Monday, January 15, 2007

To cheer or not to cheer (for girls)

This is what happens when I wait too long to post about an issue I thought no one would blog on: I get scooped. (The fact that the NY Times picked up the story probably was a factor too.)
But I am going to post anyway just to create more writing in the blogosphere about the Whitney Point cheerleaders who seem to feel a little icky about cheering for the girls' basketball team.
But as I said, others have picked up on the issue already. Check out Ann Bartow's post at Feminist Law Profs and Diane's at The Dees Diversion.
You can read about the trials of the Whitney Point cheerleaders here for the full story--or rather the NY Times version of the story.
I attribute some of the cheerleaders' dismay, over half of whom quit the squad rather than cheer for the girls' basketball team, to the high school culture in which they live and cheer. If they [and I am speaking only of female cheerleaders, the only type of cheerleader in Whitney Point apparently] want to keep cheering in college they're going to have to accept that at some point they will likely be cheering for women. Because at the collegiate level there are several squads.
Of course it should be noted that there does appear to be a hierarchy--at least at schools with big-time programs. The best cheerleaders cheer for football, with men's basketball coming next, and then women's basketball (followed by women's volleyball if there is a program). Even the dance squads at University of Iowa, where most of my cheering observations have been made, are hierarchized thusly.
Women cheering for other women has actually been a topic of study in sport sociology. Check out Laurel Davis's article "A Postmodern Paradox?: Cheerleaders at Women's Sporting Events" in the anthology Women, Sport and Culture, edited by Susan Birrell and Cheryl Cole. [Or you can find it in Arena Review where it was originally published in 1989, volume 10, issue 2.]
But I want to go back to Professor Bartow's closing thoughts on cheerleading and how it fares as a feminist issue and whether this controversy may serve as a measure of Title IX's effectiveness and the commitment to the legislation shown by feminists.
As a feminist scholar of sport with a particular interest in Title IX, cheerleading is something I would rather not talk about in the context of Title IX. I agree that a lack of cheerleaders at women's events sends a bad message about the status of women's sports. In the interest of altering that message I see how cheerleading can be construed as publicity under the auspices of Title IX.
But in general I feel that cheerleading is not really what the early proponents of Title IX (or even a current proponent like myself) had in mind when they were thinking about equitable publicity for men's and women's sports.
Wouldn't we rather these women be playing sports?
This question leads to the inevitable: is cheerleading a sport?--a question I have tried to dodge in the past. Yes, cheerleading, certainly at the collegiate level and in some high schools, involves a high level of athleticism. Yes, many cheerleaders compete against other cheerleaders in various competitions.
But the name itself suggests it is not truly a sport. The traditional role of the cheerleader is to pump up the crowd which in turn pumps up the team (theoretically). If cheerleading wants to enter the realm of sport it needs an overhaul. Its primary goal would be competition and not sideline cheering for other sports. Our whole paradigm of what cheerleading is would have to change.
I don't know if American society is ready for that. The Whitney Point cheerleaders certainly are not.

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