Lynita Stuart was just 20 years old when she joined the San Diego Chargettes — a decision that came with dire consequences.
Stuart is one of several former cheerleaders who came forward in the documentary “Sidelined,” which detailed how the entire squad was abruptly fired after members posed alongside other NFL cheerleaders in the December 1978 issue of Playboy.
Stuart, who appeared topless in the men’s lifestyle magazine, told Fox News she was initially hesitant to participate in the film. Still, she wanted the opportunity to reconnect with her former teammates 40 years later.
“It really surprised me,” admitted Stuart about being approached to tell her story. “As far as I was concerned, it was a piece of history that had already been put to rest. My curiosity got the best of me. … I have a different perspective and clearer eyes to look back and see what happened. For me, just the reunion itself was the moment in time that I finally got to let go of the pain, guilt and responsibility that I felt all those years. That was the most important aspect of the whole film process for me personally.”
Stuart, a former cheerleader with dreams of becoming an actress, said the initial prospect of being an NFL cheerleader was thrilling. She yearned to develop a sisterhood all while pursuing a high-profile career involving dance.
However, the Chargettes found themselves competing with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, which became the most iconic sideline show in the NFL, with their hot pants that left little to the imagination, crop tops and white vinyl go-go boots.
“To be quite honest, during my first year, our uniforms were nothing to speak of,” said Stuart. “But once the uniforms were elevated to the next level in my second year, we really felt like we had made it. It felt absolutely amazing. We were so proud. We didn’t think of it as a sexual thing. They were just very polished, chic, cutting edge and very much on the same playing level as the Dallas Cowboys. We felt like we were bringing a whole new look and a level of professionalism to our squad with those uniforms.”
The Chargettes replaced their old uniforms, which consisted of white leotards, pleated skirts and tennis shoes, with daring white briefs, blue halter tops, gold boots and top hats. The women instantly became a sensation, but they had little to show for it.
According to Vanity Fair, cheerleading squads were paid little to nothing for their work on game days. While the Honey Bears reportedly earned $10 per game, the Chargettes were “not paid a dime.” The girls reportedly held car washes and bake sales just to pay for their uniforms and travels for away games.
Stuart said she overlooked the lack of pay because she hoped the squad would eventually help launch her career.
And then Playboy came calling in the summer of 1978.
In the film, former Playboy editor Jeff Cohen explained that he spoke directly with NFL team directors asking for permission to feature some of the women in the magazine. Cohen alleged that he was “received with open arms.”
Stuart said she was initially nervous by the opportunity but eventually talked herself into participating in the racy shoot. ESPN reported Playboy offered a payout starting at $500 for posing topless and up to $1,500 for going nude.
“It wasn’t just for the money,” insisted Stuart. “Playboy was very prestigious back then. It was considered an art magazine. At that time, it was a classy men’s magazine. I thought it was an honor to be considered for that. And I knew I was not going to pose nude. I just would not do that because I knew one day I would have children and my mother would have to see this. So I justified being topless in this photo shoot because I know that there are nude beaches around the world and people are very comfortable going topless on the beach. I thought, if millions of other people can do it, I can do it.
“[But] I was uncomfortable. I was kind of in denial as to whether it was really real or not, as I often mentioned in the film. I thought it was a big scam until I finally got to the photo shoot and realized there was no turning back. This was real and I was involved."
Stuart was so petrified, she was offered a glass of wine.
“I think what really broke the ice and helped me relax more than anything was when they brought out the costume that they had tailored for me to wear,” recalled Stuart. “It was a white leotard with straps. But when I went to put it on, the top part wouldn’t go over my breasts. … So the thing didn’t even fit and it was comical. We all got a good laugh out of that. So I said, ‘I guess I’m going to have to use my arms to cover myself up.’ That’s ultimately how that shot even came to be.”
Stuart said she was stunned by the snap.
“When I saw the photo they had selected for the magazine, I wasn't ashamed of it,” she said. “I thought it was one of the most beautiful photographs of myself I’d ever seen. I loved it. … I may have been embarrassed and ashamed, but because of the photography and the beauty of it, I was very proud of it. I thought it was a wonderful shot.”
But despite NFL officials reportedly being aware of the Playboy pictorial, the Chargettes were disbanded. ESPN noted the Chargers fired the entire squad before the issue was even published. The firing reportedly came directly from assistant general manager Paul “Tank” Younger.
Stuart said that for decades, she felt guilty for participating in the controversial shoot that led to the sudden firing. In March 1979, she was invited to the wedding of another former Chargette, where she was ostracized by the other women just for appearing.
“I was received so horribly and treated so terribly that I left because I didn’t want to spoil my friend’s wedding,” admitted Stuart. “I was being shunned and they would have nothing to do with me.”
Looking back, Stuart said she no longer feels guilty for stripping down.
“I feel disappointed that the results of that event culminated in the squad being disbanded,” she explained. “But I no longer feel guilty for it. … When someone gives you permission to do something and then you get penalized for it, that’s something that they’re responsible for, not you.
“So no, I don’t feel guilty anymore. It was a major milestone in my life. I don’t regret it. I would probably do it again, but… I would be more exploratory in what the ramifications were. Maybe get some type of written document from the organization stating that this was OK. But back then, I had nobody to consult. I had nobody to ask because the organization gave us permission.”
The film noted the Playboy fallout exemplified contradictory rules that cheerleaders, no matter which squad they were on, needed to follow. The NFL cheerleaders may have been sex symbols, but they also needed to be the wholesome girl next door.
Stuart is hoping the sisterhood she once shared with the other girls will reemerge someday.
“I spent 40 years of my life with sadness, pain, regret and guilt for these women,” said Stuart. “These young, wonderful women losing this fabulous opportunity because of something I had been involved in.”
"Sidelined" will premiere on Monday, Jan. 14 at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.