October 23rd, 2012

Billy Reed: Make Cheering a Sport


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Billy Reed: Make Cheering a Sport
photo from http://media.wths.net/bruno/chen/

I don’t think Diane Sawyer was a cheerleader during her days at Seneca High in the early 1960s. As I recall, Diane and her older sister Linda were more into beauty pageants. One of them, or maybe both, won the National Junior Miss contest. I’ll have to ask Jerry Abramson, Jon Fleischaker or Wes Unseld, who all went to Seneca at about the same time.

But last night Our Diane aired a report on the ABC World News that should be a must-see for cheerleaders, their parents, and sponsors. Stand up and yell if you think cheerleading has gotten physical to the point of being dangerous.

According to medical reports, an estimated 37,000 cheerleaders were treated last year for injuries. That’s four times as many as were treated in 1980. According to Diane’s report, only football was responsible for more traumatic injuries than cheerleading.

It wasn’t suggested that cheerleading be banned. But it was suggested that cheerleading should be made an official sport in high schools and colleges so that it can be better regulated.

One suggested change, for example, was limiting “pyramids” to two levels instead of three or more. Another was to require that tumbling be restricted to mats or grass instead of hard floors. A third was to have cheerleaders undergo physical exams.

The recommendations make sense to me. I remember back in the 1980s, when a UK cheerleader fell off the top of a pyramid, landed wrong, and was paralyzed. I’ve seen far too many cheerleaders wearing casts or leaning on crutches.

Back in the day, this wasn’t a problem because cheerleading was a rather benign endeavor. It was rare to find a male cheerleader. And when a girl made the cheerleading squad, it was more certification of her good looks than her athletic ability.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, most cheerleaders wore sweaters with their school’s letter on the front, below-the-knee skirts, and white “bobby sox” with saddle shoes. They would trot out on the floor at timeouts and do some mundane cheer like this one:

Two bits, four bits, Six bits, a dollar; All for (fill in a school), Stand up and holler!

So far as I know, nobody ever sprained an ankle or suffered a concussion doing “Two bits.” A somersault was about as strenuous as it got. Mostly the girls stood on the sidelines, waved their pom-pons, and smiled a pretty fixed smile in case a newspaper photographer happened to show up.

Heck, The Courier-Journal used to run a “Sweetheart of the Week” feature on the sports page. The subject was a high-school cheerleader from somewhere in the state. That was long before anybody had ever heard of “sexism” or Title IX. Back then, and I’m talking about the 1950s and ‘60s, only a few schools had varsity sports for women.

But somewhere in the 1970s or early ‘80s, all that began to change. Inexorably, cheerleading began to look more like gymnastics or acrobatics. Boys were required to do the heavy lifting. National cheerleading organizations were formed and contests were held. Naturally, the ones who won the competitions did the cheers with the highest degree of difficulty.

Anytime competition begins, parents get involved and overemphasis rears its ugly head. Too often cheerleading parents turned into beauty-pageant parents, which is not a good thing. These are the sort of adults who live vicariously through their children, the ones who pressure them to the point of breaking. For reference, read James McElroy’s “We’ve Got Spirit: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Cheerleading Team.”

It’s an inside look inside the cheerleading squad at Kentucky’s Greenup County High, which was regarded as one of the nation’s best. It shows what can happen to girls who are pushed too hard to be the best at too young an age. Suffice it to say that some of the parents do not come off looking very, well, parental.

I’ve long said that today’s cheerleading acrobats are more cheer-stoppers than cheer-leaders. Think about it. When they come on the floor during a timeout, the crowd stops cheering so it can watch the routine. The more difficult the routine, the more breathless the crowd.

Around about the 1980s, the University of Memphis – then Memphis State – shocked the college sports world by complementing its cheerleaders with a scantily-clad dance team known as the “Tigerbelles.” The crowds loved the Tigerbelles. Whipping around their long manes of hair, the Tigerbelles shook and shimmied to the beat of hard rock played loudly.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before every self-respecting athletics department in the nation had their version of “The Tigerbelles.” And doggone if some athletics departments didn’t begin giving scholarships to both cheerleaders and dance-team members.

If there has been an injury problem among the dance teams, I’m not aware of it; although I’m sure many fans of the male persuasion have suffered twisted necks trying to get the best view. With the dance teams, it’s all about precision and synchronization. And, of course, sex appeal. Back in the day, you had to go to a nightclub to see women wearing so little.

But cheerleading is a different matter, and, after going back and forth on this for many years, I’m ready to concede that cheerleading should be made an official varsity sport and that it should have its own schedule of competitions, just like any other sport.

This might necessitate eliminating the cheer-stoppers from football and basketball games and they probably wouldn’t like that. I doubt seriously if a cheerleading match between U of L and UK would draw crowds much bigger than the average volleyball or field-hockey match. And the cheerleaders love the big crowds. In fact, some seem to think the people come to see them instead of the football or basketball teams.

But if athletics directors could count cheerleading as a team sport, it would make it easier for them to meet Title IX requirements. Heck, when you stop and think about it, only football deals with more bodies than the combined cheerleading and dance teams. The cheerleaders and dance teams have developed their own culture that deserves far more media attention than it receives, given the large number of students who participate.

I wonder if there’s already recruiting in the cheerleading world. Is there somebody at the college level who scouts the high school squads in search of talent? And what about cheerleading ratings systems? Is it possible that we have nationally Top 10 recruiting squads in Louisville and aren’t even aware of it?

I’m all in favor of cheerleading. But it’s ridiculous when more cheerleaders than basketball players are injured in a given year. Making cheerleading an official sport might be the way to go. After all, “Two Bits” has gone the way of the manual typewriter, and gymnastics by any other name is still gymnastics.



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