Jesse Hernandez, Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies made history last month when they became the the first male cheerleaders in the NFL (for the Saints and Rams, respectively). The Ravens and Colts have had men who perform stunts with female cheerleaders, but this marked the first time men performed the same routines as their female counterparts. While cheerleading remains a female-dominated sport in the NFL — as well as in middle school and high school — at the collegiate level, considered the “pros” for cheerleading, males make up more than half of all rosters. Not to mention, back in the day, there was nothing but male cheerleaders — including five U.S. presidents (FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr.).
So sis boom bah, here’s how this once highly masculine pursuit lost its macho mojo — so much so that it now seems novel to have men cheering on the sidelines of NFL games…
1) Not surprisingly, the aforementioned manly man roots of cheerleading are tied to American football. As documented in the The Daily Princetonian, the “Princeton Cheer” — “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Tiger! S-s-s-t! Boom! A-h-h-h!” — was often yelled from the stands by students attending the earliest college games. (The first intercollegiate game between Princeton University and Rutgers University was played in 1869.)
One of the Princeton “yell leaders,” Thomas Peebles, eventually brought the chant with him to the University of Minnesota and created individual cheers for each sport. In fact, the school newspaper blamed the Golden Gopher’s football losing streak on students not knowing how to cheer correctly. So on November 2, 1898, the day recognized as the “birth of cheerleading,” during a game against Northwestern, a medical student named Johnny Campbell decided to pick up a megaphone and a cowbell and lead the spectators in a coordinated recitation of Peebles’ chant — “Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!” — rallying the team to victory with what’s credited as the first organized cheer.
2) By the early 20th century, cheerleading was found on nearly every major college campus. As Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, notes, male cheerleaders were seen as incredibly athletic (on account of all the gymnastics) and incredibly motivating (on account of being able to fire up a crowd). As such, cheerleading was viewed as leadership training and considered the equivalent of football (in prestige and masculinity). Or as the editors of The Nation put it in 1911: “The reputation of having been a valiant ‘cheer-leader’ is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.”
3) For example: When the Depression-era Eureka College basketball team needed a jolt of enthusiasm, they looked to a letter-vest-clad Ronald Reagan to root fans on with a megaphone. The Gipper’s cheers hardly makes him a presidential outlier, though — Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and three generations of Bushes (George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Prescott Sheldon Bush) all participated in the sideline sport. And Dubya wasn’t just a cheerleader at Phillips Andover Academy, he was head cheerleader, which classmates saw as a precursor to his political aspirations.
4) “If you look at the Rutgers’ yearbook from back in the 1920s,” says Mike Stickle, current head coach of the Rutgers Spirit Program, “cheer leader was broken up into two words and considered to be just that: leader of cheers.” That yearbook cheer team picture was probably also all-male because women were excluded from cheer leading out of fear it might “masculinize” them and/or give them foul-mouths.
In 1939, for example, Gamma Sigma, the National College Cheerleaders fraternity, didn’t include female cheerleaders or recognize squads that did. “Every year there’s a campaign to take them in,” said the fraternity’s president at the time. “But every year, we keep them out.” Another opponent argued, “Women cheerleaders frequently become too masculine for their own good. We find the development of loud, raucous voices and the consequent development of slang and profanity by their necessary association with male squad members to be most unseemly.”
5) World War II, however, completely flipped this script. Namely, all college-aged men were deployed to fight in the conflict. And so, women finally had their opportunity to pick up the pom poms. The transition was so seamless that when the men came home from the war, they were no longer interested in cheerleading — because, you know, it had become too girlie. “Gender roles become extremely rigidified in the aftermath of the war,” John Ibson, a professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, describes in his forthcoming book, The Mourning After: Loss and Longing Among Mid-Century American Men. “The notion of a woman being a cheerleader very much suits the cultural atmosphere of the 1950s because it’s a subsidiary role. You wouldn’t want guys cheering on other males, after all, since that was women’s work. A manly man would be out there on the playing field, or at least aspiring to be.”
6) This “male flight” led to what Wade calls the “trivialization of cheerleading.” Translation: By the 1950s, the ideal cheerleader is no longer a strong athlete with leadership skills, but someone with “manners, cheerfulness and a good disposition.” In response, boys essentially bow out of cheerleading altogether, and by the 1960s, men with megaphones are replaced by perky co-eds doing the splits. “Once those spots started being filled by women,” says Stickle, “people no longer saw them as leaders. Now they were beauty queens. It became about performance rather than leadership — something that you looked at rather than something you participated with.”
7) “Cheerleading meant associating with women athletically,” Wade says, “which in the ‘bros before hos’ logic of homosocial male activity was a betrayal of your own sex. Look at the actual configuration: There’s a main event — the basketball or football game — and there’s the sideline. Cheerleaders are literally on the sidelines. Nobody’s there to watch the cheerleaders. They’re there for the football. It’s a support role, and men aren’t supposed to play support roles. They should at least be sitting on the bench, aspiring to play the lead role.”
8) That, however, began to change in the 1970s with the second wave of feminism. Women were urged to embrace masculine personality traits and do previously male-dominated things — from playing sports to serving in combat to being CEOs. The ideal American woman is no longer hyper-feminine, but someone who blends in masculine traits with her femininity. After the passage of Title IX, girls are suddenly eligible to participate in high school and collegiate athletics. Attempting to bolster cheerleading’s waning popularity, it starts to re-embrace masculine traits, too, like athleticism and leadership, once again attracting men to the sport.
9) But only some parts. Like in real life, women maintain a sense of femininity, displaying their bodies and keeping a big smile on their face. Whereas men play a specifically masculine role — i.e., the lifting and the yelling. In particular, men eschewed “sideline work” since they perceived it to be a feminine component, as opposed to “tossing,” “catching” and “stunting.” More than anything, though, they hated smiling. That’s because, as Laura Grindstaff, professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, and coauthor of the study “Cheerleading and the Gendered Politics of Sport,” says, “Smiling is ‘emotional labor’ and historically a marker of accommodation and subordination — e.g., the smiling servant, the smiling secretary, the smiling kindergarten teacher, etc. [Men] associate it with 1950s stereotypical ponytails, bobby socks and skirts, which remains a strong cultural marker of what the cheerleader is — a young girl on the sideline supporting her man.”
10) This leads to what Grindstaff describes as “compensatory hyper-masculinity,” or bending over backward to ensure people know you’re a “real man,” or more aptly, a “heterosexual.” As Sean, a male cheerleader in her study explains, defensively, “Football players roll around in the grass with other males, shower with each other and slap each other on the butt. But I’m hanging around with some of the hottest, in-shape young ladies that the school has to offer. I’m touching them and holding them in places you can only dream about. Now let me ask you, who’s gay?”
11) “People who think the sport isn’t masculine fail to realize how much athleticism, strength and coordination is required to be successful at it,” says Rutgers cheerleader Joshua Zeeman, who entertains football and basketball crowds with stunts, pyramids, baskets and tumbling. “We work insanely hard, just like other athletes.”
12) Whether it’s compensatory hyper-masculinity or just healthier masculinity, it seems to have done the trick, as men have begun to outnumber women on most Division I collegiate cheerleading teams. Take the University of Kentucky, which has won the national champions 23 times in the last 35 years. The current roster has 27 males and 23 females. “When you think about guys and cheerleading you may have a preconceived notion,” says head coach Jomo K. Thompson. “But our team is way different than that. You’re constantly lifting girls over your head so you have to be very strong in your upper body. It’s actually more like Cirque du Soleil.”
13) For Stickle, the benefit of dudes on his team comes down to one thing: showmanship (and simple math). “My job is all about entertaining the audience,” he says. “Make no mistake — all girl cheerleaders are super athletic. But the fact remains that we can build a pyramid with four men on the bottom and three women in the air. The same pyramid of women would require seven on the bottom. I also need three girls to catch one girl. Whereas one guy can throw a girl in the air and catch her with one hand and hold her. When the girls do it the audience may say, ‘Oh that’s great’ and clap. But when the guys do it they’ll go, ‘Oh my God! Did you just see that?!’
14) But maybe the best evidence that male cheerleading is back? It once again is a linchpin to success in the boardroom (and maybe the presidency?). “Cheerleading is a chance to interact with high level alumni and have conversations unavailable to most students and even athletes,” says Bill Seely, CEO of Varsity Sports, which operates cheerleading camps and competitions nationwide. “You may not put these skills on a resume. But you can bet the leadership you’re developing through cheerleading is going to matter to employers. GQ wrote a story in the 1990s that found there to be a disproportionate number of cheerleaders in upper level executive positions. Why? An ability to be optimistic, no matter what. Your team could be losing by 20-something points, and your job is to rally the troops and get them back involved in the game and hopefully turn it around. That’s very, very valuable in a business setting.”