From The Basement: A “Saintsational” Change to NFL Cheerleading

From The Basement: A Saintsational Change to NFL Cheerleading

Last spring, I wrote about the scandal enveloping the New Orleans Saints in regards to their abysmal treatment of their cheerleaders. Recently, the Saintsations were in the headlines again, but this time for an entirely different reason.

Last month, the Saints made history when Jesse Hernandez took the field, one of the first three male cheerleaders to perform in the NFL (the other two debuting this year are on the Los Angeles Rams). His first game, a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals on Aug. 17, went by seemingly without a hitch, though he was faced with a barrage of social media harassment. Many comments were homophobic in nature and one accused the Saints of participating in “sick libturd bullshit.” Hernandez responded with grace to local news.

“My merits and what got me here to this position should explain for themselves,” Hernandez said. “And people are going to have an opinion, and that’s their opinion, and I’m just going to dance it out.”

I am glad that Hernandez is living his dream, and I am also excited there is a wave of social media support pushing back against the heat he’s taking. I want to be thankful he is not being harassed at games, like other barrier-breaking athletes before him. But watching those comments pour in on his YouTube videos, calling him homophobic slurs and proclaiming that the “NFL is dead” is incredibly disheartening. Why do we hate progressive initiatives and change so much in sports? Is it just a reflection of society, or is sports a special refuge for this type of nastiness?

The majority of the NFL’s audience is white, male and middle-aged, and it has been for a long time. For those who don’t mold neatly into the boxes of what a fan, player or cheerleader should look like, fitting into the community doesn’t come easy. The culture of football in the U.S. is also strongly rooted in tradition, and unfortunately, many of those traditions include racism, misogyny and homophobia. Breaks from tradition seem to have a profound effect on these “typical” fans, and not in a positive way. This can be observed both in the context of Hernandez and the massive backlash toward the national anthem protests. Additionally, many comments seemed to tie Hernandez’s position on the squad to larger cultural shifts in the U.S., saying “First they hijack the rainbow … now they are taking the NFL as well …  darn shame what’s going on in America” and “Absolutely disgusting what has happened to USA” under a video of his first performance. It is clear those who reject social progress in the U.S. have found an outlet in the NFL and a target in Hernandez. I hope when he says he ignores them, he is telling the truth, because I cannot imagine how it feels to become a symbol of supposed national, or at least league-wide, degradation.

I want the organizations and communities I love to reflect my values, and those who reject Hernandez want the same thing. As a progressive sports fan, I often feel let down by the community, from comments to organizational policy. I love that the NFL, for all its problems, is broadening its horizons by allowing male cheerleaders. I wish that it did not force me to see the horrible underbelly of the community which has become more and more visible as of late and that it didn’t tell anyone who does not fit their mold of what sports should look like that they are unwelcome. But mostly, I wish I did not think that was too much to ask.

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