There’s discussion-a-plenty this week in the women’s section of the internet, debating whether or not cheerleading should be deemed an actual “sport.” The argument isn’t just coming out of nowhere–the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals recently upheld a ruling against Quinnipiac University–the university wanted to swap competitive cheerleading and get rid of women’s volleyball. The court wouldn’t allow it because they deemed that cheerleading wasn’t a Title IX sport (though according to Jezebel, the court may consider it a Title IX sport in the future.)
Cheerleading, any way you look at it, competitive or not, demands incredible athletic rigor. You can’t discount it. And so what that you have to look cute and pretty? Olympic gymnasts wear glitter in their hair and no one doubts their sportsmanship. Jezebel agrees with the ruling. Slate’s Double X is undecided.
I still think it’s bullshit.
This might sound like a weird topic to call bullshit on–many of you would never guess I was once a cheerleader, or that I would be one to even defend the act of cheering. But because I had gymnastic abilities and worked my ass off to get on the team, I made the cheerleading team in my sophomore year of high school.
Yes, the social politics of cheerleading ranked low on my importance scale. I was a stoner at heart. A bit of an outsider. A rebel who insisted on failing typing (yes, that was a class in 1986) to prove a point. (Oh, and I proved it–in summer school!) So when try-outs came around, I worked it. My babysitter taught me how to jab my arms so that when I performed my pom-pom cheer to Yaz’s “Don’t Go”—how great was Upstairs at Eric’s?—my joints snapped with each keyboard note. My plastic pom-poms whizzed past my ears with a fire-like intensity.
Once on the team, I really ended up liking the rah-rah girls–a few even became close friends. How could you not respect their determination to hyper-extend their arms?!
The big test would be the pep rally which was basically, according to our coach, the biggest event on the planet. My high school was like a small town. There were 2,000 plus students—all of who were pulled from class early to attend the required pep rally.
Cheerleaders ran in the gym as a group and I stared up at the miles of kids banging and screaming away at the wooden bleachers with fear. They might as well have been a burning building. Then the entire football team, giant 18-year-old guys—I mean huge muscle-necked 18-year-old boys, a few of who went on to play college football and at least one who was drafted by the NFL—plowed through a giant sign that read “Go Mustangs!” Varsity cheerleaders screeched and roared with champion voices. A massive marching band blared shiny instruments, their baritones echoing through the gym. Students banged their feet on the wooden bleachers.
Me, I was mid-panic attack. Entirely out of my league. I managed to make it through the cheer without passing out, but with zero flare and mostly staring at the gym floor.
Once the pep rally ordeal was over, a boy that I had a major crush on forced his way through the crowd. I thought he’d take solace in the madness of the rally or at least tell me how freakin’ adorable I looked. Instead he said, “You couldn’t even smile once?” I was devastated. Wasn’t my aloofness, at the very least, cool? In 1986, pothead, rebellious cheerleaders like me were just burnouts with bad attitudes. Cheerleaders were expected to be happy. Not tortured. They weren’t expected to announce after a major pep rally: “I need a fucking cigarette.”
Once we got to the field for our first game, I wrangled a few girls into singing the Kinks cocaine-fueled anthem, “Destroyer” between cheers while my best friends smoked cigarettes in the bleachers and mocked my lack of enthusiasm.
And then during one of the worst cheers ever created on the planet, where the team singles you out to “introduce yourself!” I refused to participate, responding with a blunt “No” instead of what should have been a coy “No way!” My stoner girlfriends in the stands laughing. Coach—a really sweet, well-meaning lady who never dealt with a cheerleader like me, not so much.
Midway through football season, I stopped showing up to practice.
When coach asked why I missed practice, I said: “Because I know all the cheers.”
So here’s what happens when you skip practice because you’re too cool. The coach suspends you from the team. At first getting suspended from the team was like a wearing a medal. Did you hear I was suspended? How a-w-e-s-o-m-e (cheer!) is that?
But this didn’t mean I could skip the game. No. I had to show up. Dressed. After five minutes, the I’m-suspended-and-a-living-legend routine turned into I’m-suspended-what-is-wrong-with-me? downward spiral. Shit, it’s hard to be a rebel when no one cares. I sat on the stands watching the girls do the routine that I myself had practiced over and over. For about an hour, I analyzed my team’s enthusiasm. Did they fake their excited claps? Did they actually enjoy being peppy? Did they experience stage fright like I did?
My mother, though was not keen on my desire to quit when I finally decided I had enough. (And that the team had enough of me.) “You worked so hard to get on this team–there’s no way you’re quitting,” she said.
And of course she was right. I had worked hard. I had practiced for hours, jumped, flipped, perfected my split, cartwheeled into routines and flew into the air. It was nothing compared to what the competitive cheerleaders had been doing–all the girls talked about the physical requirements of competitive cheering–but we were a team. Yet with all of my resistance, it was my first experience in organized sports. It’s impossible to see it as anything else but that.
Here’s a fascinating clip from Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” show on cheerleading injuries, the only high school sport not designated a “sport” by Title IX. According to the show, there were 30,000 emergency room visits from cheerleading-related injuries last year. Those emergency room numbers are more than double all other 10 sports (hockey, football, basketball, soccer) combined. Here’s what Penn had to say in the opening:
“High school sports are certainly dangerous. Teenagers slamming against each other and at full speed against the ground. You wouldn’t even consider letting them do that without protection. For their elbows and arms.Or without hip pads and rib protectors. And they’d never get on the field without knee pads, or without a helmet or shoulder pads, no fucking way. Unless of course they’re a cheerleader.”
(Image: Viernest/Flickr/Creative Commons)