A long list of rules, written and unwritten, has always been central to the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. These became even more important after sex scandals of the late seventies, as the squad built up its image as patriotic and family-friendly. But the arrival of new Cowboys owner Jerry Jones put those old rules to the test, and threatened the future of the cheerleaders.
Dive deeper into the stories in this episode in our Pocket collection. You’ll find videos and news stories about the cheerleaders, including more about Jerry Jones’s takeover of the Cowboys.
You can read more about the early days of the Cowboys cheerleaders in Candy Evans’s book, A Decade of Dreams. And you can read more from Jessica Luther in her latest book, cowritten with Kavitha Davidson, Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan. News footage of the beginning of the Jerry Jones era was from WFAA and from the UNT Digital Library and KXAS-TV.
America’s Girls is written and reported by Sarah Hepola. Executive producer is Megan Creydt. Produced and edited by Patrick Michels. Edited by J. K. Nickell. Production, sound engineering, and music by Brian Standefer. Additional research and audio editing by podcast intern Harper Carlton.
Theme music is “Enough” by the Bralettes.
Last spring, I went out to East Texas, to a nice golf course neighborhood by a lake, to meet a former Cowboys cheerleader named Dana Presley Killmer.
Sarah Hepola: Hi.
Dana Presley Killmer: Hi, come on in.
Sarah Hepola: Hi. Thank you, this is a nice place.
Dana Presley Killmer: Oh, thank you, thank you.
And, before we sat down, we stood around in her kitchen, chatting while she made coffee. Then she pointed over to a table, where I saw something I thought I might never get to see close up.
Dana Presley Killmer: One of my five uniforms. The one I got to keep.
I’d heard she still had one. It’s one of these open secrets among former Cowboys cheerleaders: that some of them managed to hold on to that uniform. One of the rules, strongly enforced by the cheerleaders’ director Suzanne Mitchell, was that you had to turn it in when you left the squad.
Dana Presley Killmer: And Suzanne—I know, knew her so well. I knew she’d say, give me. I know you have more than that. So I purposely gave her three. And she said, Presley, I know you have more than that. And I said no, and she said, give me the other uniform. And I had five. So I gave her the other uniform. And then years later, I said, I still have one. And she said, “Good for you.”
I’d become fascinated with the way the Cowboys protected that uniform—not just the copyright, but the thing itself.
Sarah Hepola: Was that because of the Debbie Does Dallas situation?
Dana Presley Killmer: It was. And because people would sell them. There was no eBay back then, but people would sell them.
Dana once accidentally left her uniform shorts behind in a St. Louis hotel room.
Dana Presley Killmer: And they were in the newspaper a couple of weeks later in St. Louis later, for sale, people trying to sell them. “Worn by . . .”
Sarah Hepola: Oh no.
Dana Presley Killmer: And it was just very, very—it was just nasty the way they did it.
Sarah Hepola: And there was a suggestion that your—
Dana Presley Killmer: Yes, my personal parts.
Sarah Hepola: —had been touching the fabric.
Dana Presley Killmer: And Suzanne was so upset. She said I’m not mad about the shorts, we can get you more shorts, and I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at what someone’s going to do with them.
Dana joined the team in 1981. It was in the wake of the scandals of the late seventies—Debbie Does Dallas, Playboy. Actually, there were still these little aftershocks of scandal when she got there. In Dana’s first tryouts there was a woman from Fort Worth named Kimberly McArthur. She got as far as the finals before she was cut. The next year, she showed up in Playboy wearing a blue T-shirt she’d been given as a cheerleader finalist. By her photo it said, “The Dallas Cowboys fumbled when they cut Kim McArthur—their miss is our Miss January.” Suzanne got serious about wardrobe security after that.
Dana Presley Killmer: She became very, very careful. You signed it in, she had a spreadsheet, you signed it in, you signed it out. She just didn’t want it in the wrong hands.
The uniform wasn’t the only thing they had to worry about leaving behind.
Sarah Hepola: Was it a rule that you had to bring your panty hose with you when you left?
Dana Presley Killmer: Yes. You couldn’t throw them in the trash. ’Cause Suzanne didn’t want anybody selling anything. People can be really strange.
Sarah Hepola: I mean that’s what I was told. I asked somebody, why can’t you throw the panty hose away, and they just gave me that look.
Dana Presley Killmer: Yes. There’s a lot of strange people out there. [laughs]
No throwing panty hose in the trash. No keeping the uniform. These were just a few of the rules the cheerleaders had to follow. And after the scandals that rocked the squad, the rules had only gotten stricter. But were the rules there to protect the cheerleaders, or were the rules there to control them?
From Texas Monthly, I’m Sarah Hepola, and this is America’s Girls. Episode 5, “The Rules.”
I’ve got a sheet of paper in front of me that’s more than thirty years old. It says, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Basic Rules and Regulations. That may not sound exciting, but there’s a lot of drama in these rules.
They had them as early 1972, with choreographer Texie Waterman, and many of them never changed. No missing rehearsals. No gaining weight.
But over the next years, the cheerleaders’ director, Suzanne Mitchell, added a few more. No showing up at rehearsal without your hair and makeup done. No wedding rings on game day.
The sexual tease was still there, but through the eighties, the cheerleaders doubled down on kid-friendliness and patriotism. And the rules were one of the ways they maintained that aura. They were like the ten commandments of cheerleading for the Cowboys.
And then, there’s a line at the bottom of the page, in all caps: “There will be many other unwritten rules given during the course of the year.”
On Suzanne’s squad, the rules were a way of life. But, by the end of the eighties, those rules would face a test that threatened everything she had built.
The Cowboys always excelled at controlling the brand. In 1982, a book came out called A Decade of Dreams. It’s a history of the cheerleaders the way the Cowboys wanted it told.
This is Candy Evans, who wrote that book.
Candy Evans: The cheerleaders were in their heyday at that time. They were the hottest thing in Dallas. If you had anything to do with a program where you wanted some marketing, you got the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders there and everyone came.
Candy grew up in the Chicago area. She got her master’s in journalism at Columbia and came to Dallas to start her writing career. When the Cowboys called her about that book, she didn’t really know much about the cheerleaders. She told me she came to the project with some prejudices—this wasn’t exactly her scene. But she changed her mind once she started spending time with them.
Candy Evans: I saw girls who were from farms in Oklahoma, and this was their ticket. They were using their looks and they were using their talents, but this was their ticket out of the farm life and out of the small country and into maybe a chance to go to college and get educated and do all these wonderful things.
Candy Evans: So, what I came to realize, of course, when I was working with them, is that they were a marketing tool for the Cowboys and they were one of the best marketing tools in the history of marketing tools for the Dallas Cowboys.
Her book was part of that branding. It’s out of print now, but Decade of Dreams is the only book ever published about the cheerleaders’ history that I could find. I kind of can’t believe that in fifty years, there’s only been this one book. Candy’s experience suggests why that’s the case—they’re extremely careful with how this story gets told.
Candy Evans: I did not know that I was like the fifth or sixth writer, that they had fired other writers beforehand. Because they were guys and they went in and they wanted to write about all the scandals, like were the girls sleeping with the players and were they drinking with the players and all this stuff. Well, of course they were, but I wasn’t going to write about that. We’ll save that for the future, right? I just saw what Suzanne wanted. She told me, I want a book that a little girl can pick up and then she can come and she can try out and audition to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. I want this book to be read by thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds. I don’t want anything mean in it. I don’t want anything sexy in it. I don’t want anything vulgar in it. I want it to be nice and wholesome and clean. And that’s the image that she tried to keep and that she did really maintain for those cheerleaders.
The book helped burnish that image, but the rules might have been the biggest trick in keeping that balance between sexy and wholesome.
Debbie Bond Hansen: We would have a meeting, it’d be about a two-hour indoctrination meeting, we called it, and all the girls would be in attendance, and we would hand out a little handbook.
This is Debbie Hansen, who was Suzanne’s assistant from 1979 to 1989, though back then her name was Debbie Bond.
Debbie Bond Hansen: A lot of people don’t know this—we were a grooming school too. Some of these girls didn’t know how to dress appropriately or maybe they couldn’t afford to buy a nice dress and high heels. So before we would go on a trip, we’d have them bring their clothes to practice and show us what they were going to wear to the airport so we could look at it. And if they didn’t have it, we would give them something.
So the rules were an old-fashioned crash course in how to be a woman—at least a Southern woman with a certain kind of refinement.
And there was a motivational aspect to the rules too—in improving yourself, you can improve the world.
Debbie Bond Hansen: We were always improvising, thinking of ways that we could do more, do more for the girls, do more for society just to make a difference. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Making a difference? Leaving a footprint?
“Classy” was a word Suzanne used a lot to describe the cheerleaders back then. And to keep those cheerleaders classy, and above the fray, Suzanne had to plan ahead. She had to think about every possible angle when she agreed to book them for promotions.
Here’s Dana Presley Killmer again.
Dana Presley Killmer: The Wine Press in Dallas called probably once a month and asked us to do an appearance, but Suzanne would never allow us to appear where there was beer or wine served. And every mattress company in Dallas would call and ask us to come to their grand opening. And Suzanne said, “Oh yeah, and they’re going to ask one of you to lay on the mattress. Once you lie on the mattress, that’s going to be all over the news.”
There was a time and a place for the “come hither” look.
Dana Presley Killmer: On Sundays, we were supposed to be the sexy cheerleaders on the sideline. The rest of the time, we were supposed to be perceived as squeaky clean. High heels, panty hose, business suit, makeup and hair done, mannerly, good etiquette.
Sarah Hepola: Was there any sense of you that felt that that was unfair?
Dana Presley Killmer: Mm-mm, no. I think there was a lot of Texans that behaved that way at the time. Whether it’s sororities, or drill teams, or college cheerleaders, I think that’s a normal culture for the South. I see now how it could be perceived as strange, but it never felt strange to me.
A lot of the cheerleaders told me they were rule-followers by nature. But these rules were especially powerful because of how strictly they were enforced. Suzanne’s right-hand woman in this task was her assistant Debbie. Through the eighties, she was Suzanne’s eyes and ears.
Debbie Bond Hansen: So the girls knew, they never knew where I would pop up. And if I popped up at a place where they shouldn’t be, or I saw something that they were doing that they were not to do that, then I would tell Suzanne.
At times that took a little bit of spycraft. Some of the squad figured it was appropriate for a woman whose last name at the time was “Bond.”
Debbie Bond Hansen: So I just got the name 007. I don’t know. I don’t think they were afraid of me. They just knew I would tell Suzanne. I mean, I do remember one time during tryouts. Suzanne had told me that there was—she had heard that there was a girl in the preliminaries who was a stripper. And obviously, we didn’t want, that was not the caliber of girl that we wanted to wear the uniform. So she had me go to every strip club in Dallas. And I had never been to a strip club, okay? And I was hiding in the corner because I didn’t want anybody to recognize me. I had dark glasses on, my fur coat, it was in the winter, it was freezing. And it would just—that was a moment, a 007 moment.
She and Suzanne had to manage the press. If the tabloids got a hold of these tidbits, they could easily blow up, and so Debbie and Suzanne had to keep a tight rein on those thirty-six cheerleaders. Meanwhile, over on the football side of things, the press was smothered in access and goodwill. Tex Schramm always had a cozy relationship with anyone who wrote about the team.
Dale Hansen: That’s the thing I think a lot of people never did understand, I’m the only one dumb enough to admit it.
This is Dale Hansen, a legendary TV sports reporter who just retired. He’s made big waves in recent years for his commentaries about racism and homophobia in the NFL, and he spent forty years getting to know the Cowboys media machine.
Dale Hansen: Schramm was brilliant at massaging the media. That he was so agreeable and he made sure that everybody in his organization was media friendly. It’s just human nature that the media coverage is going to be better and suit your purposes better.
Reporters had the home numbers of the players, that’s how much access they got. They saw plenty of wild nights and drunken carousing, but it was understood that beat reporters didn’t write about the players’ personal lives back then. And you didn’t write about the cheerleaders either.
Dale Hansen: We would do the Cowboys cheerleaders stories. It was almost like, “Well, you can’t come in here.” “Well, we got to have video while they’re practicing.” “No, you’re going to have your cameras focused on the wrong thing.” “No we’re not . . .” But yeah, you had to jump through hoops just to get interviews with the cheerleaders on the occasional audition-type story, and again, it’s back to, “Well, they were up on this pedestal. They were the untouchable. They were unreachable.”
The most important rule was so well-known it didn’t even appear in the cheerleaders’ basic rules and regulations. No fraternizing with the players. That meant coaches, Cowboys staff, and journalists too.
Dale Hansen: Cowboys cheerleaders were off limits, and I think that only added to the aura of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, which separated them from a lot of other cheerleader groups around the country. It might’ve been a harsh rule for some of those young women to follow, but I think for the benefit of the organization, I think it’s a heck of a good rule.
Of course, some cheerleaders did date players, and when they were caught, they were shown the door.
But nothing ever happened to the players. The rule only worked in one direction. It’s an obvious double standard, but I guess it’s not so different from the culture at large. Women can take a reputation hit for any sexual behavior, while men mostly get high fives. When I hear stories about women getting cut, it’s hard not to make a mental list of all the outrageous nonsense players have gotten away with over the years. But for the cheerleaders on the team, the rule was just the way things were.
Here’s Dana Presley Killmer:
Dana Presley Killmer: Even Bill Bates, the famous football player Bill Bates, got down on one knee jokingly and proposed to me at a football game. And I said, get up, you’ll survive this, I won’t. You’re a famous football player. Everybody knows your number and your name. I will get kicked off the team, get up, get up, get up.
What Dana knew—what all the cheerleaders knew—was that even for a lighthearted joke, punishment could be swift.
Dana Presley Killmer: Halloween in Dallas, in the eighties during the disco era, they had these wild costume parties incognito in the Starck Club, and the Cowboy, and all the clubs that were hot in the eighties, you could literally win thousands of dollars just by going if you had a great costume. Well, two cheerleaders, and I won’t name their names, I don’t want to embarrass them. There was a little girl in the stands that was called the Cowboy Baby at that time. Her parents would hold her up. She had the midriff crop top and vest that we wore. Someone had custom-made one. Precious little blond girl. She was in a lot of photos. She became like an unofficial mascot. When you got to that corner of the field, you looked for Cowboy Baby, and her parents would hold her up. They went to one of the clubs as Cowboy Baby. They had their boots on, the cheerleader top on, and an adult diaper.
Sarah Hepola: It’s actually, it’s a good costume.
Dana Presley Killmer: It’s hilarious. It’s hilarious. But Suzanne didn’t think so. She kicked them both off the team.
So the Cowboys didn’t want cheerleaders dressing like babies. What they did want, though, was babies dressing like cheerleaders.
The Little Miss Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader contest launched in late 1979, with ten thousand entrants aged four to twelve. Within a couple years, forty thousand girls entered. The winners were picked based on their essays. One essay, supposedly written by a six-year-old, read: “I don’t want to wait until I’m 21 to be sexy. I want to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader now.”
In 1981, the Dallas Morning News ran a story on parents who were worried about this cheerleader mania, girls who were suddenly swiveling their hips and shaking their pom-poms.
But the team had discovered that there were plenty of girls—like me—who saw the cheerleaders not as sex objects, but as role models. And they kept pumping out merchandise to meet that demand. Frisbees, chewing gum, sleeping bags.
The cheerleaders’ logo was a cartoon drawing of a little blond girl, wearing that same midriff-revealing uniform but looking like a kindergartener. She popped up in coloring books and playing cards. And the cheerleaders introduced a line of clothing for girls that included jeans and pom-poms and a blue satin jacket. Suzanne’s assistant, Debbie Hansen, told me they didn’t feel the need to be so protective of the brand when kids were wearing the logo.
Debbie Bond Hansen: Well, we have more control over it, okay? And we had more control, I think, if children wore the clothing line, versus like let’s say if we had the clothing line for adults, that could go in a different direction.
The Cowboys were always pushing the idea that these women in boots and halter tops were good role models, that they were more than sideline entertainment. Suzanne had long emphasized the importance of service. And in late 1979, the cheerleaders began another tradition: they went on their first USO tour, to entertain and hang out with soldiers who were serving in Korea.
Dana Presley Killmer: Mostly what we did was sign autographs and shake hands. And just as many women in the military hugged us and asked for autographs as the men did. Everybody just wanted to see somebody from home. And it was shocking how lonely they were. So we felt like we were doing a lot of good.
It’s a weird coincidence that the same year the cheerleaders began these USO tours, the movie Apocalypse Now came out, and it’s got a wild scene with dancers helicoptering in on a goodwill mission.
Announcer in Apocalypse Now: We’re proud of you and we know how tough and how hard it’s been. Yeah! And to prove it, we’re going to give you some entertainment we know you’re gonna like! Miss August. Miss . . .
In the movie, they’re Playboy Playmates, shimmying onstage and hip-thrusting into machine guns with soldiers whooping in the audience. And one of them, in a tiny blue halter top, looks a lot like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. The scene makes USO tours look like an orgy of repressed male desire, but the cheerleaders’ show was less sexpot and more earnest flag-waving. Dana and another cheerleader used to close the show by singing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”
The cheerleaders became favorites on these trips. They’ve made eighty-three tours in forty-two countries. I’m pretty sure only Bob Hope did more. And those tours could be a real education.
Dana Presley Killmer: When you audition to be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, you think you’re going to be on the sidelines of eleven home games. And you’re twenty-three years old and you land at the Beirut airport, and as you’re getting off of your commercial airplane, there’s a jumbo jet on fire at the end of the runway.
And at times they did face real danger on these trips. There was one harrowing ride through Beirut when Dana and Suzanne were in a jeep, being driven by a soldier.
Dana Presley Killmer: What they’d done is they put a jeep in between each of us with Marines in it. Because we now had to go down the Israeli highway, which is just a gravel road. And there was a curfew. And we had broken the curfew. And we got shot at on the way back to the boat, and Suzanne actually got hit. And the crazy thing is, my next door neighbor of sixteen years was the Marine driving the Jeep. And he saved her life. He slammed her head down just as that bullet hit or she wouldn’t have lived past 1983. And she had headaches till the day she died from that, because the bullet scraped her forehead.
Dana Presley Killmer: Anyway, that was that night. But then fast-forward to six months later, a kamikaze truck driver drove a truck with a bomb into the barracks the men were sleeping in, and killed 219 Marines in their sleep. And they were the men that we’d met six months earlier.
That experience that stuck with Dana the rest of her life. It changed the way she saw cheerleading, and the world around her.
Back at home, the cheerleaders found themselves in the middle of a cultural battle, too. The women’s movement that had grown through the seventies started to take aim at the cheerleaders.
Dana Presley Killmer: The only time we really felt that feminist vibe of women saying you shouldn’t do that, or you’re setting us back a decade by doing that, was—well, at least from my experience—was when we went to Fresno State University.
It was 1982, and the cheerleaders were there to dance in a halftime show and raise money for the school’s athletic department.
Dana Presley Killmer: But that’s where we showed up and they had signs that said, “Hearts and minds, not bumps and grinds.” And they told us, there were signs that said, “Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders go home.”
The protest was led by a physical education professor from Fresno State named Rhita Flake. She started a petition and wrote a complaint to the university. Her letter called the cheerleaders “demeaning to women” since their, quote, “primary function . . . is apparently to provide sexually suggestive entertainment for male sports fans.”
Suzanne Mitchell fired back, in an interview with a reporter. She pointed out that one of the “suggestive” songs the cheerleaders would be performing was the Neil Diamond song “America.” And she said, “The first thing I’d like to ask [Rhita Flake] is what has she ever done for her country. We helicopter into the DMZ.”
By the time the cheerleaders got to Fresno State, the tension had been building all week. A crowd of protesters met their bus.
Dana Presley Killmer: And it was so nasty that evening that the faculty at the university had to form a human fence on either side of us so that we could get out of the bus and get onto the field without them throwing rocks at us.
Sarah Hepola: What do you think is going on there? Like why?
Dana Presley Killmer: Evidently there was a real strong movement in the female athletic department against anything that objectified women. And they felt like we were doing something to make that worse. There was no changing their mind that we weren’t being manipulated or objectified, and that we were doing what we wanted to do. But we really were doing what we wanted to do. No one forced me to be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader.
Certainly the cheerleaders were objectified by some fans. But they saw themselves as more than that—performers, goodwill ambassadors, glamorous celebrities—and plenty of other people did too. The word exploitation gets thrown around a lot with the cheerleaders. But who decides that they’re being exploited if they say that they’re not?
1982 was also a year when the NFL players went on strike, and eight weeks of the season were canceled. When the Dallas Morning News asked why the cheerleaders weren’t on strike, a five-year veteran named Teri Richardson said: “This is the way it should be. We’re in this for love.”
The eighties were an era of big oil and mink coats and conspicuous consumption in Dallas, and the cheerleaders were an emblem of that glamour. But that year wasn’t so glamorous for the cheerleaders.
Shannon Baker Werthmann, whose fan mail you heard in episode two, remembers how hard that season was, morale-wise.
Shannon Baker Werthmann: We weren’t on strike. We were busting our butts. I remember we were at an old studio. We weren’t in Texie’s studio anymore, we were in this Podunk studio and we had to still work every night because you didn’t know when they were going to go off strike.
Shannon had become the cheerleaders’ new choreographer. Texie had retired, and she’d chosen Shannon to replace her.
Sarah Hepola: Does that mean you don’t get paid for the games as a cheerleader?
Shannon Baker Werthmann: Oh, you don’t get paid.
Sarah Hepola: You don’t get paid for rehearsal?
Shannon Baker Werthmann: No.
Sarah Hepola: So the players going on strike basically meant the cheerleaders going on strike too?
Shannon Baker Werthmann: Right. Yeah, right.
For all the transgressive spirit they brought to the NFL, the cheerleaders were rooted in something very traditional. The idea of women being supporting players, not the breadwinners. As cheerleaders, their literal job was to encourage the men on the field.
But the eighties were a decade when women were pushing into the workplace and starting to demand equal respect and equal pay. You can see this in classic eighties movies like 9 to 5 and Working Girl.
Dana Presley Killmer made that move too. She went on to become a CEO at a multimillion-dollar company. But before that, she got a job in the Cowboys front office after four seasons cheering on the sidelines. She was an assistant director for the cheerleaders, and that meant that, like Suzanne, she also pitched in as an assistant to Tex Schramm, the Cowboys’ general manager.
Dana Presley Killmer: Mr. Schramm was such an amazing man, and he was a visionary and a genius, but he scared people. He was very tall, he was bald, he wore cowboy boots, and he had this big, booming voice. He’d say, “Dana!” I mean, he had this big, booming voice. Suzanne was his executive assistant, but he had someone else that would answer the phone, go greet people, bring him coffee, make him cocktails.
And Dana says the women in that job didn’t last long.
Dana Presley Killmer: And in between, I had to do that job. And that was hilarious because at ten o’clock in the morning, Mr. Schramm would yell, “Dana, bring me a Bloody Bull.” And I walked to Suzanne’s office and said, “What is that?” She said, “It’s a Bloody Mary with a beef bouillon cube in it.” I said, “That sounds horrible.” She said, “Well, learn to make it. That’s what Mr. Schramm drinks.” And he drank them all day.
I kept thinking about how the cheerleaders couldn’t even be seen in uniform around booze, while the boss drank all day long. I never got the sense it bothered Dana, but for me, hearing stories like this, I can’t help seeing another double standard.
But what I would call a double standard, Dana might just call “the rules”—and she considered that a small price to pay to be a cheerleader.
Here’s Debbie Hansen again:
Debbie Bond Hansen: What I can tell you is, every year we made more rules because they were necessary, because the times changed. And the situations that the girls were put into changed. I mean, we were always changing the rules to protect the girls, I think, and the image. And the times were changing.
So as the culture moved in one direction, loosening up the rules for women, the cheerleaders went the exact opposite way.
That’s after this.
I have a copy of the rule book from the nineties. It’s a hefty three-ring binder with hundreds of pages. And you can see how the rules continued to pile up over the years. It’s full of specific things like when to use which fork. And reminders to answer “yes, ma’am” when corrected, and not to talk about your boyfriend in front of fans. And there are warnings about how to dress off the field.
It says, quote, “It is dangerous even to be out in your car in a skimpy manner. If you had car trouble, you are asking for trouble.”
In the past ten years or so, high-profile sexual assault cases have really shifted the way a lot of people think about the rules women follow—in college, at work, wherever.
News anchor: A rallying cry for women and men fed up with blatant sexual abuse and harassment. Tarana Burke is the creator of a movement that shifted the world with just two small words: “Me Too.”
Erika Butner on NBC Nightly News: Victim-blaming and the excuse that some are giving that ‘boys will be boys’ has to stop.
Alissa Harrington on KGO-TV: One advocacy group took out a full-page ad in the school newspaper. It congratulates the class of 2016, and asks the community to stand up against rape culture.
This idea that was explicitly spelled out in the rulebook—if you dress skimpy, you are asking for trouble—had become fighting words.
I won’t pretend to agree with the rules—especially one like that—because I’m one of those women who flinches when someone tells me what to do. But when I talk about the cheerleader rule book with my friends from Texas, a lot of them tell me these were the unofficial rules of their childhood too: don’t go out without your hair and makeup done, don’t dress provocatively. Image management and safety kind of bleed together. Being a lady becomes a way to protect your reputation and yourself.
What’s different about the cheerleaders is that it was literally their job to dress provocatively at work. And then the rest of the rules were in place to manage that.
Jessica Luther: It’s so fascinating, the idea that they need protection but they’re not sex objects, they’re proper ladies.
This is Jessica Luther. She’s a journalist who’s broken stories about violence against women in college and pro sports. In 2015, in Texas Monthly, she and her cowriter, Dan Solomon, broke the story about sexual assault by several members of the Baylor University football team.
And I wanted to ask Jessica about the cheerleaders’ rules. Because as intense as they could be, I also found myself wondering if some of the rules—never walking to your car alone at night, or even the rule against fraternization—didn’t offer these women a certain protection.
Jessica Luther: It’s interesting because the whole idea of cheerleaders can’t fraternize with players, which is such a fascinating idea of why do they need protection? Who is making them unsafe and how do we think about what that means, that men are dangerous or are characterized as dangerous? It’s hard for me because on some level, I can see that. I can see that probably the intention was good, that the ideas to protect these women who are not— Like, who understands what it’s like to be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader who has never been one before? I’m not going to pretend like I have any idea what the scrutiny on you is like.
I could feel Jessica struggling with this question, which I appreciated, because I had struggled too. I’d heard those stories—like the ones in episode two—about cheerleaders getting creepy calls or opening their eyes in bed to find a strange man in their house.
Jessica Luther: I know that there are probably very scary men who like you too much. And so I can see the sort of, we’ve got to keep them . . . It’s so hard though, because as soon as I want to verbalize it, I’m like, oh, that makes me feel gross.
This is an ongoing debate in feminism. In life, really. What kind of rules do we need? For so long, the rules were a way to keep women from harm, but they also kept them in their place.
Jessica Luther: I do get the intention there and I do think, what can you do about the fact that there are bad people out there who will fixate? And you can’t control all of them, so there is an idea that if you control the women, they’ll be safer. But as soon as I say that out loud, I just want to reject it because I understand that women can’t do anything. . . . There’s very little that you can do to make yourself quote-unquote safer through your actions if someone has decided that they are going to hurt you in some way, and so then that just leaves me with these teams and what they get out of having that kind of control over these women. And then I just get real cynical.
So I wanted to ask Suzanne’s assistant Debbie Hansen what she thought about this argument, about a younger generation of women, who see the cheerleaders’ rules as an unfair burden.
Debbie Bond Hansen: I can’t even. You know what? I can’t even wrap my head around it. I just have no comment. I just don’t know what to say. It’s just changed. The generations are different, the world is different.
Debbie says the generations are different, and, to me, that’s a sign of progress. We grew up with different rules, and that shapes our ideas about the world and what’s possible. I think the truth is that rules are necessary, we’re just fighting over what kind and who follows them. But the drama that came next was a lesson in why the rules were there in the first place.
Because the rules were about to change.
Debbie Bond Hansen: I went to work on a Saturday and I walked in, nobody. . . . Mr. Schramm wasn’t there, Suzanne wasn’t there, it was a weekend. This is a weird thing, nobody was there. And I think at that time, the Dallas Cowboys had a hundred and twenty employees, but I was the only one who happened to go to work that day. And I walked in and there were suits. All these people I’ve never seen, they were wearing black suits and ties. So I called Suzanne at home. I said, “Suzanne, there’s all these people in suits. Who are these people?” And she didn’t know. I don’t know how they got in.
WFAA-TV Reporter: “It was the day after at Valley Ranch. New Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was on the phone, taking charge as he promised he would do. Among the items on his agenda . . .”
This moment, the way people talk about it, it really might be the most profound turning point in the history of the Cowboys.
Debbie Bond Hansen: I was shocked because I just thought nothing would ever change. That would be there till like today, I’d still be there working at the Dallas Cowboys and Suzanne, we’d all still be there. It was our life.
Debbie Bond Hansen: And Jerry Jones had a press conference in the players’ lounge there at Cowboys Center and told all the employees their jobs were secure, and nothing was going to change. Within a week, he fired almost everybody.
Legendary coach Tom Landry had been fired. Tex Schramm resigned soon after. Then one day, in the dance studio downstairs from their offices, Suzanne took Debbie aside and told her she was leaving too. Her loyalty had always been to Tex Schramm and the Cowboys. She told a reporter: “They were America’s Team. [Now] they’re Jerry Jones’s team.”
Debbie wasn’t sure what to do. It was all happening so fast.
Most of the media coverage focused on the changes to the football team. But the cheerleaders quickly realized that things would be different for them too.
Here’s the TV reporter Dale Hansen again.
Dale Hansen: There were so many stories in the early days, that like Jones was bringing his friends and sponsors and clients in to watch the cheerleaders practice.
Debbie Bond Hansen: And I’d be having a rehearsal, the dance studio, and Jerry Jones would come down with his friends and his cocktails and it was just so different, clicking the ice, watching the girls rehearse, and I was just like, “Gosh, this is not like the old days.”
Dale Hansen: And it wasn’t to learn the latest dance step. It wasn’t to learn what the halftime routine was going to look like. It was an incredibly sexist thing to do. And I think a lot of the cheerleaders were upset about it.
Debbie Bond Hansen: So then Mr. Jones called me in his office and just said that he wanted basically. . . . He wanted to relax the rules for the girls to be able to date the players, date the people in the office, appear where alcohol was served. And he wanted to change the uniform.
Those rules, that could be so stifling to women on the squad, but had also helped define it—now the cheerleaders were being asked to get rid of them.
Debbie Bond Hansen: I was not going to be pulled down and have to make these changes that made the girls so classy, and so admired and looked up to, and just have them destroy it and go down with the ship, I just wasn’t going to do it.
Debbie remembers a meeting in Jerry Jones’s office where she told him.
Debbie Bond Hansen: I said, “I can’t do this. People work too hard for this organization to be the way it is, why would you want to change it?” He was just very arrogant, chauvinistic, just very, almost laughing at me. He just basically told me how he wanted it to be and I just said no.
This meeting is one of many things I wanted to ask the Cowboys about, but they declined to answer any of my questions.
Debbie calls a meeting with the veteran cheerleaders to explain what’s happening. With Suzanne gone, with Jerry in charge, suddenly the future of the cheerleaders wasn’t so certain anymore.
The mood was tense. One of the cheerleaders in the room was Cindy Villarreal. She’d just finished her first year on the squad, and she couldn’t quite figure out what was going on.
Cindy Villarreal: I remember sitting there as they were saying that they were going to leave, and I thought, “Wow. We’re going to miss you guys,” and then they turned to us and said, “Who’s with us? Are you guys ready to step up and walk out with us?” And as we go around the room, we’re seeing all these upper-level veterans, “We’re walking. We’re with you. We’re with you. We’re with you.”
Cindy was shocked. Because she loved being a Cowboys cheerleader. She’d gotten to pose for the cheerleaders’ calendar, and even made the “show group,” which was their elite squad-within-the-squad who did the USO tours, all in her first season. Was she going to quit just because the new boss wanted to make some changes?
Cindy Villarreal: We were told that he wanted to change the uniform, and that there were things that we wouldn’t be able to control, such as we might have to pose with beer ads, and all these protections that they wouldn’t be able to give us in keeping the brand above reproach, I guess. But I never heard it from him. I didn’t know whether that’s true. You’re listening, and they’re telling you this, and again, it was all a shocker. I’ll never forget thinking, “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to quit.”
But she did. She agreed to quit the squad, along with thirteen other cheerleaders. Here’s Debbie again.
Debbie Bond Hansen: So I went home after the rehearsal, prepared a resignation letter. In the morning—this is a strange part—in the morning, I went to work, got out of my car, and I was met with an onslaught of television cameras. Somebody had leaked it to the media that I was resigning.
KXAS-TV Reporter: “For fourteen seasons, America’s Team has been cheered on by the all-American girls. Pretty, but decent. Always wearing the traditional uniform. The rules always said no fraternizing with the players, no appearances near alcohol. But with a new season under new management on the horizon, cheerleading director Debbie Bond, who has resigned, says change is in the wind.”
Debbie Bond: I have received pressure from within the front office to add to the cheerleaders uniform during the summer months biking pants and halter tops.
Reporter: Bond says she found that proposed uniform unacceptable. She says she found unacceptable, too, team owner Jerry Jones’s attitude towards alcohol.
Debbie Bond: He smiled and said, well, Debbie, alcohol is here to stay.
Jones said it was all a misunderstanding.
Jerry Jones: It has been suggested to me that there was talk about changing the uniform and possibly in a way to make the uniform a little more, whatever you want to call it. That’s just not the case. My intent is absolutely to have our cheerleaders have and hold their head as high and be as important for moms and dads and children in the future that there ever has been.
Jerry went on to call the cheerleaders “the pick of the litter”—which was unfortunate—but he did persuade them to rejoin the squad. In media interviews, cheerleaders agreed this was all a misunderstanding that got blown out of proportion. The cheerleaders’ new director after Debbie left, a former cheerleader named Leslie Haynes, told reporters that it was Jerry’s commitment to the no-fraternization rule that helped convince her.
Jerry brought in his daughter Charlotte to help smooth things over with the cheerleaders. She was a Stanford graduate, who’d been working in Washington politics at the time. She went on to become the president of the squad. The uniform stayed the same. The rule book was still in place, at least in theory. But in this new era, the atmosphere had changed.
Dale Hansen: And I think a lot of that was simply Jones trying to open up all of his Christmas presents at one time. I mean, he was so incredibly excited about owning the Dallas Cowboys. I mean, which was good for the team, I think in many ways, because he brought a passion back to the organization. And I think he just wanted to show off the team. He wanted to show off all the toys that he now owns. And part of that was the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
Cindy Villarreal: I did not know anything about Jerry Jones at all. I had never heard the name before.
Here’s Cindy again.
Cindy Villarreal: I didn’t know anything about him, so I was really open to the fact that, well, just because they say it could be this way doesn’t mean that it will be this way. I don’t like to judge people. So, I wanted to find out what it would be like. I really loved being a cheerleader, and so I was set on my second year.
Cindy had loved dancing on the sidelines, being in the spotlight. She loved the goodwill visits to kids in hospitals. She’d really embraced the spirit of the squad. But it didn’t last long.
Cindy Villarreal: It was in late November when I had an appearance request, and it was on Jerry Jones’s airplane.
Normally, cheerleaders might get an “appearance request” to visit a hospital or a new business. This was something else.
Cindy Villarreal: I saw the description, that I had to be in my uniform on this private jet with all of his businessmen and my thought was, “Why would I go on this? This isn’t a football game. These people are not sick. They don’t need a morale boost. I’m eye candy on this plane, and this is not what I signed up for.” And I remember thinking, “This is exactly what they told us in that locker room.”
Cindy was told she’d been “handpicked” by Jerry, a detail that made her even more uncomfortable, and she didn’t know what to do. She says she called Debbie for advice.
Cindy Villarreal: And I said to her, I said, “I loved being a cheerleader. I wanted to give it a chance. This is my dream, you know?” So, she said, “Well, if you feel that way, Cindy, you need to make some decisions.” I don’t know what would’ve happened on the plane, but I do feel like it was not appropriate. It just felt outside of what our normal ambassadorship was, and I think what he was doing was he was showboating, “Look at all the girls. I just bought this team. I own these girls.” And he didn’t own me.
And so, she quit.
Cindy Villarreal: So I went and I packed up my uniform and I packed up all of my show group outfits, and I walked across the street and I went to meet with Leslie.
She means Leslie Haynes, who had just taken over the squad after Debbie quit. I reached out to Leslie to ask about this but didn’t hear back.
Cindy Villarreal: And I said, “I’m turning in my resignation effective immediately,” and she said, “Can I ask you why?” And I said, “I don’t want to be on that appearance, and I told you I didn’t feel comfortable about it, and you said I had to do it.” And she said, “Cindy, you have . . .” She goes, “I have to have you on that appearance.” She goes, “Can’t you just stick around?”
Sarah Hepola: Did a part of you ever think about just doing it?
Cindy Villarreal: No. No. There was never a moment where I felt like I wanted to get on that plane, because my first thought was, “Why am I being asked to be on an airplane with Jerry’s businessmen?” I thought it was raunchy.
Sarah Hepola: So, what happens?
Cindy Villarreal: I remember walking across the street back to my apartment and I was really hurting, and I didn’t feel like it was something I could share with others. People did ask, “Why’d you leave the team, and why’d you do this?” and I was embarrassed. Girls on the team, surprisingly, never called me. It was like all of a sudden I was an outcast. I was just no longer a part of the team, so they didn’t call me or anything.
We want the world to be fair, but the rules often come down to who’s in charge. Cindy’s story was a sign that the culture of the Cowboys was changing, and not playing along could come with consequences.