Ottawa Sooners cheer squad disbanded after text exchange with football team owner

L to R: Kelly Nightingale, Grace Mayhew and Grace-Ann Gordon, November 17, 2022. The Ottawa Sooners cheer team disbanded in controversy in May.

A storybook season for the Ottawa Sooners football team was overshadowed for some in the cheerleading community after the club’s cheer team disbanded in controversy this summer following an “offensive” exchange with new owner and football head coach Kevin Ling.

The Canadian Junior Football League confirmed Ling is under investigation by the league’s disciplinary committee over a string of text messages exchanged between Ling and former cheer team coach Kelly Nightingale.

Nightingale resigned in protest and the cheer team disbanded on May 24 after a disagreement with the Sooners’ owner over who should make the roster, followed by a text message from Ling that read, in part:

“Cheerleading is about the look vs. the skill. The reality to me is that this is an activity that required the girls to dress in skimpy outfits and are there for the amusement of the primarily male spectators. The skill, if we want to be honest, is to look as attractive as one can.”

Nightingale first joined the Sooners squad as a cheerleader in 2012. Two years later she became the coach, a volunteer role. With her at the helm, the cheer squad would take in part events around the city like the ALS Walk; the Gutsy Walk for Chron’s and Colitis Canada; and, of course, local football games.

After Ling took ownership of the Sooners, Nightingale said in an interview, a dispute began during their first meeting when he expressed his opinion that cheerleaders “need to be attractive to fit” the team, according to Nightingale. The text exchange came months later when she was seeking approval to finalize the squad.

Nightingale was offended by Ling’s remarks. “Cheerleading is an Olympic sport now. We are a sport of our own and we’re athletes just the same,” she said. “It’s no longer about the look. It’s about the athleticism.”

She saved the text messages exchanged between them and shared screen captures with this newspaper.

Ling, in an interview, acknowledged sending the texts but said they require “much-needed context.”

Ling said he was not in favour of fielding a cheerleading team from the outset and that his concerns arose more out of “liability issues” as a new business owner.

His focus was instead on the gridiron, where it was a successful year for Ling. In October, he was named the Ontario Football Conference coach of the year at the close of the 2022 season. Ling was also a finalist for the CJFL’s top coaching award after leading the Sooners back from two COVID-suspended seasons and into the league semi-finals.

He capped that feat on Nov. 3 when he was named a recipient of the Brian Kilrea Award for Excellence in Coaching at a City Hall gala, where he was flanked by outgoing Mayor Jim Watson and Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, along with the class of 2022 Order of Ottawa inductees.

The ceremony was a tremendous honour for Ling, he said, and highlighted his achievements in the Sooners’ dramatic turnaround during his short time in charge.

For Nightingale, who until that point was hesitant in approaching the media following her resignation, that award “was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” She had equally grown frustrated by delays in the months-long disciplinary investigation after she first approached the CFJL with an official complaint in June.

OFC president Darren Cocchetto confirmed this week the league’s investigation remains active. “We have a very strict code of conduct around the league that applies to not only players and coaches, but administrators and anybody involved with any of our teams.”

Cocchetto described the dispute as a “he said, she said” scenario, but did acknowledge seeing screenshots of “some” of the text messages in the complaint sent by Nightingale.

“We did the best we could,” he said. “But with no other eyewitnesses to some of these comments, it was hard to find a definitive answer.”

Nightingale said she believes the text messages “speak for themselves” as she recounted the context in which they were sent.

“We had finished our tryouts and had athletes of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, genders… we were taking a wide variety based on skill,” Nightingale said. “(Ling) had mentioned cheerleaders need to be athletic, they need to be able to perform their routines.”

Nightingale sent a text message to Ling on May 22 after she and her fellow coaches had finalized the cheer team roster. She sent the list of prospective team members to Ling and his assistant while noting that not all the athletes had the stereotypical body image.

One of those girls, Nightingale said, was “by far the best dancer” at the audition and clearly had the skills to withstand the rigours of the season.

Nightingale cautioned Ling that excluding the girl from the team — based on her appearance and body shape — could lead to allegations of discrimination.

“The only reason she would be cut is because of her weight and we might get hit with discrimination issues as many cheer teams are finding these days, especially in pro football,” she wrote.

Ling texted back early the next morning saying this is not a situation where “everyone gets a trophy.”

“If I decided to put players on the roster just because they were nice people then I wouldn’t be doing my job which this is,” his text message read, in part. “We discussed this from the outset and I made myself clear on this issue so it will need to be addressed. We are cutting others as well so it’s simply a matter of they aren’t what we are looking for.”

Nightingale replied with her resignation. “I cannot cut an athlete that exhibits every aspect of what this sport truly is but is simply overweight,” she wrote.

Ottawa Sooners cheer squad disbanded after text exchange with football team owner

Ling, in an interview, suggested the texts were meant to reflect a more generalized perception of cheerleading — a view he said he does not share.

“A previous owner had brought this (cheer team) in, but it’s nothing that I would conceive of doing. I think it’s sexist. That’s just me. I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Ling said.

“I fully respect that it’s a sport, but it’s the way it’s expressed and presented sometimes,” Ling said, comparing the presentation and outfits with women’s beach volleyball.

Ling reiterated that he was never in favour of including a cheer team in his plans and said the Sooners would have been the only team in the 19-team CJFL to have cheerleaders at their games.

“Let’s say I agreed with this and said, ‘OK, let’s take everybody on board.’ The next complaint is going to be, ‘Why are you having a cheerleading squad when no other team is?’” he explained. “I was not going to win in any scenario here, so I decided let’s just not do it.”

Ling also said he harboured overall concerns about the “liability” of fielding a cheer team.

“I’m trying to rebuild the team and I’m trying to cut down on any of the unnecessary or risky things, or things that would bring negativity to the organization. And now, all of a sudden, I’ve got a cheerleading squad,” Ling said.

“If I’m concerned about the overall fitness of the applicant she wants to choose, then I think I have a right to think so because I’m the one who’s taking on the liability. They are coming to my games and then I would be, in turn, responsible for anything that happens to them.

“These were all things that were running through my mind, but I said to (Nightingale), ‘This is not about size. This is about overall fitness.’”

Ling denied excluding anybody from the team over their body shape.

Prior to purchasing the Sooners, Ling was involved in some unrelated controversy from his role as founder and managing director of Arlington Group, Inc., a security firm that was awarded a $35 million contract from the Nunavut government in 2020 to oversee two “isolation hubs” during the pandemic.

As reported by CBC News in 2021, Ling was accused of bullying and aggressive behaviour at the so-called isolation hubs — two hotels in Ottawa and Winnipeg that were established during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to enforce isolation restrictions on Nunavummiut before they could travel back to Nunavut.

Ling, in an interview, denied those claims and said he was the target of unfounded complaints by an employee who wanted Ling removed from the project.

Ling said he answered all questions raised about Arlington Group during a Senate committee and the contract continued through to completion. “I cooperated fully with the committee and they found there was no wrongdoing,” Ling said, adding the contract was completed in April.

Nightingale included a link to the CBC reports in her complaint to the league.

OFC president Darren Cocchetto confirmed in an email to Nightingale in August that the CJFL disciplinary committee would be “looking into the matter.”

In another email in October, after Nightingale had expressed her dismay at Ling being named OFC coach of the year, Cocchetto replied that the matter “is still before” the football league’s discipline committee. He cited several “complications” that had delayed the investigation, such as the CJFL looking to include more women to create a more equal representation on the committee.

Cocchetto confirmed in an interview he has spoken with both Nightingale and Ling about the dispute.

“It was very difficult to find a common thread,” Cocchetto said. “Some of the girls were going to be 16 and 17, and [Ling] had some concerns over the ages of the girls and the liability involved.”

The May 24 text messages are “part of the basis of why we investigated,” Cocchetto said. “That was the smoke, so we wanted to see if there was an actual fire. But I don’t think there was anything clearly stated that this was why the cheer team wasn’t formed.

“At the end of the day, there was a disagreement between the two, and she resigned from something that was never actually formed,” Cocchetto said. “If he in fact made these statements, we don’t condone them.”

As for the cheer squad, Nightingale told the Sooners organization she would pass on her post to one of her fellow coaches. After learning about why she resigned, none of them wanted the job.

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