Ten years after leaving the Washington Football team organization, things changed for Melanie Coburn.
For the Maryland native and former Washington “Redskinette” cheerleader from 1997-2001, who then moved to the front office, eventually being named the director of marketing for the team’s cheerleading program in 2008, her experiences in working for her favorite NFL team were unpleasant, but it was not until leaving Landover that it began to dawn on her just how bad things had been.
“A lot of people ask me this, why didn’t you come forward sooner or why didn’t you say something back then? And to be perfectly honest, when it was happening to me, I took it. It was what we were used to, it was the business and the culture that they cultivated there. When I left in 2011 and I started a business and had a family and I got out in the real world and I met business owners and people who treat their staff with respect, it was shocking to me. And the more time that went by I realized, ‘Wow, that was really bad what happened and what went on there.’”
Coburn is speaking out about the team and its leadership and is on a mission to hold them accountable for what she now sees as a toxic workplace culture that was beset by harassment, misogyny, and inappropriate behavior: “I could have gone on living and just been fine with it. I wasn’t rooting for the team, I lost a lot of passion. Dan Snyder and the entire experience I had there took that passion from me, unfortunately.”
When asked to pinpoint what changed and caused her to become a vocal detractor of the club she once rooted for and professionally reported to, “The main thing that set this off and put the fire in my belly to stand up for this cause is when those videos came out. Those lewd videos, when an anonymous source came forward to the [Washington] Post and those articles broke in the Post last summer.”
Around the time of the bombshell Washington Post reporting from earlier this year, some of her fellow cheerleaders began to talk amongst themselves about their shared experiences, “I remember something bad happened, but it wasn’t my project” but once they began talking, they realized that “a lot of bad things were happening there.”
On this edition of The Cult of Colt podcast, we sat down with Melanie and discussed her reflections on the WFT, and her advocacy speaking out to get the record straight. Last week she penned a piece in USA Today that generated waves and followed that up with a trip to Manhattan for the NFL owners' meeting, where she hand-delivered letters to request the league release its findings, and in hopes of garnering more attention for her cause.
Coburn graciously took the time to talk with us about her background working first as a cheerleader and then in the front office, and pulls no punches when talking about what she experienced.
“There was tons of sexual harassment, tons of degrading and demeaning behavior, tons of belittlement.
“We had over 150 people participate in the investigation, I know of at least a dozen more who didn’t because they didn’t think the NFL investigating the NFL was legit, and I know ten to fifteen people who have reached out over the last six months saying ‘Thank you for keeping going, I signed that NDA on the way out. Good for you, I’m glad you’re doing this.’”
As a member of the cheerleading squad, Coburn and her teammates took tremendous pride in representing the team in the community, though their experiences were not without difficulty:
“All the women were part-time employees with the team. You had to be a full-time student, a mother, or have a full-time job.” They wanted women “who were successful and could be role models. They signed contracts and NDAs, but we were the face of the team in the community.
“We were the ones who were in the trenches, in the community, shaking hands, holding babies, and we loved it, it was amazing, we were ambassadors for the team, we did military appreciation tours all over the world.”
Coburn did 10 trips abroad and traveled to 35 countries while representing the organization and the cheerleading squad.
“It was a big passion of mine. To this day I am so blessed to have that opportunity, all of my time with the team was incredible. I have had friendships that lasted the years, but the culture they had for the full-time employees and what they had to deal with there was not okay. I was harassed, there was no HR department there when I was there. I went to the person there who wore the HR hat in one instance when I was being harassed by a football player and they told me, ‘it’s him or you, and it’s not going to be him.’”
When reflecting on the now-notorious photoshoots, she reflects on what was intended for team-related programming called “beauties on the beach,” which were intended to encourage sales of the annual cheerleader calendar and to market the team in a positive light, “the team would use this content, it’s great content, there are these beautiful strong women.”
But as we now know, there was a darker side to the photoshoots that has motivated Coburn to speak out: “The videos were requested by ownership, Larry Michael made them and requested them made and they took all the extra footage from our calendar shoots, and what most people don’t realize and ask ‘well why were the girls topless? Why were they in body paint?’ and that’s what ownership asked us to do. They wanted to push the envelope, they asked for these racy shots, they wanted to make it as sexy as possible. We didn’t force girls to do these photo shoots, they volunteered… but they did, and they knew they would get a month [in the calendar] or they would get a feature in the calendar, so that’s how it went on for many years.”
Her understanding, as it was explained to those who participated in the photoshoots, was that they “were meant for still photographs from a professional photographer, we thought we were safe. These were Redskins employees, these were production members from our team, so we thought we had a closed set, meanwhile, we came to find out” that “there were angles that were very inappropriate” and the videos were “an order, made intentionally.”
“[The cheerleaders] knew that the camera was there, but not that it was still running,” but for her part, Coburn has been so disgusted by the disclosures that have since leaked, resulting in the ouster of Bruce Allen, Larry Michael, and others in the front office that she has not been able to bring herself to watch the videos they requested: “I did not see the videos. I did not want to see the videos.”
For Coburn, the videos were the final straw that made her realize that silence was no longer an option, “those women who were in those videos, they did settle. There was a settlement, a mediation and they got paid some amount of money, but it came with an NDA.”
“Many of the cheerleaders featured in the videos spoke out about it and then settled. Initially, several of them spoke out publicly about the videos and brought this whole issue to light,” but due to pressure from the team they “eventually negotiated [settlements],” forcing them to refrain from going public.
However, with the disclosure of the inappropriate emails between former team President Bruce Allen, and now former-Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, “Now we see there are emails with cheerleader photos, so we now know it’s way more than just those initial videos.” Adding, “We only know of two videos but unfortunately, I think there’s more…The Gruden emails were terrible too, but he’s the fall guy, he’s clearly collateral damage. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much out there that’s going to hurt so many people and bring them down.”
For Coburn, her time with the organization was one marked by intimidation and a top-down power structure that made each day a minefield to navigate.
“We weren’t allowed to look Dan Snyder in the face. We were told when he was in the office to sit in your cubicle and don’t leave.”
“It was a very intimidating and threatening environment and it’s unfortunate. Luckily a lot of the [cheerleaders] were shielded from that. They did have very weird experiences with auditions where [Snyder] would be in his suite and he would ask [the applicants] to turn around, and we’ve seen all that kind of weird stuff happen, where they’ve tried to bring suite owners on calendar shoots to closed sets.”
When asked about why she stayed as long as she did, Coburn felt it was her duty, “I stayed there four years longer than I wanted to because I felt like I was protecting them,” she said of the team’s cheerleaders.
“They look for young entry-level people, they find young beautiful women, they always had me on someone’s arm trying to sell something, and that’s the environment that it was…it was my second job, I started cheering when I was nineteen, I had a short stint out of college, but this was my first job. I didn’t know what to expect. That’s how most of the people in the organization are, they’re all very young.”
Coburn and her former squad-mates have also been looped in with owner Dan Snyder’s legal wrangling over the past year as well, “Snyder’s private investigators from Reed Smith visited over a dozen cheerleaders in April and May,” all over the country, “these women are breastfeeding and cooking dinner and working and they’re coming home to people come on their porches asking about Bruce Allen and how they’re connected to him, and I’m sorry we’re in the middle of an investigation and that seems like intimidation to me.”
“I was nervous, I was sick to my stomach [participating in the investigation.] We’re talking deep, scary, trauma-type stuff, and we all had to relive it.”
Now, Coburn is on a mission and has become a leader in a grassroots movement to find justice from the NFL and the Washington Football Team organization. She has found many others on her journey who have supported her in her efforts, particularly on her recent trip to the NFL owners’ meeting in New York in the pursuit of having the report assembled by Beth Wilkinson released for public consumption.
“It was so overwhelming; we had no idea we would be swarmed by media the way that we were.” Coburn and a former colleague made a point of going in person as they wanted to ensure that the letters requesting the owners to release the report were received, “we wanted to take a photo to show that we are real people, we are human, we are here, we’re not just a bunch of people [hiding behind] anonymity. We want it made public.” While the league has said that the report will not be made public due to privacy concerns, she was clear, “the reason people asked for anonymity is for retaliation from him,” in reference to Dan Snyder.
Adding, “There are so many more stories that are out there that need to be shared, but there’s so much fear. I just hope that Congress continues to push, I hope they let more people come forward”
When asked about the response and feedback she has encountered by her former colleagues and teammates, Coburn has been happy with the support that she has received.
“There has been no pushback, the only pushback I’ve had is when I try to get my stories corroborated. I have stories but the media, the journalists are doing their jobs right and they have to corroborate. There are people who are scared, and they don’t want to do that. It’s disappointing and frustrating, but for the most part I’m getting so many emails from people I worked with long ago and they’re with me. They feel the same way, they wish that they could speak up now, but they signed NDAs.
“This is all terrifying for me frankly, I don’t like speaking publicly, it’s not something I enjoy, but [the media] have been compassionate and supportive… they’re not trying to hurt me, they just want the truth the same as I do.”
Now having brought attention to her cause, Coburn is committed to soldiering on. “I feel blessed that we’re able to do this, I really hope that we can make a difference.”
In putting together a Change.org petition, hoping to get 50,000 signatures to make the Wilkinson report public, she sums up her goal with one word: “Transparency. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. If the truth comes out, change will come, it will have to. When you read about and hear the stories that I’ve heard and I know, it can’t stay, the leadership has to go.”
As for what she’s lost, along the way, “I was a fan. I want to go to the games on Sunday just as much as you do. I want to be able to wear burgundy and gold and have a team. I didn’t even play fantasy football this year or last year for the first time in 18 years. It sucks. It was a big part of my life, and now it’s not and I want it to be, but I can’t possibly support that franchise anymore.”
For Melanie Coburn, the fight for justice is only just beginning.