Brian Snyder / Reuters

As the #MeToo movement coalesced last fall, another national conversation was tapering off. Dozens of NFL players took a knee, prompting the country to debate how much control coaches and handlers should have over the conduct of their players. But another question has come to the fore, one that—like #MeToo—revolves around gender and power: How much control should the NFL have over its cheerleaders?

Earlier this year, Baily Davis, a former cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints, filed a complaint with the EEOC after she was fired for posting a picture of herself on Instagram. Davis, and others, claim that policies enforced on NFL cheerleading teams violate the NFL’s non-discrimination policy. Meanwhile, last month the LA Rams announced they would make history by hiring two male cheerleaders. So today we’re taking a look at how the sport of cheerleading has evolved, and what will happen when men enter the mix.   

—Caroline Kitchener

When Cheerleading Was an All-Boys Club

By Karen Yuan

In 1898, the University of Minnesota’s football team was having a hard time. The games were plagued by bad weather, and the team captain had suffered a mid-season injury. Then, during one game, a student named Johnny Campbell picked up a megaphone and directed the crowd to cheer, "Rah, rah, rah! Ski-u-mah, Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity, Minn-e-so-tah!" The team won its match, and Campbell got a brand-new position: cheerleader.

Cheerleading began at a time when most universities only admitted men. The cheerleaders were often athletes from other sports, such as basketball or wrestling, who were supporting their peers. “It was part of a larger fraternal space, a men’s club,” Laura Grindstaff, a professor of sociology at UC Davis, told me. Cheerleaders were leaders who could direct a crowd, traits then thought of as masculine. Some universities, like Stanford, started adding the activity to its curriculum with credited classes such as “Bleacher Psychology” and “Development of Stage Presence.” An article from 1911 in The Nation read:

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.

University of Maryland cheerleaders rally a crowd in October, 1937. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

When universities started becoming co-ed, women began joining cheerleading teams, but there was pushback. Cheerleading was still seen by some as “too masculine” for women. An issue of Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education quoted one 1938 author, J.J. Gach, criticizing their “development of loud, raucous voices.”

During World War II, as men were pulled away from college and into military service, women in college began to take over cheerleading, and the nature of the sport began to change. Spectators started emphasizing cheerleaders’ physical attractiveness more than their athleticism. When Radcliffe College cheerleaders cheered on the Boston Patriots at Fenway Park, the Associated Press celebrated their “plenty of brains as well as beauty.” The Patriots lost, and an AP photo caption commented, “The girls’ lineup looks a bit ragged too, but Radcliffe doesn’t teach cheerleading.”

Soon, high school cheerleading squads began specifically recruiting girls. The selection process for the cheerleading squad at Washington Park High School in Racine, Wisconsin, exclusively asked for girls to audition. In 1948, at the first student cheerleading camp, 52 girls and one boy attended. An overview of scholastic cheerleading in 1955 noted, “Boys can usually find their place in the athletic program, and cheerleading is likely to remain a solely feminine occupation.”

Springfield High School cheerleaders in Delaware County, Pennsylvania jump on a field in March, 1941. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

“The stereotypical image of cheerleading became of women on the sidelines, supporting their guys,” Grindstaff said. “They were eye candy, but not really the center of attention.” By the mid-20th century, the image of a cheerleader wasn’t of a boisterous campus leader, but of someone with “manners, dependability … as well as good personal appearance,” according to a list of desirable cheerleading traits published by Newark High School in Newark, Delaware, in 1955.

By the ’70s, when the feminist movement was in full swing, The New York Times highlighted cheerleading as an area where Women’s Liberation seemed to have little purchase. “The rah-rah world of cheerleading had no room on the squad for Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, and other Women’s Lib killjoys,” a Times story said. It quoted an All-American cheerleader: “Men and women have different shapes … I mean, a man can’t do a pompom routine and I can’t play quarterback for Notre Dame.”  

But cheerleading was changing, too. After Title IX passed in 1972, cheerleading began declining in popularity. Title IX required a focus on competition in order to qualify as a sport. “The choice was either go extinct, or adapt with the times,” Grindstaff said, so the activity became more sport-like. Gymnastic stunts emphasized more athleticism. Cheerleading squads started competing in national tournaments.

The added twist: More men began cheerleading again. By the end of the century, while professional cheerleaders remained mostly women, collegiate cheerleaders had become 50 percent women, 50 percent men. The gender of the prototypical cheerleader had shifted once, and was shifting again.

Could Cheerleading Become Less Sexist With Men in the Mix?   

By Caroline Kitchener

The LA Rams recently made NFL cheerleading history by adding two male cheerleaders, Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies, to their roster. While other NFL teams have included male stuntmen, the Rams are the first to hire men to dance and cheer as full members of the team. “They are intelligent, they are eloquent,” cheerleading captain Emily Leibert told Good Morning America. “They really just fit the bill to be a Los Angeles Rams cheerleader.”

Last fall, during a highly-politicized season, the NFL wrestled with the question of how much franchise owners should be able to restrict their players' behavior. The president himself weighed in. But while the nation was debating whether male players should be permitted to kneel in a game, the women  in NFL cheerleading squads were being subjected to much stricter standards of behavior. How will those change, if at all, when the standards apply to men?

“Being a professional cheerleader teaches you much more than just dancing on a field,” Keely Fimbres, the Rams’ cheerleading director, told me in an interview. “It teaches you how to carry yourself. It teaches you to be a professional.” Fimbres, and other cheer directors and coaches, make it their business to monitor how their cheerleaders conduct themselves on and off the field.

Chelsea LaBrie, a former Rams cheerleader, told me team leaders kept a close eye on her weight. “There were girls who would gain weight during the season, and Keely would tell them up front, ‘Hey, you’re pushing the boundaries here.’” There is no standard code of conduct for all NFL cheerleaders, but many teams mandate versions of the same basic rules. (While Fimbres told me that no such document exists for the Rams, LaBrie assured me that, as recently as 2015, one did.)

These regulations are often inherently gendered. A leaked 2012 handbook for the Oakland Raiders explains, “Tuesdays are known as ‘2 Piece Tuesdays.’”  All cheerleaders, it says, “must wear a 2 piece outfit consisting of a bra-type top and shorts,” revealing their belly button. They must always “sit in a ladylike manner,” the handbook says. In the Instagram photo that led to her firing, Davis was wearing a one-piece bodysuit, allegedly violating the Saints rule that prohibits cheerleaders from “appearing nude, seminude, or in lingerie.”

Despite restrictions from a variety of NFL cheer teams that seem tailored to women, LaBrie doesn’t anticipate that Jinnies and Peron will be expected to act any differently from the rest of the team. She said that’s because the Rams enforce a code of conduct that is already far more gender-neutral than those adopted by other NFL squads. “I hear these horror stories from women on other teams,” LaBrie said. “It can be hard to relate because we never had the same kinds of issues.” The conduct training she received at the beginning of every season—where she learned that the “proper” way to greet someone was “how do you do,” and that “nice to meet you” was absolutely off-limits—was led by a woman who specialized in corporate etiquette training, and worked mostly with men. Still, LaBrie said that “fraternizing” with football players was strictly forbidden. She assumes those same rules will apply to Peron and Jinnies.

If more teams decide to hire male cheerleaders, LaBrie said, maybe their restrictions will become less sexist. Esther Priyadharshini, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia who has studied the gender dynamics of co-ed cheerleading teams, isn’t so sure. In her studies of a few cheerleading programs, she found that men who joined formerly single-sex cheerleading teams adapted to the stereotype of what the “perfect cheerleader” was supposed to be.

While football players are typically portrayed as stoic, gruff, and unsmiling (to the point of parody), cheerleaders, most of whom are women, are generally expected to be perky and cheerful. The female cheerleaders Priyadharshini interviewed “spoke about how the boys learned to smile, use jazz hands, and wear sparkly makeup,” she told me. When the male cheerleaders socialized with men outside of the team, they were ridiculed for their “girly” behavior. “It’s very clear that there was quite a strict gender barrier. Even when you’re off duty, you’re expected to behave a certain way.” The men either adapted, or they quit.

Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, the cheerleading profession—with its gendered code of conduct and rock-bottom wages—can seem like a relic from another time. Looking to the future, Priyadharshini is hopeful the sport won’t always be as restrictive as it is today. “Look at the history,” she said. “If that change could happen—if cheerleading could go from being an elite, male sport to a completely female one—maybe change is possible.”

Today’s Wrap Up

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