In April 2016, Kristan Ann Ware felt excited as she walked into an annual work review. As a Miami Dolphins cheerleader, Ware had to re-apply for her job every season, but as a performer entering her third year, she only looked forward to a new role and the chance, as a veteran, to give younger teammates guidance.
Ware soon realized her interview would not go as she expected. Shortly after it began, according to a complaint Ware filed Wednesday with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, one of her coaches tapped on a stack of papers and said, “Let’s talk about your virginity.”
By the time she left the office, Ware had been told by two coaches she could no longer discuss her personal vow to forego sex before marriage, and she had been photographed in a bikini while trying not to cry.
“It was like a bus hit me,” Ware said. “I was completely speechless. All that formed on my face were tears.”
Ware lasted one more season as a Dolphins cheerleader, a year she alleges brought her emotional and physical distress. Now, Ware is filing a complaint against the Dolphins and the NFL with a state labor board. In the complaint, Ware alleges she faced hostility and retaliation from Dolphins cheerleading coaches and was discriminated against on behalf of her gender and religion. She and her lawyer say the NFL could do more to protect cheerleaders, but instead has ignored them.
“The NFL and all NFL member clubs support fair employment practices,” NFL spokeman Brian McCarthy said. “Everyone who works in the NFL, including cheerleaders, has the right to work in a positive and respectful environment that is free from any and all forms of harassment and discrimination and fully complies with state and federal laws. Our office will work with our clubs in sharing best practices and employment-related processes that will support club cheerleading squads within an appropriate and supportive workplace.
The Dolphins have not responded to a request to comment.
The legal action adds to the growing public disillusionment with workplace conditions among NFL cheerleaders. This week, The New York Times quoted several former cheerleaders, both with attribution and anonymously, who said they faced harassment as NFL cheerleaders, including a former Redskins cheerleader who said the team sold an appearance where cheerleaders showed up at a residence to do nothing but hang out with men drinking beer and watching football.
Last month, former New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint claiming the Saints discriminated against her on the basis of gender when they fired her over an Instagram post and rumors she had been at the same party as a player. Sara Blackwell, the Florida lawyer representing Davis, is also representing Ware.
“If it wasn’t for Bailey speaking out, I would have never been able to find Sara,” Ware said. “If it wasn’t for God healing me and using my pain for his purpose, I would have never been courageous enough to tell my story. Right now is the perfect time to tell my story.”
It began during a bus trip in London in fall 2015, when the Dolphins were overseas to play the New York Jets. Several cheerleaders discussed which songs they listened to during sex - “girl talk,” is how Ware described it. When pressed for hers, Ware eventually explained she didn’t have one, because she intended to remain a virgin until marriage because of her religious beliefs.
Between the bus conversation and the April interview, coaches discovered this information. In the complaint, Ware alleges Dorie Grogan, the team director, questioned her about how the team had come to know. According to the complaint, as Ware explained that she shared the personal information only when asked, Grogan interrupted her and said, “As far as we are concerned, you have taken something that was once upon a time pure and beautiful and you’ve made it dirty.”
According to the complaint, Brooke Nix, the team choreographer, looked at Ware and said, “I think it is still beautiful, but you need to stop talking about it.”
According to the complaint, Grogan repeated that Ware could talk about her virginity in private, but never around the team, then added that Ware needed to become a woman.
As part of the interview, the complaint states, another coach told Ware to put on a bikini and heels - Ware later said the coaches wanted to see if she was “calendar ready.” Holding back tears, according to the complaint, she changed, came back into the room nearly naked and posed for photos.
“After being exposed, and having my virginity [cast] in a negative way, I felt so vulnerable,” Ware said in a phone interview. “It kind of crushed my spirit to change into a bikini after that comment was made. It took a piece of me.”
Before the meeting with coaches, Ware said, teammates had sometimes asked her why the hard-driving Grogan had treated her so nicely. Afterward, according to the complaint, her behavior toward Ware grew aggressive. During a photo shoot in which Ware wore a bikini and clutched fruit, Grogan told her to play with the fruit “like they were balls” and to “make love to the camera.” Ware believed Grogan was mocking her.
During a run through for a fashion show, the complaint alleges, Ware wore a bathing suit in a manner Grogan didn’t like. Grogan yanked on the straps of the suit until red marks appeared on Ware’s skin, according to the complaint.
In the fall of 2016, Ware alerted a Dolphins’ human resources representative, the complaint states. While the representative was understanding, Ware said the abusive treatment from coaches continued.
“There is a sense of manipulation, where any time you raised a concern, it was like, ‘All we need is a pretty girl to wear the uniform. You’re completely replaceable, so if you have a problem with it, leave. 100 other girls want your spot,’ “ Ware said. “I want to make a positive difference where these girls can have their dreams come true with compromising who they are. The silence needs to end. The intimidation needs to end.”
The complaint alleges Ware was discriminated on the basis of gender, arguing both cheerleaders and football players represent the Dolphins, but players were not reprimanded or censored when using religious language, and therefore male and female employees were held to different standards.
When Ware wrote a blog post for the Dolphins website, all mentions of her faith were removed except a general reference to God, according to the complaint. The Dolphins cheerleading team’s main Instagram account did not tag or promote her Instagram posts when she mentioned religion, according to the complaint. The complaint cites players expressing religious views on social media that were not stifled and that the Dolphins had a team chaplain as examples of how players were treated differently.
Blackwell said she included the league in the complaint because she believes it has the most power in how cheerleaders should be treated moving forward.
“What we all really want is for the NFL to pay attention,” Blackwell said. “We want them to have us over and say, ‘Where are we going wrong, and how can we fix it?’ As an employment lawyer, it wouldn’t cost them a penny to make this a successful and wonderful program, where people could be proud and not be harassed and not be discriminated against.”