Three men are breaking barriers in the National Football League's 2018-2019 season as the first male cheerleaders in the game's nearly century of existence.
But it should be made clear that the league has had males on the sidelines with cheerleaders before. The Baltimore Ravens, for instance, boast that it has "the only co-ed stunt team in the National Football League." But the men on the sidelines with the Ravens are, in effect, stuntmen: muscle-bound dudes who hold the female cheerleaders high above their heads and chuck them into the air only to deftly catch them as they tumble toward the ground.
These three new male cheerleaders are not that. When the new NFL regular season begins (it starts Sept. 6), the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints will feature three guys who will be integrated into more traditional cheer squads. These men will be stepping through all the dance choreography, breaking out those ultra-blinding cheerleader smiles and doing all the regular "rah-rah" that has been associated with women on football sidelines since someone first inflated a pigskin.
The NFL may never be the same. And that, very possibly, is the point of it all.
"This is the start of a new journey for a lot of people," Jesse Hernandez, one of the men, told the CBS television station in New Orleans, "... myself included."
No mention of the NFL breaking down long-standing walls can be complete without first mentioning the NFL's urgent need for a good public relations score. The most popular sport in America has been a PR mess for some time now.
A national firestorm over players protesting racial injustice during the national anthem, exacerbated by President Donald Trump's tweets, shows no signs of slowing down. Continued concerns about player health and the effect of concussions is also a very real problem, and one affecting the game from peewee ball to the big league. Changing media distribution models are affecting NFL ratings, at least giving the impression that interest in the league is waning.
Even cheerleaders have created some decidedly uncheerful news for the league. In June 2018, five of them sued the Houston Texans because of meager wages and a hostile work environment. The New York Times reported that cheerleaders for the Washington Redskins— that name is another NFL sore point — were required to go topless at a team function at an adults-only resort in Costa Rica. In March, a Saints cheerleader filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after the team fired her for fraternizing with players and posting a risqué photo to her private Instagram account.
With that backdrop, the NFL needs a little good news. Enter Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies, who have stepped up as welcome additions to the Rams cheerleaders. And in New Orleans, the Saintsations opened their arms to Hernandez.
The decision of those two teams to smash this particular barrier at this time is being seen as opportunistic by some, groundbreaking by others and about time to still more, depending on views. For their part, the two clubs seem intent on not making too big a deal of it.
Perhaps, some suggest, that's to avoid pointing out that the other squads that field cheerleading units — six of the 32 franchises, according to NFL.com, don't have official cheerleading squads at all — are all still all-female. (The Ravens, who have the co-ed stunt team, are all-women when it comes to the dance team.) Very possibly, true to the team dynamic, the teams simply could be trying to keep the newcomers from publicly outshining the rest of the squad.
"We are proud that one of our new members Jesse Hernandez, like all of the other candidates, went through a very rigorous and thorough audition process ...," Ashley Deaton, the senior director of the Saintsations, said in a tamp-it-down statement via email. "Jesse was evaluated by a panel of judges that deemed his talents warranted a position on the team."
These guys are, the teams want you to know, just part of the team. Even if they are the first of their kind.
The first two men to make a splash were Peron and Jinnies, both professional dancers from California who landed their jobs with the Rams — these are low-wage, part-time gigs with huge off-the-clock time commitments around the community — earlier this year.
Peron, from Rancho Cucamonga, California, was watching another iconic dance team from Southern Cal — the National Basketball Association's Laker Girls— when the thought struck him: "Why can't I be down there?" he told Good Morning America in March. He tried out a few days later.
Jinnies, from Santa Barbara, California, was there, too. He recounted the audition process in talking to GMA.
"They were unlike anything I've ever been to. I'm used to getting a call [shortly] after, or an email, or not getting a call or an email," Jinnies said. "This one was about three weeks long and we had a bunch of rehearsals in between and an extensive interview process ... It was really humbling and amazing ... But it was worth it."
Not long after, Hernandez, a 25-year-old from Maurice, Louisiana, got a message from his dance-instructor mom pointing out the news about the Rams' male cheerleaders. By April, Hernandez was trying out in New Orleans, competing against 50 women for 34 slots and trying to become the first man in the history of the Saintsations.
"I've been the only boy in a lot of scenarios with dance," he told WWL TV in New Orleans. "The girls are like my sisters."
Since the initial news of the three men making the teams broke, the new cheerleaders and their teams continue to play it cool with all the history-making talk. We reached out to all of them and were rebuffed in our request to talk to them. Most of their public comments were made much earlier this year or are limited to sporadic social media posts.
But Hernandez put it all in perspective when he talked to WWL TV before he made the squad. And no amount of underplaying his accomplishment will change that.
Things have changed in the NFL. At least in small ways. On the sidelines. And that's good.
"It's setting a new path. It's changing the world. And that's exactly what I want to do," Hernandez said. "And, hopefully, I can open that venue and that path for other male dancers."