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 encouragement 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 emissary fr om 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.”
The final pregame rehearsal
When dance-world friends of his were gearing up for the annual Rams cheerleading audition last March, Quinton Peron decided to give the two-week process a whirl. Warming up in the gym, he was shocked to see Napoleon Jinnies, an acquaintance from their SoCal community-college days. “I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, no matter what happens, we’re doing this for us and for the boys,” Peron says. “From the beginning, we were like, ‘We’re going to do this together.'”
Putting their game faces on
After the men joined the team, cheerleading director Keely Fimbres says other NFL cheer organizations immediately started calling. “The directors are all like, ‘We think this is fantastic. Tell me what is different’ ” about a mixed-gender group. Some alterations the Rams have made: No more numbers set to songs with titles like “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Rams choreographer John Peters says, and the guys (who toss the free lashes and press-on nails from the supply kits each cheerleader is given at the start of the season) change in a small separate room, wear a pared-down uniform, and don’t dance with pom-poms.
Taking it to the house
The new Rams cheerleaders made their debut on August 18, the preseason home opener against rival the Oakland Raiders. Rams season-ticket holder Suzanne Sharer says the energy in the Coliseum was toxic that day, with drunk Raiders fans targeting the male cheerleaders with verbal abuse. “It was shocking,” she says. “The worst profanity, the ugliest slurs. My husband wanted to say something, but I was like, ‘Please don’t start a fight.’ ” She and her friends left after the third quarter. But they returned the following week for the game against Houston, and Sharer even managed to score a pregame selfie with Peron.