Why you should care
This season, two male cheerleaders will join the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams rah-rah squad — an innovation that actually returns the sport to its roots.
When the Depression-era Eureka College Red Devils basketball team needed a jolt of enthusiasm, they looked to the Gipper. During his undergraduate days, Ronald Reagan didn’t urge the team on from the stands. He rooted in front of the crowd with a megaphone and university sweater as a cheerleader.
Reagan’s days of rah-rah-rahing in the ’30s didn’t make him an outlier. In cheerleading’s early days, men dominated the field. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and three generations of Bushes at Yale (George W. Bush ’68, father George H.W. Bush ’48 and grandfather Prescott Sheldon Bush ’16) all participated in the sideline sport.
As dancers Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies prepare to join the Los Angeles Rams spirit squad this season and break the gender barrier in National Football League cheerleading, Occidental College sociology professor Lisa Wade points out female cheerleading isn’t as American as apple pie. “No matter how timeless these things feel, and it feels so timeless for girls for be cheerleaders and boys to be football players, they’re not,” says the Los Angeles–based scholar.
The reputation of having been a valiant ‘cheer-leader’ is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college.
The Nation, 1911
In recent years, the ABC sitcom Modern Family has gotten a lot of mileage out of mocking dorky dad Phil Dunphy for his cheerleading past. But let’s be honest, today’s male and female collegiate cheerleaders are better athletes than 99 percent of the population. Also, Phil has history on his side.
Cheerleading developed alongside intercollegiate football in the late 1800s. By the 1880s, Princeton undergrads formed an all-male pep club that adapted a Union Civil War chant into “Ray, Ray, Ray! Tiger, Tiger, Tiger! Sis, Sis, Sis! Boom, Boom, Boom, Aaaaah! Princeton, Princeton, Princeton!” Not as direct as “We’ve got spirit, yes we do,” but it caught on (actor Jimmy Stewart even led the cry as head cheerleader at Princeton) and other squads began developing their own cheers.
Soon cheerleading became a university staple, even if some considered the practice without dignity. FDR has been quoted as saying he “felt like a fool” doing it and his college president, Harvard’s A. Lawrence Lowell, concurred, describing the activity as “the worst means of expressing emotion ever invented.” However, a 1911 article in The Nation backed the boys’ shouts from the sidelines saying, “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 being a quarterback.”
As American men fought overseas in the world wars, women began to replace men in those school sweaters. During World War II especially, with 1 in 8 American men in the military, there was a huge propaganda effort to get women out of the home and into male-dominated fields, although there was some resistance when it came to cheerleading. “There was commentary about it saying it would masculinize women,” Wade says. “That they would start cursing and become vulgar like men.”
But the rise of feminist icon Rosie the Riveter paralleled the explosion of cheerleading at American colleges and high schools. Then, right after the war, a former cheerleader from Southern Methodist University in Texas saw boundless potential to expand the pursuit, and make some dough on the side.
“What’s fascinating about cheerleading is that it was driven by a person, Lawrence Herkimer,” says Kate Torgovnick, author of Cheer!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders. “He did a lot of work bringing women in and came up with the things we think of as iconic — the pleated skirt, pompoms, these are his inventions.”
Herkimer also developed “the Herkie” — the classic leap with one arm extended upright in a “punch” and the other on the hip, one leg kicked straight out and the other bent back.
In 1948, Herkimer borrowed a few hundred dollars and started the first cheerleading camp, at Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville, Texas, with 50 kids. The next year, 350 signed up. For her book, Torgovnick interviewed the innovator not long before his death, in 2015. Herkimer told her he had stumbled onto a recession-proof business: “Even if someone isn’t doing well financially, they were still going to get their daughter her pompoms for her cheerleading squad because that position is a real place of honor.”
Cheerleading may never revert to male domination. But collegiate athletes have turned the pastime into a big-deal sport — 220 teams from 41 states and 10 countries competed in the 2018 College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship. And maybe these new male members of the Rams squad will begin to redefine the NFL’s stereotyped image of cheerleaders.