More than skirts and pompoms: a defense of cheerleading as a sport

I once wanted to be a cheerleader.  I know, I know – me, a cheerleader?  Big, lumbering, goofy me?  A cheerleader?  Seriously? But it’s true – I actually tried out for my high school’s sophomore squad and everything.

Initially, I thought I would like to be a cheerleader because my older sister, Jodi, was a cheerleader for four years, and, frankly, Jodi was the coolest girl I knew.  She read Sassy and she always looked perfect and she had Air Jordans she kept in mint condition because she loved Michael Jordan that much.  I used to go into her room just to look at her stuff, which would have been creepy were it not for the fact that she was, you know, my big sister.  I viewed everything she did as some kind of mystical path that led directly to the rarefied air of teenage coolness.  I certainly had no clue how to get there on my own.

But my fascination with cheerleading was more than just the result of overflow admiration for my sister, and believe it or not, it had nothing to do with the cultural tropes that position the Cheerleader as the most popular and most desirable teenage girl in the world.  (Okay, maybe that had a little bit to do with it.)   See, Jodi’s high school squads were competitive squads.  Sure, they cheered on the sidelines at football and basketball games, but they also had actual competitions of their own.  They had cheer camp at the University of Utah.  They went to Disneyland for nationals.  They even appeared on ESPN.

Their athleticism stunned me – the strength of the girls who served as bases, the fearlessness of the girls who were thrown into the air.  They could jump so high, like they had springs in their legs, and they tossed off standing back tucks with about as much thought as most of us give to getting out of bed in the morning.  When the football team scored, the squad ran to the end zone and did as many push-ups as the team had points.  I couldn’t even do one push-up, yet there they were, doing twenty or thirty of them.

The whole image of the cheerleader as vapid bimbos waving pompoms and giggling never quite gelled in my mind, because it always had to compete with the muscular dynamos who flipped and turned and twisted across gym floors.

Alas, I learned the hard way that sometimes biology truly is destiny.  There is a reason why everyone lost their mind over Svetlana Khorkina, who at 5’5″ was unthinkably tall for a gymnast, and that is because it is absurdly difficult to do any kind of gymnastics when you are tall.  I mean, the only tumbling I was capable of doing was tumbling down the stairs.  I couldn’t even do a passable cartwheel.  Fail number one.

It would be unfair to pretend as though my height was my only obstacle, and that if I had just been seven inches shorter, I would have made the squad.  There is also the fact that I was supremely uncoordinated, gifted with all of the natural grace of a hippo stoned on Quaaludes.  When I danced, I looked like Elaine Benes’ more embarrassing younger sister.  Fail number two.

Finally, cheerleading requires a sustained level of perkiness that I could not muster, no matter how hard I tried.  You know how in the opening scenes of “Bring It On,” the cheerleaders say “We act like we’re on speed”?  That was the legit standard for attitude.  I could fake it for a few minutes at a time, but I was also generally pretty surly (as surly as LDS girls get, that is, which I guess is still not all that surly).  Fail number three.

And so I resigned myself to Pep Club, which had pom-poms and cheers and short pleated skirts like cheerleaders.  But we were not on the sidelines, nor did we do stunts or tumble across the field.  No, we cheered from the bleachers.  We stood and waved our pom-poms in sync with the cheerleaders and tried to pretend we were interested in the game.  At some point, I realized the club was made up of all girls, and we were always cheering for boys teams.

I didn’t have to be the Second Coming of Gloria Steinem to recognize that something was off about this whole arrangement.

All of two months passed before I decided I hated Pep Club.  I was grateful when I made the girls’ basketball team and suddenly found myself with an excuse for ditching the games.  I dropped out for the second semester and dedicated myself full time to team sports.  I didn’t much care for cheering for the boys on the court; I preferred to be the boys on the court.

But even though I knew cheerleading was not for me, I never lost my intense admiration for cheerleaders.  It’s why I was so happy when I saw “Bring It On” for the first time.  At last, a kick-ass pop culture representation that showed cheerleaders as hard-working athletes and not as pornified trophies for the boys!

If only the rest of the world took cheerleading as seriously as “Bring It On” did.

The sport – yes, I called it a sport – has seen a well-documented increase in injuries over recent years.  Compounding all of this is the fact that under Title IX, competitive cheerleading is considered an extracurricular activity, and thus not subject to the same regulations and guidelines as activities considered “sport.”

Much of the attention paid to Title IX is about scholarship funds and numbers of athletes, but most people don’t talk about the fact that Title IX also covers things like access to medical facilities and care, limits on training and standards for coaches.  SportsMD.com has a great breakdown of the impact Title IX would have on competitive cheerleading if it were considered a sport.  It’s worth reading, because they cover both the pros and the cons of the proposal.  (I particularly find it remarkable that the CEO of the nation’s largest cheer organization is adamant that cheerleading is NOT a sport, perhaps because official recognition of cheerleading as a sport would eat into the profits of his company?  Just a thought.)

Cheerleading is an incredibly dangerous sport, much like football and hockey, but the risk is magnified, simply because of outdated notions of what it means to be an athlete.  Women and girls go without the protections given to other athletes because we as a society cannot let go of the idea of cheerleaders as eye candy and see them for what they truly are.

Maybe my perspective is skewed, as someone who spent a lot of time in her youth watching hardcore cheerleaders compete, and who also saw the hard work, the long practices, the pain and the struggles that went into perfecting the routines.  I don’t see much difference between the work I put into playing volleyball and the effort Jodi put into cheerleading – aside from the fact that she’s been on ESPN and I have not.  (And if that’s not the marker of an athlete, I don’t know what is.)

It’s easy to dismiss cheerleading as an outdated, sexist pursuit that shouldn’t exist at all, but I think that’s the wrong approach to take.  Instead, I think we should ask why this sport that so many women and girls love is not taken seriously, and what cost they end up paying as a result.

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21 responses to “More than skirts and pompoms: a defense of cheerleading as a sport

  1. You’ve convinced me.

    “Women and girls go without the protections given to other athletes because we as a society cannot let go of the idea of cheerleaders as eye candy and see them for what they truly are.”

    Well said.

    In my extremely-literal-young-LDS-girl days, I never would have considered any sport that required “immodest” clothing. You can imagine how fun I was to be around. But really, I was never athletic and dropped out after fifth grade, so I never got to prove my integrity by…. what, campaigning for knee-length cheer skirts and no high kicks? Insisting I wear a T-shirt and leggings with my basketball uniform? We’ll never know.

    • About your actual point – I sometimes wondered why the uniforms cheerleaders wore were never much of an issue, seeing as though we were in Utah and pretty much everyone I knew was LDS, but I guess exceptions were made for sports? I do know that the bare midriff trend never really caught on, as far as I knew.

  2. 1) In 6th grade, I almost tried out for cheerleading. I attended the two weeks of pre-tryout practice, then faked laryngitis before actual tryouts. I liked the athleticism, not so much the actual cheerleading.

    2) Twenty years later, I found my love in AcroYoga — Much of the teaching people to fly (because I am hardcore a base), little of the other cheer activities.

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  4. I love this post. I’m not a cheerleader, but I’m on my college’s dance team, and sometimes we perform with the cheerleaders and they work HARD.

    Have you seen the show “Hellcats”? Well, if you have, then you can stop reading now because the rest of this post will be things you already know.

    It’s about this law student who needs to get a scholarship to pay for school, so in a last ditch attempt she tries out for the cheerleading squad in order to be eligible for the cheerleading scholarship.

    Anyway, it’s a kickass show, and it definitely shows the grittier parts of cheerleading. Or, at least it argues that cheerleaders are athletes rather that silly girls. (There are some guy cheerleaders in the show too!)

    It was canceled after the first season, but it might stil be on the CW’s website. At least, that’s where I watched the eps last year.

  5. I see your point, but if it’s to become a “real” sport, some changes must be made.

    Real athletes are about strength and skill and toughness.

    Any focus on cuteness or sexiness or supporting “real athletes” – usually boys – is antithetical to that. The name needs to change. The pairing with other sports needs to change. Cuts made on looks or body type rather than skill need to change.

    People will never take it seriously as it exists now, no matter how complex and demanding the routines or how hardworking and skilled the cheerleaders.

    • I totally understand your criticisms, and for the most part I agree. However, I think that if we wait until social attitudes change before we are willing to give cheerleaders the kind of protections given to athletes, we’ll be putting those athletes at elevated risk for serious injuries.

      The sport is evolving – the fact that club cheerleading, which isn’t associated with a school or sports team, is becoming such a big thing is proof of that, but like I said, I hate the idea that a girl might end up with, say, fractured vertebrae because cheerleading was not deemed worthy of having professional standards for coaches or access to athletic trainers. See what I mean?

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  7. So my big question is, when you joined team sports were there cheerleaders on the sidelines cheering for you?
    I’ve actually wondered about this before. Schools in Canada don’t tend to have cheerleaders (only some competetive squads), so it’s a bit of a foreign concept to me. Do cheerleaders cheer for all teams in all sports, or only for certain ones?

    • No, because I was only on the sophomore and junior varsity basketball teams. At my first high school the cheerleaders would cheer at girls’ varsity ball games. They also cheered for boys’ varsity basketball and boys’ varsity football. I never saw them at track or baseball, and I don’t know if they cheered at soccer.

      I played varsity volleyball, though, and no one cheered at those. There was one time that we played a school where they DID have cheerleaders at volleyball matches, and it kind of freaked me out.

    • For the schools where I’ve been (as a student and a teacher), I’ve only seen cheerleaders at boys sports and usually only the “big interest” ones — football, basketball, occasionally soccer.

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  10. I must admit, it does to take some underrated strength to see the bases lift with precision and timing. Also, kind of humbling to see them drop down and crank out double the number of pushups I can do.

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