Cheerleading's Importance in Sports and American Culture
The lights are dim as they stand ready to begin and put it all on the line. Everything that they have been practicing for months all comes down to these two and a half minutes to impress people that they have never met. With heart pounding in chest, the music begins; basket toss pop up to scorpion, double back hand spring tuck, one male holds two females above head, one on each hand. This is cheerleading. Cheerleading has never been considered a major sport or even activity. Those who have participated in cheerleading feel that it is indeed a sport and a tough one at that. Many notice cheerleaders on the sides of football games, but blow them off because they assume it is easy and simple. What these spectators do not realize is the time these athletes put into their work and the dedication that they have for their sport. Just like any other sport, cheerleading can make differences in a person's life physically, emotionally, and mentally. There are hundreds of thousands of cheerleading teams all over the world and many of them are in the U.S. This is because the U.S. is where cheerleading all began. Cheerleading has expanded to be more than a side attraction at football or basketball games. It has become a full blown sport with camps, competitions, and fan bases. Though cheerleading has become an American icon, some people still do not respect the effort, dedication, and discipline that is required from every member on the team, but it is hard to see when bystanders do not have an open mind. Since cheerleading grew from its first few male participants, little girls want to dress as one for Halloween and boys and girls dream of being up in front of a crowd hearing the roars of cheers for him or her. It has much more influence on a person then some people may realize. Do not ignore what is in front of you just because you are not familiar with it. Embrace what you do not know and get to explore cheerleading in the U.S. and why it has become such an American icon; from movies to shirts to even a play about cheerleading. After you were to look at some of these dedicated females and males, it will be easy to see why this "activity" should be considered a sport.
Cheerleading began, not as a female dominated activity, but as an all male activity. The first documented cheerleading team originally began in the U.S. with all males at the 1869 football game between Princeton University and host school Rutgers University (Hanson, 1995, p10). The males of the Princeton side of the field started to yell chants to try and engage the crowd in supporting the team. They called themselves yell leaders. These yell leaders really began to take off when other schools noticed them and thought that their school could benefit from such cheering help from some sort of yelling leaders. One member of the Princeton "pep club," or "cheer" club, moved to Minnesota where he introduced the idea of yell leaders to help lead their crowd in yells and chants. The cheering even caught on in other sports. The rugby team of University of Minnesota created a team yell, "to also help inspire their rugby team," (The International Cheer Union). Before they knew it, the activity of cheerleading had spread nationwide with all schools trying to get yell leaders to organize the crowd in cheers. Cheering had become a much bigger activity than some may have originally thought it would be. It also became one of the biggest honors in college as well, "the reputation of having been a valiant 'cheer-leader' is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it is ranked hardly second to that of having been a quarter-back," (Hanson, 1995, p12). The part that I find that is the most remarkable about this quote is that it was a boy who said it was an honor, not a female. This feels as a shock to me in this day and age simply because many males do not consider cheerleading as a sport nor do they think that being a part of a cheerleading team is something to be proud of. It is also these same people that will not be open to the idea of cheerleading being a sport because it is not the manlier sports that they watch on television.
WOMEN IN CHEERLEADING
Women became the majority of participants in cheerleading in the years between 1923 and 1948. This was due to the absence of males as many were drafted during World War II. A lot of advances in cheerleading were made in this era. Many tried to find new ways to get the crowd involved in the game and cheering to pump up the team. The introduction of signs, integration of tumbling, and the addition of arm movements all happened in the 1920s as women began to make their presence known as the predominant figure of cheerleading. With this advance of women into sports, even a single sport, it was enough to change the minds of some male spectators. The general reaction of many of the males interviewed by Anderson follow the same framework: "'Yeah, you see them doing some of this stuff on the sidelines,' Jeff said, 'but you don't really get an idea of just how physically tough it is until you try it.' Tony agreed, 'I never really thought about how hard it must be to do what they do. Not until I tried it,'" (Anderson, 2008, p. 271). Men have always felt superior to women in the sports world, but since their dominance in cheerleading and the display of skills they posses, many have changed the minds of males who believed the weak female stereotype. Many of the males that do not make the football team in college join their college's cheerleading squad. Joining the cheerleading team was not what most of these football players thought they would be doing after high school, but many did. The men that Anderson interviewed, before they joined a cheerleading team, all thought that the women on cheerleading teams were weak. They did not realize the strength it takes to lift a person over their heads and hold them there or even toss them 20 feet in the air, but this is to be expected when this is what they have grown up to in sports their whole life. "Male athletes (in general) and team sport athletes (in particular) have been shown to objectify women-often viewing them as sexual objects to be conquered," (Anderson, 2008, p. 263). Though this does not technically mean anything to the strength of the female body, it does show that men are taught to believe that they are smarter, faster, stronger, and better all around than women. This, of course, is not true. There are many women out there that are just as tough, if not more tough then some of their male counterparts. Cheerleading began to spread as legal advances were made for equality.
THE SPREAD OF CHEERLEADING
As cheerleading grew in popularity with college students, it began to expand past the college football game into high schools. There were competitions added, more risky stunts were performed, and the safety of cheerleading went up as well. Before 1972, cheerleading was a predominantly male activity that took place on the sidelines of football fields. After 1972, they began to be mixed with females, but usually only one or two to a team which is the total opposite of what it is today. Towards the 1990s, many private cheerleading teams began to form that were much more mixed male and female than before. These private cheer teams were exclusively for competitions and operated individually without any connections to high schools. The private sector of cheerleading is the area where most males join a team. This could be due to the fear of cheering in front of their peers in high school or because they feel that the school level of competition is not enough of a challenge for their level of skills. This addition and domination by females would not have taken place if not for Title IX. Before the passing of Title IX, sports were primarily for males, "sport has been one of the most masculine of institutions, and despite recent gains by women, it is still largely organized by and for men," (Grindstaff &West, 2006). Before the passing of Title IX, women were pushed out of sports and were not welcomed, but after the passing of Title IX, sports started to become accessible to women. This was a great accomplishment for women in sports because this meant that women would get an (almost) equal chance to play sports in male equivalent sports or male sports. Despite the passing of Title IX and women gaining gender equality advances in sports, there were still issues with women not being respected or seen as equals to men. The problem is that women are seen as these dainty figures that are to not become muscular or beat out any man in any other sport or activity. The skinny, blond, Barbie doll cheerleader has become the icon of the generation, but this is not always the way that the girls look. This was generated from movies and stereotypes that others think of in their heads. These are not to be expected in reality.
CHEERLEADING IN POP CULTURE
Cheerleading's expansion in the world of sports made it the pop culture icon it is today. Some schools noticed this new interest and the talented students in this sport and even began giving out cheerleading scholarships. Because of cheerleading's new rank in society, some colleges hoped on the opportunity to offer courses in cheerleading to make their school and programs more appealing and to help their yell leader students, "as early as 1924, both Stanford and Purdue universities had established courses in cheerleading to assist students who wanted to try out as yell leaders," (Hanson, 1995, p. 30). These courses taught such skills as crowd psychology and development of stage presence. Because many have noticed that sports help teach skills that are important in life, a major part of the course and involvement in the sport were the teaching of life skills. Many cheerleading teams taught skills such as working together, communication, and dedication, many of the same skills that other sports taught their players. The teaching of skills has become a valued trait of youth sports. Along with life skills taught, sports make an incentive for students to get good grades for if they do not, they cannot participate on the team. Many cheerleaders maintain a B grade average while cheering. If they keep up their grades and stand out in their team, they have the possibility of receiving a scholarship. La'Tonya Rease Miles tried out for her junior high school's cheerleading team and made it. She did not have any rhythm and was physically stiff. The coach had admitted that he allowed her to join because she was an honor student and wanted to break the not intelligent cheerleading stereotype. As she went through high school, she became a better cheerleader with her motions and spirit. Her senior year she had received a $20,000+ scholarship to Georgetown University, but rejected it, "I thought that one could not possibly be a feminist and a cheerleader" (Rease Miles, 2005). It could be difficult to be a feminist and a cheerleader. Cheerleaders are essentially strutting around in their short skirts and shaking their pom-poms for an all male team. The only problem is that the cheerleading teams are much more than just an image. The image is important to represent a school but that does not make them only their uniform. They are strong women showing that they can make a change in their school and community. They show this through their performances and representation of their skills. Some of the pressure that Rease Miles felt can be tied to social pressures as it was the pressure of being a feminist that made her believe that she could not do both.
SOCIAL PRESSURES ON SELF IMAGE
With cheerleading expanding beyond the sideline cheers, more dancing was incorporated with stunts thrown into the middle. Dance and cheerleading are closely related. Both compete, dance, but then cheerleaders go the extra step and add in some stunts and flips. The pressure for these activities can be a lot. Many little girls dream of being that cheerleader at the top of the pyramid and follow that dream into junior high and high school, but they put so much pressure on themselves that if they were to not make it, it is a devastating fall back to reality, "I'll never try for another activity again-what good would it do?? I'll never make it-no matter what I do-I'm just a loser! That's what I am-I'm a loser," (Barnett, 2006, p. 528). People would argue that these tryout participants should not be upset simply because they are a side attraction to the main event, but the reality of it is that they are not just a side attraction. Cheerleaders do stand on the sidelines and cheer on their team, but they are more than those people that are crazy and stand out in cold weather in their short skirts. Cheerleaders and cheerleading teams go to competitions as well as help out the community. They are the role models of the school and the community. When other students are to not succeed in making the sports team such as football or basketball, people seem to have more sympathy for them because they consider their sport a "real" sport. It is also very hard to put yourself out there and know that you will be critiqued by judges or even by peers. This alone can scare a person into not trying out, "Extracurricular activities provide an important context in which social communication and interpersonal interactions afford adolescents opportunities to think about themselves from the viewpoints of others and actively experiment with different social roles," (Barnett, 2006, p. 3). High school is a place to learn who you want to be and become that person. It can be scary to try new things and put yourself out there when you feel the constant pressure of your peers. If peers are to disapprove of your social behavior or activities, it can feel like a great deal of pressure that is put on your decisions.
It can be hard to hide your pain when you do not make the team that you were dying to be a part of, but it is also the same on the other side of the results. A person can be ecstatic if they are to succeed as a cheerleader or dancer in making the team. Many of their moods improved as well as their confidence in themselves, "I really wanted to win-I wanted it more than anything I've ever wanted in my whole life! I tried my best and I tried to concentrate and focus like my mom told me to do. I know I can do this now," (Barnett, 2006, p. 528). Positive outcomes make positive people. It is like any other sport out there. People will train and train until the big try out day. They take everything that they have learned and put it out on the floor. At no other time does a person feel more vulnerable than when they are in front of four unfamiliar faces judging them on something they may have learned a few days ago. It can be a devastating or a very rewarding process, but whatever it turns out to be, the participants always learn to try and try again until they succeed. They also gain an important life skill. They will always be placed in situations that they may feel uncomfortable with. They just have to put on a smile and work through the emotions they may be feeling despite any negative comments.
CONSIDERING CHEERLEADING AS A SPORT
One of the leading reasons, I feel, that cheerleading is looked down upon is because of stereotypical cheerleaders in movies. They depict cheerleaders as being the stuck up and not very intelligent Barbie doll that only cares about her looks and reputation, but some people look past this. They see cheerleading as not a sport legally while others see it as not qualifying under their standards of a sport. Kelley King is quick to judge cheerleaders. By the comments made in the article, it is clear that King has never been a cheerleader or attempted to do any of the stunts or motions that these cheerleaders perform. King then, instead, protests that cheerleaders are "overrated" and "Are essentially a sideshow and, in some cases, a peep show," (King, 2002). This is a problem with most people that do not understand cheerleading. They do not understand how difficult it is and although it may become more about dance moves as the participants climb to higher levels, in the lower and more competitive environment, it is much more about the skills of tumbling and stunts that are important and the major part of the routine. Having a cheerleading competition is just like any other sport. They are like games or tournaments. The teams go up to show their performance, are judged for skills and difficulty, and then are ranked amongst the other competitors.
WHAT IS A SPORT
One of the problems of why people do not see cheerleading as a sport is that they do not know what the definition of a sport is. They go off of what football or baseball looks like and look for similar characteristics in every activity to determine if it is a sport or not. As defined by The Free Dictionary, "Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively," (Free Dictionary). Under this definition, competitive cheerleading is in fact a sport. Not all cheerleading teams compete so there are a few exceptions, but there are thousands of cheerleading teams that do compete. Whether it is at the junior high, high school, college, or private level, if these teams compete in some sort of competition, they are participating in a sport.
I interviewed a student at the University of Nevada, Reno to see if they knew if cheerleading was a sport or not. Their initial response was no that it is not a sport because the only cheerleaders she had seen before was at her high school, "they would just stand there and wave there pom-poms. It doesn't take much skill to stand and shake something," (personal communication, April 23, 2013). Most high schools do exactly that. Some do not compete against other schools. They perform during games and assemblies, but never branch out to be more than just a high school show. Some reasons cheerleading teams choose not to compete are time, money, and safety. Cheerleading has accounted for about 65% of female catastrophic sports injuries and about 71% of all female catastrophic sports injuries in colleges and high schools (Grindstaff &West, 2006). This could be enough persuasion to not put your cheerleaders in harm's way, especially if the team is not as skilled physically as others. It takes a lot of muscle and quick thinking to keep yourself from being hit in the head. The moment a person's arms give out, the flyer, cheerleader in the air, will come crashing down onto the bases, the people holding up the flyer. Also, if the flyer is falling, you have to react quickly to catch them and make sure that they do not fall to the ground and hurt themselves. It is the bases job to get underneath them and catch however they can even if that means hurting themselves in the process. Dedication to the sport is a big part of success on and off the field. There may be struggles, pain, and tears throughout the season, but anyone that has been a part of a cheerleading team can tell you that it is all worth it in the end.
Some see cheerleading as a sport because of the skills and lessons that can be taught through cheerleading. Others do not see it as a sport because it does not have an offense and a defense. After the definition of a sport is defined to a person who did not believe that cheerleading was a sport, they instantly realized that they were way off. It can be shocking what people will learn if they are keeping an open mind. Some reasons people see cheerleading as a sport is because of what the team members can learn from the experience as well as the skill they can learn such as honesty, responsibility, and self discipline, "Plain and simple - Cheerleading is hard work. Cheerleading comes with many responsibilities and if you're not ready to make a commitment to it you shouldn't even waste your time trying out," (Ninemire). It takes a lot of courage to put yourself in front of thousands of strangers and know that they are watching your every move and will see that mistake you make, but that comes with the title as with any sport. The quarterback in football is watched closely as well as the goalie in hockey. The moment they make a mistake, people are making rude comments and saying that they should be past making minor mistakes.
With complications from Title IX, it is hard to be seen as a sport when most schools will not allow it to be called one for the sake of the balance of female to male sports in their school. Cheerleading, whether you saw it as a sport before or not, it is indeed a sport as it is a competitive activity that has a standard set of rules, regulations, and competitions. It is hard to believe that cheerleading has been around for more than one hundred years and is still not considered by many to be a sport. They see it as a fun little activity that people do in their spare time, but cheerleading is a full blown sport with hundreds of competitions being held all year long. There is even a World's Competition where nations put their best cheerleaders on one team to compete against others the world round to be named the best team of the year. Cheerleading use to be just another extracurricular activity and now it has evolved into something much bigger and is possibly one of the most competitive sports out there. Any current or former cheerleader could tell you why cheerleading is a sport as well as how they would not trade their experience on that competition floor for anything. In cheerleading, you put it all out on the line and hope that in those brief two and a half minutes, you will capture victory.