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Is cheerleading a sport?

July 21, 2010
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A federal judge has ruled that cheerleading does not qualify as an official sport for colleges to sponsor to meet gender-equity regulations, following a suit against Quinnipiac University, which announced its plans to eliminate its women’s volleyball team and replace it with a competitive cheer squad. As you probably know, the implementation regulations of Title IX require educational establishments receiving federal funding to dedicate comparable funding to men’s and women’s* athletic programs, and to promote and encourage sports participation for men and women in an equal fashion so determining what counts as a sport has pretty substantial ramifications

More or less from the start, there have been multipronged challenges to the sports implications of the implementation of Title IX. People worried that men’s athletics would be eliminated or defunded because not enough women would play sports. People worried that football teams–which are hugely expensive, but also often make a lot of money for the school and other programs–would be dismantled, what with sometimes upwards of 40 or 50 players that would need to be evened out by two or three additional women’s sports (of course, women, for the most part, cannot play football). People worried that maybe girls just shouldn’t be athletes, that we really don’t want to, that we’re not worth the investment.

Of course, this is patently stupid. I was an athlete, for a while. I was actually on a state championship winning basketball team. I think I scored two points that game, which were probably free throws. I rocked at free throws, and also at knocking people down because, despite my sweet demeanor, I am actually a vicious brick wall on legs whenever the opportunity presents itself. I also played golf and softball, and powderpuff football (see the bit about the vicious brick wall again–we were champions two homecomings in a row, if I remember correctly). I’m not sure if my high school was strange in this way, but a lot of our cheerleaders cheered for one sports season, and played the other two. At least two of my basketball teammates were also cheerleaders. Tons of the cheerleaders ran track or played soccer. Tons were stellar students who also participated in arts and academic clubs. And we had a competitive cheer squad that was pretty successful.

Still, if you were to ask the average athlete–or the average student–whether they thought cheerleading were a legitimate sport, on the same level as basketball or football, I doubt that anyone would have answered yes with a straight face.

I’m of two minds about this.

I suppose I have some qualms with cheerleading itself. While I don’t dispute in the slightest that it requires considerable athleticism and hard work to succeed at, at the end of the day, the symbolism troubles me. The idea that there are women (who are typically quite close to the weight and appearance ideals of our society) who are supposed to cheer men on as they compete in sports, who are supposed to stand at the sidelines to “inspire” the crowd, is a concern. Yes, I know that no one forces women to be cheerleaders, and that some women’s sports teams have women cheerleaders as well. But since all women are expected to play a passive, supportive role, rather than an active, aggressive role, isn’t this another way of enforcing that stereotype? Again, this is not to suggest that cheerleading is not active, or not a skill, or not something that requires work and talent; rather, my concern is that it reinforces this belief that men do things, while women only work to support others’ things.

Furthermore, the fact that they give this support in–usually–full make-up (sometimes stage make-up) and outfits that would typically be considered more revealing than is appropriate for the setting, makes me worry that part of the symbolic meaning of the practice of having cheerleaders is a sort of primal, look-at-our-best-women-and-how-they-adore-us kind of masculinity. I don’t like the idea of intentionally putting women’s bodies out there to be objectified as a means of reinforcing a particular ideal of masculinity through sports.

On the other hand, I know plenty of cheerleaders–including a friend from Carleton who cheered professionally–who knew exactly what they were getting into when they agreed to put on the Spanx, and found the physical demands of training to cheer rewarding and exciting. I feel uncomfortable flat-out dismissing the joy they feel from moving their bodies in this way because it has problematic symbolic (and practical) implications. I also want to question for a moment whether cheerleading has historically been overlooked as a legitimate sport because it is so completely woman-dominated. Emphatically, it is athletic. It requires work. Have we considered it a secondary form of athletic work  because of our assumptions about women, because it embodies and reinforces a lot of gendered stereotypes? I think this is a particularly important consideration for competitive cheer squads, which do–as indicated–compete, training and preparing according to a set of rules and ideals, and participating for themselves, not in conjunction with or as a support to other programs.

I think the broad question this case inspires is, Does counting cheerleading as a sport contribute to the aim of gender equality in educational and extracurricular programs? Especially in cases like this, when a more traditionally understood sport is being replaced by a cheer squad, I’m not sure that it does, and I worry that it sends the message that providing women with the opportunity to do something traditionally athletic is unimportant, or not worth the investment. But I also worry that the inevitable extension of perpetuating a classificatory scheme that does not consider cheerleading a sport is to dismiss it as frivolous and to diminish the joy, accomplishment, and athleticism that cheerleaders themselves take away from participation.

What do you think?

*The law employs this binary understanding of gender. It would be interesting to hear more from transpeople who were involved in sports in this strictly binary-enforcing athletic culture, so if anyone has any links or would like to share their experiences, please do so!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2010 10:36 PM

    I think it is fair to say that cheerleading has not always been a sport but it has really evolved over the decades. Not to be successful, you have to be good at dance and gymnastics. It takes great skill to be good at this and I think the resistance in calling it a sport is because of its past and because it is associated women. Now that there are competitions for cheerleading I really don’t see how this differs from figure skating, gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming etc. Some would say that it is a competition because he requires judgment, but I really believe anything that requires such total commitment is absolutely a sport.

    • July 22, 2010 8:39 AM

      I completely agree, and I do think their reluctance to consider it a sport has a little sexism in there…

  2. Lisa permalink
    July 22, 2010 8:52 AM

    I think Renee and Luxe are exactly right. Shaking pom poms and yelling is not a sport. But modern competitive cheering with all the acrobatics, lifts, gymnastics and dance required of the participants is definitely a sport. Since competitive cheering has become somewhat removed from it’s original “supportive” role, it has become more of an athletic pursuit where teams compete to see who can do the cleanest routine with the most stunts.

    Like Jill, I do have concerns about the origins of cheerleading and what messages we may be promoting, but I don’t think we should eliminate competitive cheer. But ditching volleyball to make a cheer team seems unfair. Do they really have equal numbers of men and women athletes at that college? I suspect there are probably still more male athletes, in which case, why not have cheer AND volleyball?

  3. July 25, 2010 2:41 PM

    I came over from Feministe, and while I don’t have the answers, the thing that kills me from saying “yes, cheerleading is a sport” is the fact that it’s being used to claim that other, less feminine sports-though you can make arguments how less feminine volleyball is-don’t need to be offered.
    I did both cheerleading and soccer in high school. practices were intense. It was hard physical work. And I do a sport now-roller derby-that is pretty clearly feminine and uses lots of markers to keep that identification. I don’t believe that being women associated, or being in line with stereotypical femininity makes anything not athletic.
    I just hate the idea that the argument would have to be that cheerleading is a legitimate replacement for other, less feminine identified sports. For a lot of girls, it’s not just not. They will never have the same experience doing cheerleading as doing soccer, even if both are athletic.

    • July 25, 2010 2:46 PM

      I should have said that keeps-I was thinking kills me inside about saying, and while that’s not a bad metaphor, it may or may not be upsetting to others. if it is, please change.

  4. Politicalguineapig permalink
    July 25, 2010 11:05 PM

    Cheerleading AND football should be eliminated. They encourage bullying, and lower I. Q points.

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