Real Men Cheer Too
Why having the first male cheerleaders in the NFL wasn’t a big deal.
By: Ashley Adriano
12 March 2019
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.
It’s the day of a big game on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus. The crowd starts filling in just 30 minutes before the start. As people start to fill the seats, Coach Mike pulls his team to the side to give them a pep talk.
He tells them to find one person in the crowd who looks like they’re not having that great of a day and to essentially “turn that frown upside down.”
They must do this not by winning the game or making an amazing play, but by interacting with the crowd and leading them in cheer.
Coach Mike Baker has been the head coach of the University of Hawaii at Manoa cheerleading team for the past 10 years.
His career spans decades and includes working with the Universal Cheerleaders Association, being a member of the first Team USA cheer team to represent the country in Sweden, and coaching at the collegiate level for over 15 years.
He was at the helm of the team that brought UH national recognition when they won “Paula Abdul’s RAH! Cheerleading Bowl Championship” in 2009 which aired on MTV.
Baker has spent decades in the cheer world and has carved himself out a successful career out of it.
However, that wasn’t always the plan.
Growing up, he participated in the “average” sports from football, basketball, soccer, to baseball. In fact, he says he doesn't quite remember why he first joined a squad in the first place.
Besides having an older sister who was a cheerleader and captain at the University of Washington, Baker was a breakdancer and had experience doing gymnastics. But it was the peer pressure from a teammate that got him to join his high school’s squad.
After a brief foray back into football, he was finally hooked into cheerleading at his sister’s alma mater, the University of Washington. Once again, it was at the encouragement of others that he joined the cheer squad.
Stories like Baker’s aren’t rare. One squad member on Baker’s current team, Tanner Atiburcio from Mililani, also transitioned from baseball into the world of cheer.
Cheerleading has for a long time been associated with girls in revealing outfits, armed with pom-poms and doing the splits. But being a male in what society has deemed a female-sport isn’t what most think.
The NFL made headlines in January 2019 when it revealed that it would be the first time that male cheerleaders would be in the Super Bowl. This came on the heels of the NFL introducing male cheerleaders on teams’ cheerleading squads for the first time in history in 2018.
“Honestly I was like, okay, whatever, it's a big deal for the whole gender roles and stuff,” Dillon Ancheta, a former cheerleading assistant coach for ‘Iolani School said. “But at the same time, these guys are just dancers. They're more of a dance team than cheerleaders.”
In the excitement of having males in the NFL serving as more than just players, coaches, and staff, the long history and complexity of cheerleading was forgotten.
Cheerleading was actually started back in the late 1800s by a group of all-male Ivy-league students. As football became the most popular collegiate sport in the nation during the early 1900s, “yell teams” began leading crowds in cheer at the games.
The pivotal switch to females taking over the ranks came during the World War II. When the men left to fight, the women took over.
The NFL began to have all-female cheerleading squads in the ‘60s with names like The Falconettes, The Packerettes, and The Chiefettes.
But it was the debut of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders new uniforms in 1976 that helped contribute to the flashy sexy image of cheerleaders in today’s NFL. Their short-shorts and cropped vests revealing their stomachs were a far cry from the conservative long skirts and bobby socks of uniforms back then.
Soon, the attention that the Cowboys cheerleaders got inspired many more football teams to do the same with their squads. NFL cheerleading squads became more flashy and many were more for show than to perform actual stunts.
Cheerleading has many styles and involves much more than yelling at the crowd and at the opposing team. The athleticism involved in collegiate cheer and in competitions requires a high skill-level and months of practice.
This athleticism doesn’t come easy and can sometimes actually favor the men over the women. One cheerleader from the UH cheer squad says she actually envies the men, because of their strength and voice.
“We (females) think it’s more unfair that they get skills so easy cause they’re big guys,” Alyssa Lott, senior art major from Alabama said. “I think they’re treated the same, if not better sometimes, because we don’t want to scare them off.”
She also said that at games, it’s usually the men who will start the chants for the crowd. Their louder and powerful voices are easier for the crowd to hear compared to the generally softer voices of the women.
The level of respect may still falter in other places for the sport and the men who participate in it, but here in Hawaii the cheer team for UH says they gladly feel that is not the case.
“Hawaii is just the best,” Coach Baker said. “I did coach at other places and I cheered in other places, but when I came here the respect level was right off the bat. At Hawaii, we’re treated as athletes.”
Baker also said that he can remember times when he coached at the University of Washington and whenever there were special events on campus for donors, administration would ask him to just bring the girls. He said some of the older generation still rather see girls. So of course, he did the opposite and would show up with half guys and half girls.
“But then the guys would go talk and they could talk about football with them and then they (admin) would all be very happy, but there’s an assumption that if there’s cheerleaders we just want to see girls,” Baker said. “The combination was always much better because it’s just an exciting atmosphere to have everybody.”
Lott, who also saw how cheer was treated in Kentucky, says she noticed that the culture here was much more open even in the cheer team itself.
“When I came here, it was like a huge change, people were nicer,” Lott said. “Here, it’s not just about your skills, [Coach Baker] treats it like it’s about your personality, who you are.”
The significance of male cheerleaders in the Super Bowl may have been huge to some, but to those who have been in the cheer world much longer, it was nothing out of the ordinary, especially if you cheer in Hawaii.
As the games continue on in the Stan Sheriff Center and when the football season starts again in the fall, the cheer team will still be there at every game. The off-season simply doesn’t exist for them. Their smiles, bright spirits and incredible skills will continue to be a staple of the UH athletics experience with both women and men included.