Wednesday, July 28, 2010

OK, fine, I'll talk about cheerleading

But I'm not going to like it. [Because I seem to be talking about this a lot lately and am truly tired of the virulent reactions to this issue.]
So in case you missed it, a federal judge ruled last week that the competitive cheer team that Quinnipiac University attempted to elevate to varsity status after cutting its women's volleyball team was not a sport.
Let's just be clear, overreacters, that this ruling only applies to QU. But, yes, it has implications for current and future competitive cheer teams. And it should. Because people--and not just me and a few select others--should be thinking about these things: what counts as a sport, who gets labelled an athlete, how are labels applied and what are their effects, how does an activity's history factor into these things, how do our paradigms change, what does equity look like going forward.
I do hope the QU case engenders some discussion about these things, but what I have seen thus far in the media is not particularly introspective or thoughtful about these larger issues. I see a lot of things like "well they tumble and do a lot of hard things--things that judge can't do!" or "it has a higher injury rate than football." Well gosh, then let's put football players in skirts and halter tops on the sidelines then since it clearly is not as dangerous!
Not convincing.
Even Frank Deford's commentary this morning on Morning Edition was pretty weak. His position as a former (one-time) judge of a national cheering competition didn't give him much insight. His last line was particularly egregious: "But here is one hard and fast rule I would make: Any college that is put on any athletic probation — like the University of Southern California — for violating NCAA rules should not be allowed to have cheerleaders at any of its games. No cheerleaders for cheaters."

The fact that Deford thinks of cheerleaders as a reward is part of the problem here and reveals two issues.
The most obvious is that you can't be a sport if one of your integral duties is to support another sport. So those sideline cheerleaders with pompons and short skirts are not going to be the varsity cheerleaders. This makes me wonder if schools--whether through athletics, or student activities, or rec sports--will continue to fund both a competitive cheer team that only competes against other competitive squads in addition to sideline cheerleaders whose purpose is to...well lead the cheers.

And this segues nicely to my second issue: the name. The newly formed organization, the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, made up of administrators and coaches interested in establishing a model for competitive cheer that would meet Title IX requirements (and, I would guess, they hope to encourage the NCAA to add it to the list of emerging sports) have not used the word cheerleading in their title. University of Oregon also does not include the word either. Stunts and tumbling seems to be the generic--though not universal--replacement. And they should be altering the model. Because the manifestation of cheerleading that would allow it to be a sport under Title IX regulations does not involve any kind of leading of cheers.
So you want to make stunts and tumbling a sport by developing a competitive model and rules and regulations and subject it to the same rules and regs other intercollegiate sports abide by? Go ahead. I have little doubt this will happen in the relatively near future.
I still think it will be difficult to break the association with cheerleading though and cheerleading will undoubtedly continue. And as long as a version of your activity exists, as it does in college, high school and even youth sports, to support a sport--this version will not be considered a sport. So will there be stunts and tumbling and cheerleading? Will little girls* aspire to be stunts and tumblers or cheerleaders?
But here's the thing. I don't actually think cheerleaders want to give up the cheerleader label. They just want people to think differently about them, to recognize that this is not the same cheerleading of yore. But all physical activities change. Look at tennis. The game played today is not the same one played even 30 years ago.
I recognize the athleticism required for cheerleading. Athleticism does not equal sport.
But this could be a careful what you wish for situation, too. There are a lot of rules around intercollegiate sports. Rules about when you can have practices, rules around recruiting, number of competitions, academics, travel. In other words, there is oversight. Cheerleading, until now, has kind of been free to do as it pleases. This will change.
And maybe it should. Varsity sport status also gives you access to medical personnel, which is clearly needed.
The fight will not be over for these women though even if they do get the legitimacy they desire by being deemed a sport. Remember Title IX is quickly approaching the 40-year mark and women's sports and female athletes still do not receive equitable treatment.
What I told a competitive cheer coach recently was that I can support the elevation of the activity to sport status if they can get the proper structures in place and deal with the whole name thing, but that I am holding him and other proponents responsible for joining women's sports advocates in the fight for equity for all women's sports once they get there.

*Note that if stunts and tumbling becomes an intercollegiate sport it will almost certainly be a women's sport only because of the need for most schools to add women's opportunities in athletics. Non-varsity cheering, both sideline squads and those that compete (or do both), can continue to include men.

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