No one can deny that cheerleading involves a huge amount of athleticism, skill, flexibility and endurance but can it rightfully be described as a sport? In this essay, my objective is to prove that cheerleading is a modern day sport. Consequently, I will be considering the aspects of this physical activity that meet the requirements of the officials determining what is considered a certified sport.
Of the Office of Civil Rights’ extensive definition for valid sports, the Women’s Sports Foundation dwindles this down to a number of key elements. Firstly, a sport must be ‘a physical activity which involves propelling a mass through space or overcoming the resistance of mass’. It must incorporate a sense of ‘contest’ with or against an opponent. It must be led by explicit rules to ‘define the time, space, and purpose of the contest and the conditions under which a winner is declared’. Finally, the list dictates that a sport acknowledges that its objective is ‘a comparison of the relative skills of the participants’.
Of the above, there isn’t one criterion that cheerleading doesn’t meet. So why is it that there is so much deliberation on this matter? After all, cheerleading is a physical activity that predominantly involves athletes thrusting their peers into the air (propelling mass), supporting them on different areas of their bodies (resisting mass), competing with other cheerleading teams (thus a ‘contest’) and doing all of this whilst abiding by strict rules relating to time limits and mat sizes. It is also important to note that the dictionary definition of a team, which is a term broadly attached to cheerleading, is ‘a group of players forming one side in a competitive game or sport’.
Though it is not necessarily like mainstream sports such as soccer, rugby and tennis (which all have a ‘playing’ element to them), cheerleaders execute their activity with as much energy, skill and passion as any player in the aforementioned sports. If anything, cheerleading is more than a sport as it an artistic performance which combines a range of additional elements – athleticism, dance, music and, dare I say, fashion. Some may say that fashion has no place in sport but I would argue that many famous soccer stars’ successes derive partially from their appearance on the field (ie how their hair is styled, the brand of footwear they are wearing, the tattoos they are displaying, and so on).
I cannot help but wonder if the age old issue of feminism has something to count for in this debate. Do people feel that, because cheerleading teams are predominantly female, they deserve no place in the world of sports? I can appreciate that women in sport are acknowledged in this modern era yet I do not feel that female sporting role models are given as much credit and limelight as some men who are equally successful in their field. My fear is that cheerleading has been sexualised over the years, a theme that appears to begin in high school, and is thus not given the respect it deserves in today’s sporting community.
The sexual objectification of cheerleaders means that these hard-working athletes are often seen as objects to be looked at prior to ‘the big game’. However, the fact is that cheerleaders train hard, are in great physical shape and share a passion for being the best. Though their outfits may reveal their legs and, at times, their backsides, the clothing they wear is a uniform as those worn in any other team sport and are designed to allow the flexibility with their limbs and to stop them from overheating during energetic performances. It isn’t easy to do the splits with long flowing material restricting your legs!
On a similar note, why should cheerleaders shy away from making themselves appeal to others (not necessarily in a sexual way) and to take pride in their physical appearance? Is it very common to see sportsmen exploiting their sexual appeal and featuring topless (or sometimes naked) in calendars and photo shoots. Yet, if a cheerleader was to do the same she may lose any respect earned from being a talented sportsperson. When it comes down to it, strength and motivation are attractive features in both men and women and are qualities that should be embraced by any member of a sports team.
Many people claim that cheerleading is not a sport. The reasons for this are varied, but essentially, cheerleaders have not traditionally competed (this of course is changing and changing rapidly at that), and many people don't consider doing routines a "sport" in the same way that football or basketball is a sport. So is cheerleading a sport? Or is it merely a past time?
Arguments that Cheerleading is Not a Sport
There are many arguments made regarding whether or not cheerleading is a sport. In addition, many people distinguish between a "yell" leader, versus a cheerleader who does stunting versus the competitive All Star cheerleader. Can you say that some cheerleading is a sport while other cheerleading is not? That all depends on who you ask and their definition of sports.
Sports Require Physical Ability or Skill
One definition of sports is that they require some type of physical ability or skill that has to be learned and practiced. While no one would argue that cheerleaders practice, it can be argued that cheerleading, when it is simply yelling into the crowds, does not require a great deal of skill. Anyone can learn routines and yell into the crowd as long as they smile a lot.
Sports Require Competition
With the advent of competitive cheerleading as an activity in its own right, cheerleading can arguably require competition. However, what if the cheerleaders are just clapping and yelling at games? Perhaps the school doesn't compete. Many schools do in fact have cheerleading squads who do not attend competitions.
Sports Require Strategy
Many would say that cheerleading is not a sport because it does not involve a defined strategy. Even if you are on a competing squad, the goal is to get the judges to think that you do your stunts and routine better than the other squads. However, this would also mean that competitive diving, gymnastics and other similar aesthetic activities are not sports either.
Problems with Recognizing Cheerleading as a Sport
However, recognizing drill teams, cheerleading and similar activities as a sport gets far more complicated than whether or not anyone thinks that cheerleaders are athletes. In fact, the debate is rarely about whether or not cheerleaders are athletes, but rather delves deeper into Title IX politics, and other issues.
Not recognizing cheerleading as a bona fide sport means that there is no national governing agency that determines what type of safety training coaches need to have. In addition, at the college level, it means that cheerleaders don't have on site athletic trainers. Couple that with the fact that orthopedic experts say that many cheerleading injuries could have been prevented with proper safety precautions, and one could easily make the argument that, for the sake of the cheerleaders themselves, cheerleading deserves sport status.
The Politics of Title IX
For almost three decades, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights actually told schools not to include cheerleading as sport. Why? The OCR has the task of making sure that schools are not gender biased in their offerings. The sports offerings for schools need to be evenly distributed between girls and boys so that the school is not classified as gender biased. To even out the books, schools were told not to recognize cheerleading as a sport. In the last decade or so, schools have gotten around this by offering a spirit club that primarily cheers at games and a squad that attends competitions.
Some schools are quite content to keep their status as an after school club. Why? Because becoming an official school sport makes them ineligible to participate in some national cheerleading competitions. While being considered an official sport would increase safety, it would decrease the opportunities that the squad has to show off their skills.
Deciding Whether Cheerleading Is a Sport
Whether or not cheerleading is a real sport is a question that may never be settled. Although there are good reasons to consider it a sport and it certainly meets some of the accepted criteria of being a sport, there are many who will never consider it more than an after school club. One thing is certain; cheerleading is increasing in popularity so much that it might launch itself into sport status without having to try very hard.