Fireworks go off at the Los Angeles
Memorial Coliseum, where the Rams are hosting the Houston Texans
for a preseason game on a blue-sky August afternoon. Some boisterous
fans, fresh from their tailgates, hang like gargoyles over the railing
above the players’ tunnel. When the Rams cheerleaders trot out in diagonal lines, ready to welcome the home-team starters, a ruddy-faced
man wearing canary yellow Rams horns looks confused. “Who’s the
dude!?” he screams, sounding outraged. His friends laugh and point.
On the field, a trim man in fitted white pants and Nike sneakers beams,
pumping his fists in the air alongside 31 women in short shorts and
high-heeled boots. Napoleon Jinnies, 27, was the first male dancer on
his junior high dance team, the first on his high school team, and is
now one of the first male cheerleaders to grace an NFL field. Nobody
is going to ruin this perfect American day for him.
Cheerleading started as an all-male activity in the late 1800s at universities (when women were often denied access to higher education),
and today men frequently serve as the sturdy anchors on stunt-heavy
high school and college squads. But on the professional level, cheerleaders have always been female dancers, a synchronized line of swinging
hair and curves. This season, for the first time in NFL history, men will
be gyrating along with the women on the field: Jinnies and Quinton
Peron with the Rams, and Jesse Hernandez with the New Orleans Saints.
It’s fair to ask why anyone would even want the job these days. The
NFL, as an organization, continues to fumble urgent conversations
around player protests and domestic violence, not to mention cranial
health. And a string of high-profile class-action lawsuits over the past
five years has laid bare how positively uncheerful a cheerleader’s life
can be. In 2014, two Raiderettes for the Oakland Raiders and former
Jills from the Buffalo Bills filed separately against their organizations,
citing things like wage theft, punitive anti-fraternization rules (a cheerleader mustn’t risk tempting a helpless NFL player), and a tidal wave
of humiliations, from “jiggle tests” to being auctioned off to the highest bidder’s lap at corporate sponsorship events. The Raiders paid up
$1.25 million, while the Bills case is ongoing. The Jills were disbanded.
But the Rams have always been a different sort of team: the first
postwar franchise to include an African American on the roster and
the first to draft an openly gay player. Rams cheerleaders earn the
same above-minimum-wage hourly pay as other part-time team
employees in the organization. (For most of the 40 cheerleaders, it’s a
second, third, or even fourth job.) Unlike some clubs, which pay their
cheerleaders set game and appearance fees, the men and women
are paid for every minute they’re on the Rams clock, whether they’re
getting their makeup done on game day, or perfecting
routines at mandatory twice-weekly evening rehearsals,
or attending community events as team ambassadors.
And they aren’t subjected to sexist anti-fraternization
rules or physical humiliations such as weigh-ins.
They do it because they love to dance. “Yeah, you get to
put on the uniform, but for us this is just another stage,”
says Peron, 26, who teaches dance and choreography
and used to appear in parades at Disneyland alongside
several of his fellow Rams cheerleaders. “As a performer,
you will do anything to get on another stage.”
Jinnies, a freelance makeup artist, beauty blogger,
and Disneyland dancer, says that he, like Peron, showed
up to tryouts in the spring on the urging of his dance
friends. “I felt like, this is the year. This moment in the
world, it feels more accepted. If you have the talent and
work hard, why not? . . . If someone laughs at you, I mean,
this is not Carrie: the Musical. My skin is so thick.”
Professional cheerleading auditions have always
been open to men, but this was the first year any male
dancers showed up to audition in earnest (as opposed to
the occasional stunts of men arriving in wigs and skirts).
During the first round, veteran Rams choreographer John
Peters, who in his 30-year career has also judged the L.A.
Laker Girls auditions and worked with the Denver Broncos cheerleaders, says he and his fellow judges realized
they were witnessing some potentially game-changing
talent when Peron and Jinnies first started dancing.
“They were doing everything we asked the girls to do in
the audition process and we were like, ‘Can we do this?
Let’s see how their scores play out.’ ”
Keely Fimbres, a former Rams cheerleader and the
current cheerleading director, relayed the news of the
men’s impressive showing to team owner Stan Kroenke.
“I said, ‘We have two gentlemen auditioning for us, and
they’re doing very well. How do you feel about that?’ ”
Kroenke, a 71-year-old conservative billionaire, told her
that if the men earned a spot on the team, he fully supported them.
Since Peron and Jinnies officially joined the team in
the spring, they say they’ve received nothing but encour-
agement from management and players. “It’s great that
we have male cheerleaders on the team,” says Rams All-
Pro punter Johnny Hekker. “They earned their spot, and I
think that reflects the Rams’ values and appreciation for
diversity and inclusion. We see it every day in our locker
room—people from all different backgrounds coming
together for one common goal.”
Each week, 32 cheerleaders perform on the field,
while eight circulate throughout the stadium, as Peron
will do today. Two hours before game time, the air in the
trailer next to the stadium is thick with aerosol. Several
women in matching floral satin robes sit curling their
hair. Peron laughs with a fellow cheerleader who peels
down the waistband of her white shorts so that an emis-
sary from the team’s spray-tan sponsor can contour her
abs. Jinnies applies a colleague’s makeup. “One team, one
family, one ‘Ramily,’ ” cocaptain Ally Martinez says. “I just
want the boys to know we have their backs.”