Cheerleading has changed, so should our attitudes
I admit it. For most of my life as a former athlete and a longtime sportswriter, I've been anti-cheerleader.
I associated cheerleading with the girls who stood on the sidelines and subjugated themselves to root for the boys. I was not one of those girls. I played softball in high school. I got dirty diving into bases. I wore catcher's gear and blocked home plate.
I associated cheerleading with catty girls and dance routines and glitter. Not my style.
As an adult, I associated cheerleaders with the incredibly attractive, cleavage-bearing young women waving their pompoms on the sideline at NFL games and the girls-next-door who took up most of the full-page glossy photos in the college football preview magazines. Not my daughter. No way.
Here's the brutal truth: There is one version of cheerleading that still is all of those things: a cultural relic with far too much attachment to physical appearance. But cheerleading has become something else, as well -- something for which it's worth putting aside preconceived ideas and, frankly, prejudices.
There is a version of cheer that is athletic and competitive and physically demanding. It requires strength and endurance and commitment from its participants. It is a legitimate place on the spectrum of athletic experience for girls who aren't interested in soccer or softball or basketball.
And I'm willing to concede for the first time in my life that it might just be a sport.
This past Sunday's New York Times detailed competitive cheerleading's quest to be considered a sport under the umbrella of the NCAA. Two different groups -- with different competitive plans -- are working with the NCAA's "emerging sport" group, seeking NCAA approval to begin competing as a full-fledged intercollegiate sport.
Six universities around the country already sponsor "acrobatics and tumbling" teams, including Oregon, Maryland and Louisville. Competitive events in the sport include tumbling and stunts such as pyramid and basket toss, which sounds, well, a lot like cheerleading.
Two respected organizations, the Women's Sports Foundation and the American Association of University Women, are throwing their support behind the recognition of cheerleading as a sport.
Now comes the tough part: wading through the terms that could turn this unquestionably athletic endeavor into a full-fledged sport.
Should scoring reward degree of difficulty (as in gymnastics) or aesthetic style (like in figure skating)? How large should the rosters be? How many scholarships awarded?
How big of a role should cheerleading play in helping schools to balance Title IX ledgers? (Last year a federal judge ruled that Quinnipiac University in Connecticut could not replace a volleyball team with a competitive cheer squad, ruling that competitive cheer was too underdeveloped and disorganized to be considered a sport.)
But if competitive cheerleading can come up with some good answers, then maybe it's time for those of us who rolled our eyes at the girls who stood up and cheered to sit down and shut up.
If cheerleading is providing genuine athletic opportunities and creating a competitive model that fits with intercollegiate athletics, let 'em play.
If cheerleading is changing with the times, then shouldn't those of us who dismissed it be willing to change with those times as well?