There's nothing like a feat in cheerleading acrobatics to make a crowd go wild—even when that feat has more to do with semantics than gravity.
The University of Connecticut was slammed last week when it announced that it had stripped its 17-year-old cheerleading program of the gymnastic and tumbling skills that had once made it nationally competitive. Instead, the school said, competitive cheer would be replaced with a "spirit squad"—one that, according to The Hartford Courant, would be primarily focused on finding nonathletic ways to "really spread Husky spirit"—by handing out spirit buttons, for instance.
Husky fans were less than pleased. "Give me a BOO," blared Hartford's NBC affiliate, while the editorial board of the The Day, New London's newspaper, wrote that "the announcement seemed to fall from the sky, without warning or the opportunity for loyal fans—the very people the new spirit squad will be courting—to weigh in." A post on the Web site Jezebel posited that "even if school officials weren't solely motivated by wanting to see less gymnastics and more dancing in skimpy uniforms, the decision was still sexist." (UConn officials say the decision was motivated by a decision to be more inclusive. "Many of our high schools in the state and elsewhere just don't have those [gymnastic-cheer] programs, and so kids that were cheerleading [in high school] … simply didn't even come to try out," says John Saddlemire, the university's vice president for student affairs. "One of our goals was to open up opportunity to as many students as possible, and we found the gymnastic piece was somewhat exclusionary.")
Thanks to movies like Bring It On and full coverage of cheerleading competitions on ESPN, the word "cheerleader" now conjures up images of aggressive, toned athletes, not the pretty, passive megaphone-toting squads of yore. Gymnastic stunts were introduced to cheering in the early 1980s, and since then cheerleaders have fought to be recognized for their athleticism. (The chance to flaunt serious strength also hooked more men into the sport, though college cheer experts say that demotion to spirit squads could deter males from trying out in the future. Most of UConn's men cheerleaders, required for the more high-flying stunts, graduated last year, but officials say that did not factor into their decision.)
But as it turns out, UConn is not the only university stripping the athletics out of cheerleading and returning to a more traditional archetype. "Arizona State has done this, USC has done something similar in recent years, as well," Saddlemire says. "We sort of thought we were out on the cutting edge, and found that we had company." In fact, despite its rep for high-flying stunts and precariously balanced pyramids—maneuvers that require incredible conditioning—college cheerleading is not even officially considered a sport and is instead trapped between being a loosely organized "club" and more structured "athletic activity" on most campuses. Even funding isn't uniform: while a few colleges pay for a cheerleading squad out of their athletic departments, most bankroll them through student activities or even the university's marketing or PR department, as cheerleaders are seen as "ambassadors" of the university's rah-rah message.
Make no mistake: cheerleading's more physical side is still incredibly popular in the media. The Bring It On franchise just spawned its fifth film this week, and the CMT show Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, about the physical rigors of making the NFL's most competitive cheer team, is entering its fourth season. The College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship is broadcast by ESPN to more than 100 million homes in 32 countries, and the competition itself draws tens of thousands of athletes.
Except, "athlete" suggests that cheer is a sport. And technically, it's not. The National Collegiate Athletic Association doesn't consider cheerleading a member sport, nor does the organization have plans to recognize it in the future. In order for a sport to be recognized under Title IX, the 1972 bill that guaranteed equal funding for men's and women's college athletics, an activity must be primarily competitive. "Cheerleading doesn't fall under that and it shouldn't," says Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators. "If we're going to be cheering seven or eight home games for football, and maybe 15 to 20 home games for basketball—and that's just the men's side—then we would have to compete [in cheerleading competitions] at least that many times. That's impossible."
In fact, most collegiate squads are scrutinized more for their community service than for their ability to master a basket toss. Bill Ahern, a regional manager for the Universal Cheerleaders Association, says that cheerleaders are first tasked with promoting school spirit through hospital visits, parades, and alumni events—and in most cases, must fulfill those requirements before they can even think about upping their athletic skills. They're also permitted to do stunts only after their primary cheer goals—entertaining fans and revving up the hometown crowd—are accomplished. "No matter what the specific goals of any university are for their particular program, a basic goal is that [cheerleaders] are there to increase their home field advantage," Ahern explains. "So if they're spending all of their time working just on skills instead of going over game-management, working with their band, planning their time-outs, developing their cheer material … they're not as effective as they could be."
Of course, as dangerous as the stunts are, it behooves the cheerleaders to practice those skills as much as possible—but the high risk of those feats are a strong motivation for schools to do away with the gymnastics component of cheering all together. Cheer's checkered past with catastrophic injury makes administrators skittish, Saddlemire says—even though he says the issue of risk and liability did not factor into UConn's decision to ground its squad. When the University of North Carolina conducted a survey of sports injuries from the fall of 1982 through the spring of 2007, college cheerleading accounted for a whopping two thirds of all catastrophic injuries to female athletes. And according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which culled data from 114 emergency rooms, 4,954 visits cited cheerleading (not just on the collegiate level) as a cause of injury in 1980. That number more than quintupled by 2004, with 28,414. Most visits were associated with limb sprains, though the study did document some serious head injuries.
But maybe it's a mistake to assume that forbidding the cheerleaders from executing life-threatening tosses and flips will rob them of respect. After all, even cheer squads who have such moves in place are just as likely to be ridiculed and demeaned. A breathtaking aerial maneuver by a University of Michigan cheerleader, for example, is far less likely to end up on ESPNU's Top Ten than on Big 10 P--n, a blog of misogynistic (surprise!) photos of spread-eagled cheerleaders and cleavage-baring female fans caught unawares. (There are similar blogs for several other NCAA conferences). It's not just the out-and-out ogling sites, though: many sports sites discuss cheerleaders only as eye candy that accompanies watching the big boys play. It's all meant in good fun, to "highlight the atmosphere, passion, and beauty of college football fans," per Big 10 Poon. It's doubtful the women see it that way. The estimated 3.5 million nationwide cheerleaders are all full-time students, hard-driving athletes, and, in many cases, highly trained gymnasts. Being praised for their bra size—still, nearly three decades after cheerleaders redefined themselves as athletes—could hardly be more deflating.