Fire­works go off at the Los An­ge­les

Fast Company - - Fc -

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 All­pro 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 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.”

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