Harvey H. Jackson: The sport of cheerleading
Oct 31, 2012 | 2746 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A while back, I got off on whether cheerleading should be a sport.

I am about to get off on it again.

It should be. In fact, it is in 29 states. But not in Alabama.

Well, if the people who say it shouldn’t be had been with me a couple of Sundays ago, I think they would change their narrow minds. That day, I went to my first high school cheerleading competition, and if what I witnessed wasn’t a sporting event then neither is golf, which may not be the best example to make my point, but there you have it.

What I saw were finely conditioned athletes doing synchronized routines that required gymnastic skills, strength, coordination and cooperation while shouting rhythmic cadences — talk about multi-tasking.

I was not a disinterested observer. My youngest daughter, the joy of my twilight years, is on the Jacksonville High School junior-varsity cheer squad, and the JHS JVs were at the competition. So I was there awash in a sea of estrogen, for as you know, high school cheerleading is, for all intents and purposes, an all-girl sport.

(We had a male cheerleader when I was in high school in the 1950s. A star basketball player with no football ambitions tried out and made the cheer squad. A few eyebrows were raised. Then one night, when I was riding the team bus back from a game, I realized there I was with a bunch of smelly, sweaty boys, and he was in a car full of sweet-smelling girls. Felt like a fool, I did.)

But there was not a boy in the competition that Sunday afternoon.

And not many in the audience, either, which made me wonder just what is more important to teenage boys than watching a bunch of cute, teenage girls?

In the audience were mamas, young mamas, many of whom were once cheerleaders themselves and who still had that used-to-be-a-cheerleader look and enthusiasm. There were also a few daddies who probably played the sport for which the mamas cheered and for whom the mamas waited after the game.

But back to the point — why isn’t cheerleading a sport?

Get ready.

Because of rules set down by the very organization you would expect to support it — the Women Sports Federation.

According to the American Cheerleader magazine website, the WSF has set six criteria that define a sport. Cheerleading meets the five that deal with athletic specifications — the physical effort, the competition, the rules and the wide acceptance of comparative skills. (Ever watch the cheerleading national championships on ESPN?) What high school cheerleading does not do, according to critics, is meet the criteria that say the primary purpose must be the competition. In most high schools, the primary purpose of cheerleading is to support the athletic teams — football and basketball — or so the critics say.

Well, let me say this about that.

No one could watch those girls and come away thinking they had done all that work, practiced that hard, risked injury and went on without complaining, just to support the football and basketball teams. They were competitors who had come to a competition to compete, and compete they did.

Recently, cheerleading as a sport has gained an important ally — the American Academy of Pediatrics. Those physicians called on school athletic associations to designate cheerleading as a sport in order to regulate the rules, upgrade the coaching (many squads just have “sponsors”), and improve the safety.

Safety is a particular concern, for cheerleading leads to some 26,000 injuries each year (second only to football) and scores of trips to the emergency room.

Fortunately, my daughter’s team has the benefit of a coach with competitive experience, a coach who also is a tough, inspirational, safety-minded teacher. It was obvious the teams there Sunday had similar coaching. If cheerleading was defined as a sport, it would be conducted under rules that govern practice time, conditioning and the various levels of competition. Coaches also would have to be trained and medical care would have to be upgraded. In other words, cheerleading would be treated like any other sport. The girls would be protected, just as student athletes in other sports are protected.

Sure, the cheerleaders support their teams, and once upon a time that was their primary purpose. But today, cheerleaders also compete and, in that competition, the only sport they support is cheerleading.

So why can’t cheerleaders do both — support the teams and compete themselves?

What they do during a game is important, indeed essential, to creating the atmosphere that makes high school football the sport we know and love. However, that is not all that cheerleaders can do and should be allowed to do safely and with school support.

It is time to designate cheerleading as a sport, because that is what it is.

Harvey H. Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: hjackson@jsu.edu.
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