Cheerleading – Top 3 Pros and Cons
Although thought of as primarily the purview of girls and women today, cheerleading originated with college men. The first organized cheers, according to USA Cheer, were shouted at Ivy League football games in the 1860’s. The first “cheer” erupted at Princeton University in 1884 with the crowd shouting:
Ray, Ray, Ray!
Tiger, Tiger, Tiger!
Sis, Sis, Sis!
Boom, Boom, Boom
Aaaaah! Princeton, Princeton, Princeton!
This sort of cheerleading expanded to other schools, courtesy of Thomas Peebles, an 1882 Princeton University graduate, who spread cheers to the University of Minnesota. However, cheers from the crowd were still unorganized until Nov. 2, 1898, when Johnny Campbell, a University of Minnesota student, jumped over the fence separating the crowd from the field and led the audience in the following cheer from the sidelines:
Rah, Rah, Rah!
Thus, with Campbell as the first “yell leader,” modern cheerleading was born.
For more on the history of cheerleading, visit Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Contemporary cheerleading “often operates outside the school context altogether” with more than three million cheerleaders in the United States alone. While the “southern United States (including Texas) is usually considered the heart of modern cheerleading … the activity is well established throughout the United States as well as abroad, having gained a foothold in countries around the world,” writes Laura Anne Grindstaff, sociology professor at the University of California at Davis.
Sideline cheerleaders are most often seen at football and basketball games and other sporting events, but competitive cheer (also called all-star cheer) has become increasingly popular in recent years. Competitive cheer teams compete against a host of other teams and must perform an intense, high-energy 2.5-minute routine, encompassing gymnastics (tumbling and flipping), stunting (throwing a cheerleader in the air), baskets (several cheerleaders catching a thrown cheerleader), pyramids (multiple cheerleaders held aloft in formations), jumping, dance, and chanting. A panel of 3-5 judges use a point system for judging the teams on the proficiency of their skills, the difficulty of their routines, and even their enthusiasm, “spirit,” and appearance (meaning uniforms, makeup, and hair). Many of these teams are co-ed, with guys used not as “flyers” (due their heavier weights) but for tumbling passes and stunts requiring strength (as with hoisting and throwing female teammates).
A derivative competition called “STUNT” is a relatively new mostly female contest. Incorporating skills from competitive cheer, “STUNT is an exciting head-to-head game between two teams who execute skills-based routines in various categories – partner stunts, jumps & tumbling, pyramids & tosses, and team routines,” reports STUNT the Sport.
Given this rich history, cheerleading is doubtless popular. But despite its popularity and competitiveness and the obvious skills required to participate in it, is cheerleading a sport?
Is Cheerleading a Sport?
Cheerleading requires the physically demanding skill and athleticism found in other sports.
Cheerleaders train just like other athletes. As Prairie View A&M University cheekily explains: “Athletes lift weights. Cheerleaders lift athletes!” But, cheerleaders also lift weights to ensure they are strong enough to toss, catch, and support other cheerleaders, not to mention the strength needed to get through an intense routine. Cheerleaders also do strength, endurance, jump, balance, and flexibility conditioning, as well as cardio exercise.
According to Marc Lochbaum, professor of kinesiology at Texas Tech University, “We’ve collected data at football games … and it showed that the amount of time cheerleaders spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity was the cardiovascular equivalent of running a marathon or more … because the game day is so long ― about six hours from the pregame excitement all the way to the end without a lot of breaks.”
“Cheerleaders may not always get the credit they deserve as athletes ― the sport requires a great deal of physical and mental strength, and bravery,” adds Lauren Hennessy, owner and director of MVP Mentality Sports Psychology.
Bravery comes into play because cheerleading is a risky sport. A survey of high school and college sports injuries found cheerleading had the second highest rate of injury overall, outnumbered only by football. But, when the numbers were adjusted for the number of participants, cheerleading was first among high school sports.Read More
Saying cheerleading is not a sport is outdated and sexist.
Cheerleading’s history has worked against its acceptance as a sport. The more traditional elements of cheer–sideline cheering and school ambassadorship–mean many have discriminatory and dismissive attitudes about cheerleaders. As Daniel Nester, former head coach of Georgia Tech’s cheerleading team, argues, “We don’t ask the basketball team to play basketball one day and then be student ambassadors the next day.” Such tasks dominate the cultural understanding of cheer, eclipsing and demeaning the athletic accomplishments of the women and men who compete in the sport.
When Title IX (the law that governs sex discrimination in federally funded schools) was being drafted in the early 1970s, the cultural associations with cheer as a predominantly female, ancillary, and trivial activity pursued merely to support male-dominated sports like football and basketball reigned as the dominant perspective.
Cheer was thus not deemed a sport, thereby unworthy of Title IX consideration. “If you go back to the 1970s, cheerleading was viewed as part of the pageantry associated with men’s sports,” says Ellen Staurosky, professor sports media at Ithaca College. “If you go back to look at some of the sports administration texts from that time for the things needed to run a football game, under promotional items it would be ‘band’ and ‘cheerleaders.’ You don’t see that kind of discussion with any other women’s sport.”
“Cheerleading became an easy target for derision,” adds Natalie Adams, professor at the University of Alabama. Because cheerleaders were on the sidelines supporting male athletes, they could not be defined as athletes themselves. And that attitude has persisted despite the dramatic changes cheerleading has undergone over the years.
Cheer is now a competitive, physically demanding sport with athletes who also perform service to other sports, their schools, and the community. Cheerleaders should be respected as athletes, not denigrated, for caring about more than simply their sport.
As Nester concludes, “These athletes [cheerleaders] have trained their whole lives and they continue to train every day. What’s the difference between a track-and-field athlete and a cheerleader? History and pom-poms — and that’s what is standing in our way.”Read More
Many states and organizations consider cheerleading a sport.
California and other states (including but not limited to Alaska, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Virginia) have passed laws classifying high school cheerleading as a sport.
The California High Schools Expanding Equality Respect and Safety Act (CHEERS), for example, went into effect on July 1, 2017. The law states competitive cheerleading is a sport and mandates that “coaches for competitive cheer must satisfy the same health and safety training standards as those who coach all other interscholastic athletics, including the completion of concussion, first aid and CPR courses.”
In the 2012 Title IX case, Biediger v. Quinnipiac University, the judge ruled that the university could not classify women’s competitive cheerleading as a varsity sport. However, in the ruling Circuit Court Judge Reena Raggi argued that, while cheer does not meet the requirements of Title IX, “I do not mean to belittle competitive cheer as an athletic endeavor. Competitive cheerleading is a difficult, physical task that requires strength, agility, and grace. I have little doubt that at some point in the near future … competitive cheer will be acknowledged as a bona fide sporting activity by academic institutions, the public, and the law.”
The International Olympic Committee recognized the International Cheer Union in 2021, opening the doors for cheerleading in the Olympics, frequently heralded as a defining venue for sports.
In 2023, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee welcomed USA Cheer as an USOPC Affiliate Sports Organization alongside other sports that are not yet in the Olympic games, including American football and polo.
Believing cheerleaders worthy of the same safety protections as other athletes, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have both issued policies stating cheerleading should be considered a sport.Read More
Cheerleading is overwhelmingly a performance that sometimes involves athleticism.
There is little denying that some cheerleaders are athletes. Cheerleaders who compete must undertake a variety of established sports, including gymnastics and weightlifting, and combine them with dance into a fast-paced routine that tests endurance, strength, and mental focus.
However, the vast majority of cheerleaders are exclusively cheerleaders, in the literal sense, meaning they only ever participate in low-impact traditional chant-leading from the sidelines of other sports. This is the more stereotypical sort of cheerleading that traditionally involves pom poms and megaphones.
“I know that cheerleaders work hard, and I’m not trying to deny that. But it’s disingenuous to pretend a cheer squad is indistinguishable from a soccer or basketball team. Cheerleading’s primary function is to, well, cheer-lead. It involves athletic ability, but also short skirts and fresh makeup. There’s nothing wrong with participating in an activity that isn’t a sport; maybe cheerleaders should accept that instead of pushing for a designation that just doesn’t fit,” concludes high school student Camille Testa.
Cheerleading more easily fits the definition of a performance: “a public presentation or exhibition.” Although competitive cheer competitions exist, cheerleaders most often perform for audiences attending other sporting events; they are ancillary to the reason why the audience is even there, making their performance impossible to define as a sport.Read More
Cheerleading does not meet the competition requirement to be a sport.
While both sports and games have sometimes complex rules, part of what distinguishes a sport from a game is competition.
Competition is defined as “a contest between rivals,” and while cheerleading competitions do exist, requiring opposing cheer teams to perform high-intensity 2.5 minute routines, the vast majority of cheerleaders, regardless of age, are not competitive. For example, only about 10% of high school cheerleaders compete, and no professional cheerleaders are competitive.
The U.S. Department of Education counted 3,567 degree-granting higher education institutions in the United States during the 2020-2021 school year. But, according to USA Cheer, only 356 colleges and universities have competitive cheer programs and only 65 have competitive STUNT programs, meaning only 12% of higher education schools have a competitive cheer or STUNT program.
Moreover, even for college cheerleaders who do compete, most of their time is not spent in competition. Unlike NCAA basketball players who compete in up to 41 games per season or NCAA volleyball players who compete in up to 56 games and scrimmages per season, many competitive cheerleaders have only one annual event against opposing teams.
How can cheer therefore be considered a sport if almost 90% of cheerleaders do not participate in competitions and the 10% who do barely compete?
Former University of Florida cheerleader and ESPN senior writer Alyssa Roenigk agrees: “Sports teams exist to compete, not to perform and entertain or support another group that competes. In the cheer-as-sport conversation, this is the most important element to understand. One can be an athlete and not participate in a sport. And one can participate in a sport and not be very athletic. By definition, billiards and bowling are sports. Backcountry skiing, climbing, ballet and cheerleading are not. I’m fine with that.”
She argues, “If cheerleading squads began practicing and competing enough to satisfy those [NCAA and Title IX] requirements, they would be forced to drastically scale back the number of games at which they cheer. Or stop cheering at games entirely. The minute that happens, rest in peace, cheerleading.”Read More
Cheerleading is not recognized as a sport by the NCAA or Title IX.
The NCAA, the governing body of college sports, does not recognize cheerleading as a sport and has not indicated any inkling to do so.
For starters, the NCAA splits sports into men’s and women’s categories. As the University of Michigan’s Head Cheer Coach Pam St. John explains, “You couldn’t throw [cheer] into a men’s sport because you have women competing, and you couldn’t throw it into a women’s sport likewise because we integrate men into what we do…. I think that it’s more important at this point in time to pursue [other] opportunities for women athletes at the NCAA level than it is for us to take on what would really be a pretty monumental task of trying to develop a co-ed NCAA category and then, in addition, try to get our sport into that.”
Cheer also has no college competition or regular face-offs against other teams. The National Cheerleaders Association Championship, the biggest and most prestigious American all-star cheerleading competition, is not structured like a NCAA tournament and therefore would not qualify for NCAA inclusion.
Further, Title IX, which governs sex discrimination in federally funded schools, does not recognize cheer as a sport. In a 2009 “Dear Colleague” letter, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights laid out requirements for activities to be considered sports under Title IX. In a 2012 court case, Biediger v. Quinnipiac University, the judges ruled that, under those requirements, cheer cannot be considered a college sport.
Additionally, professional cheerleading is exclusively sideline cheering, with no competition or athletic components, such as tumbling, flying, or pyramids. In fact, most pro cheerleaders come from dance, not cheer, backgrounds. To be defined as a sport, cheerleading should be recognized as such by the largest governing bodies, have a standardized regulated competition, and have a professional career path. Cheer, to date, meets none of these requirements.Read More
1. What is your definition of a sport? Is cheerleading a sport according to your definition? Explain your answer(s).
2. Should the NCAA and Title IX consider cheerleading a sport? Why or why not?
3. Should professional cheerleading be competitive like all-star cheerleading? Why or why not?
4. Consider Alyssa Roenigk’s statement included in Con 2 above: “One can be an athlete and not participate in a sport. And one can participate in a sport and not be very athletic.” Do you think that’s true? Can one be an athlete and not participate in a sport? Can one participate in a sport and not be an athlete? Explain your answer(s).
1. Consider how Title IX relegates cheerleading to the sidelines with journalist Jennifer Gerson.
2. Analyze the inclusion of cheerleading by the International Olympics Committee with Fox Sports.
3. Examine the “benefits of cheer” with Varsity Spirit.
4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.