need to stand up and say something to these creeps, because they’re making you look bad.’ ”
And there were good guys. I knew so many. I’d spoken to them on the phone that day, and over the past 47 years of my life. There were even good guys inside the Cowboys. (Right? Didn’t there have to be?) Shannon and I chatted for a while. About the Cowboys, about Jerry Jones, about Kelli Finglass, with whom she’d never been close. I asked about Charlotte Jones, who rose to prominence after Shannon was dispatched from the team. Even though my sources had always gone to great lengths to say how professional and impressive Charlotte was, I found it curious that nobody I spoke to that day really rallied for her, as unfortunate as that alleged incident would have been.
“Charlotte is just another person to put in front that Jerry can use,” Shannon told me. “If he respected her, he wouldn’t do half the stuff he’s done to her mother.” She meant the notorious womanizing, the kind that everyone in Dallas knows about and yet legal review still flags when you mention it in passing in a story. That day, I’d opened up Instagram and cringed to find a picture of Charlotte and her mother Gene, draped in beautiful textiles, posing in front of a grand, curving staircase. “It’s your DIAMOND birthday!!!” the post began. Charlotte posted it Tuesday.
“There’s so much good-old-boy stuff,” Shannon said. “They don’t see women as important or as their equal beyond what they need them to do, and it’s so sad. I’m hoping it will get better, but Jerry’s of the generation where ‘I have your secrets, you have mine. Women are to be used as we need them to be.’ ”
Shannon was one of the few cheerleaders who spoke to me freely, but she wasn’t the only one. I knew there were more, and their numbers might grow with the radius of this detonation. I had to believe there were people in that organization who wanted to redeem it—or themselves. But the Cowboys had a real hold on people. Everyone talked about that screwed-up culture, but they rarely talked on the record.
“Its like a cult, and it stays with you,” Shannon said in a voice that sounded weary, but also strong.
I climbed in bed around 11 p.m., but I was too wired to sleep, so I talked shop on the phone with former Dallas Morning News reporter Robert Wilonsky, who is one of the good guys. I was too tired to remember much of what we said, but I know we laughed a lot. This world. This career. The Cowboys. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and cracked my knuckles on this story, but around eight that morning, Rhyner texted again.
“I now think Jerry will easily outrun this, if in fact there’s anything to outrun,” he wrote, sinking me a bit. “This will show us once again the NFL is just too big, way bigger than the other sports, and chasing women and the easy access to and availability of same is way more prevalent than in any of the others—and make no mistake, it’s everywhere in the others, too—and nobody thinks anything of it.”
He was right. The NFL announced on Thursday there would be no further investigation into this matter. The wingspan of the Cowboys had been revealed to us once again, and it wasn’t fair. But nobody ever said sports was fair.
“Great story, but it’ll have a shelf life of a couple news cycles and that’ll be it,” Rhyner said. “Is there a follow-up in there somewhere? I’d bet so, but it’ll never get done.”
Then again, maybe it will.