Special thanks to Sean Gregory, @seanmgregory, at Time, for providing me with something to write my first blog post about!
Making cheerleading a sport is not something I am hugely passionate about, but defending it, especially from those who choose to stereotype and demean it simply for its past associations with popularity, is something I am passionate about. For proof, see my 2004 letter to the editor in the Christian Science Monitor about safety.
Mr. Gregory is advocating that the NCAA grant cheerleading status as a sport to meet Title IX requirements. While I agree with recognizing cheerleading as a sport, I don’t like the idea of doing it solely to meet Title IX requirements–Title IX was designed to increase opportunities for women to participate in sports, and, as women have been participating in cheerleading for quite some time, this plan would not exactly “increase opportunities.”
However, after reading the comments on the article, as well as an op-ed a week ago that I can no longer find, dismissing cheerleading as not worthy of “sport-dom,” I feel I must step in. First of all, I feel that much of the resistance comes from the fact that cheerleading is traditionally feminine. It is unfortunate that our society considers anything that is traditionally women-dominated as “soft,” but this is the case. Women, who have struggled for so many year to gain acceptance in other areas of society, are often loath to admit that something traditionally feminine could also be considered “tough,” or “athletic.”
Overall, most arguments against making cheerleading a sport are over the definition of a sport. Many of the comments suggested that cheerleading (along with gymnastics, diving, and figure skating) is not a sport because it is judged. However, the need for a scoring system independent of judging doesn’t seem to be required by Merriam-Webster.
The second argument (both for and against) centers around whether cheerleaders are “tough-enough” for it to be a sport, with supporters arguing that cheerleaders’ bruises, concussions, and broken bones makes it a sport; detractors arguing that cheerleading is not as athletic as football. This argument I find silly: curling is a sport, golf is a sport, and there is absolutely no argument about swimming being a sport, even though its injury rate is lower than many other common sports. Using injury rates as a factor to determine whether or not something is a sport is just asking for coaches and athletes to avoid safety precautions at all costs. So please stop.
A similar argument is that “this type of cheerleading is a sport because it’s so impressive, that type of cheerleading isn’t a sport because they are terrible.” Relative skill does not change whether or not you are participating in a sport. If I play baseball and strike out every single time, if I sit on the bench in basketball, or if even I am named Albert Haynesworth and play for the Redskins, I’m still participating in a sport. Likewise, competitive cheerleaders who–well, for lack of a better word–suck, are still participating in the same sport as those with team standing back tucks and high-flying basket tosses. The only thing that should matter is participating in competition.
Finally, and I am very thankful that this argument seemed to have the least support, another argument centers around cheerleaders being pretty/sexy and standing on the sidelines, with their only purpose being to provide sex appeal to the crowd. A lot of the blame here can go to NFL cheerleaders. Their role is very different that high school and college level cheerleaders who stunt and tumble and compete, but don’t do swimsuit calendars. And trust me, when your coach has to remind the team before every game that, yes, games are important–let me tell you something–they aren’t important. Most cheerleaders (the ones I knew, at least) don’t consider games the main event. Most sports fans do not go to games to see the cheerleaders.
Cheerleading can only be taken seriously if cheerleaders themselves work to improve their image. Cheerleading, as a whole, needs to re-organize itself in a way that shows it’s a serious sport. It needs to act like a sport in order to be recognized as one. And what do I mean by “act like a sport” you ask? Cheerleading needs:
1.) A National Governing Body: At the high school level, cheerleading is recognized as a sport by a couple of states, and many divisions and schools do recognize it as a sport. However, a single national body that governs it, instead of a cluster of for-profit companies and various associations, needs to be formed. All-Star cheerleading has made some progress in this respect. Such a body can set the competition rules, standards, safety guidelines, and coaching/judging certifications.
2.) More consistent competition rules: Often, each competition my team went to had a slightly different set of rules, and sometimes widely different judging criteria. (FYI: general judging categories include dance ability/technique, stunt technique, jumps, tumbling, voice project, and (unfortunately) spirit/smile/enthusiasm. If a national governing body was accepted, they could create a standardized scoring system similar to that for gymnastics or figure skating.
3.) Lose the mini-skirts: As a self-conscious high school student, the uniforms were my LEAST favorite part of cheerleading. I would have preferred to stay in my warm ups. And considering that cheerleading is full of kicks, jumps, stunts, and flips, wouldn’t shorts or pants just be better? I believe it was my last year of high school when mid-riff baring tops were banned for high school cheerleaders in some competitions–this was a great step forward. Bellybuttons have no place in a school sports and should be banned from college and all-star teams too. (sorry boys!) Schools and coaches need to enforce policies to keep out overly sexy uniforms. And cheerleaders need to take it upon themselves to avoid the sex-object image.
4.) Make the cheerleading season in the spring–outside of football and basketball season: This will help save the outsiders the confusion of thinking that our primary purpose is to support the basketball or football team. Most competitions, particularly national competitions, are in late winter and spring anyway. Schools could keep a “spirit club” around if they have a strong tradition of cheering at games.
5.) More stunts! My favorite suggestion, as it was my favorite part of cheerleading. Stunts (including pyramids and basket tosses) are what make cheerleading unique. Dance teams dance, gymnast tumble, the track team jumps, but no one else stunts.
I don’t think that it is possible to ever prove to everyone that cheerleading can be serious, but there are certainly ways to improve the public’s image of it. Does anyone else have any suggestions to get people to take cheerleading seriously? If so, please leave a comment.