ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Football Team has discontinued its cheerleader program after more than 50 years, replacing it with a coed dance squad as part of its rebranding effort.
The team had announced last month that the cheerleader program was paused while it decided what direction the rebranding would take. Petra Pope, hired by the team as a senior adviser focused on creating game-day entertainment, said the goal is to create a "more modern franchise."
"With that comes inclusivity, diversity and in my mind, as an entertainer, athleticism," Pope told ESPN by phone. "My desire is to create a team that is all of that -- inclusive, diverse, coed, athletic -- to set the gold standard in the NFL. We're looking for that super athlete that can dance, perform tricks and stunts and manipulate whatever props that will create a really great show."
The cheerleaders' contracts expire March 31, but there are no events scheduled this month, and they are paid hourly.
The captain of the cheerleading squad, Candess Correll, questioned the team's rationale for making a change.
There is literally nothing different about this vibe that she explained that we haven't already been doing. We tumble at each touchdown. Flip each other during pregame. Already have dozens of costumes. Already are very (arguably the most) diverse race & gender-wise. https://t.co/yP0SSqkqNv— First Lady Candess (@1stLady_Candess) March 3, 2021
The former cheerleaders are eligible to try out for the dance squad. Pope said they'll likely hire 36 dancers or more.
"Change can be extremely difficult," Pope said. "I appreciate the passion that the ladies have and can relate to that passion because I've been a mentor for thousands of dancers over my career. As we progress to a reimagined era, the choreography will be much more athletic. We welcome the dancers of the past to audition, and if they have that skill set, they're welcome to join us."
In a statement, team president Jason Wright said the team wanted to create halftime programs similar to those in the NBA. Pope spent 33 years in the NBA, starting with the Los Angeles Lakers as the manager of the Laker Girls. She also started the Knicks City Dancers. She has also worked for the New Jersey Nets and has served as a consultant since 2016.
"As we set out to modernize the Washington Football gameday, it's important that we develop a top-notch entertainment program that keeps our fanbase excited and connected to the game and the team," Wright said.
Washington started using cheerleaders in 1962 and they eventually became known as the First Ladies of Football. They represented the franchise at events locally and around the world, especially military bases. Pope said she's not yet sure whether the dance squad would travel.
With the team going through the process of changing its name -- it will be known as the Washington Football Team through the 2021 season -- it paused the program, as well as the marching band. The band had been around since the organization moved to Washington in 1937.
But the program also was embroiled in controversy. The Washington Post detailed allegations involving two swimsuit calendar photo shoots, in 2008 and '10. There were two videos made from outtakes during those years in which some body parts were exposed. Certain props were used to shield those body parts, but at times those props were insufficient.
Pope said there are no plans for the dance team to do any calendars.
The team reached a settlement with their former cheerleaders sometime before the end of 2020, according to multiple sources. One source said last month that the rebrand was not tied to the controversy surrounding the program. The source also said the band likely would return in some form, but nothing has been announced yet.
The NFL, led by attorney Beth Wilkinson, continues to investigate the organization following multiple reports of sexual harassment allegations. Attorneys for those who made the allegations have pressed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to make the findings public.