Respect the Sport: Are cheerleaders participating in a physically demanding athletic sport or an extracurricular activity just for fun? THE OLDEST DEBATE IN SPORTS...

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Along with the word cheerleading comes an image of a very skinny girl in an uncomfortably short, pleaded skirt with a big cheesy, fake smile. A mask of make-up covers her face, bright lipstick on her lips, her hair is up in a braid complemented with a big shiny bow, and her hands are placed neatly on her hips. Her face glows with enthusiasm as she shouts loud words of encouragement such as "fire up" or "lets go." Some would say that cheerleading is a corny activity and that its purpose is cheering boys to victory. These people would agree that without football and basketball, cheerleading would not exist. Others support and respect cheerleading as a sport and see it as a very athletic and determined activity with technique and skill. Are cheerleaders participating in a physically demanding athletic sport or an extracurricular activity just for fun? As cheerleading continues to gain popularity all over the world, so does the oldest debate in sports: whether or not cheerleading is a sport.

Cheerleading as it ExistsCheerleading is becoming one of the fastest growing female sports in the world today and includes over 3.5 million participants in the United States. Cheerleading as defined by Webster's dictionary is "one that calls for and directs organized cheering." There is, however, much more to this definition. According to Jenna Ruddell, Chippewa Hills high school cheerleading coach since 1990,Cheerleading is an athletic activity which includes the support of other teams by way of leading the crowd and raising energy in a positive and productive manner, as well as Competitive Cheer is a recognized female athletic sport which show cases flexibility, tumbling, stunting, teamwork and vocal skills of trained athletes. (Ruddell)Cheerleading, sport or not, has both mental and physical demands. It is not simply a walk in the park and though its requirements are different from that of football, it still exists in the world today. There are sideline teams that only cheer for the other athletic sports at games, while competitive cheerleading is when the teams go to competitions and compete against other cheerleading teams. Like any other sport, both sideline and competitive cheerleading includes rivalry and dedication. Practices are mandatory and require good health and physical shape. From experience, the Chippewa Hills Competitive cheerleading team practices five days a week at five o'clock in the morning before school and then works out for an hour after school. What goes on at practice is left up to the coach but usually consists of excessive conditioning. According to coach Ruddell, "I think a good practice includes jumps, stunts, tumbling, conditioning, warm-up, and then discussion - goals, expectations, etc" (Ruddell).

At competitions cheerleaders are judged on every move they make. Cheerleaders are required to make firm arm motions in unison as well as yell words of encouragement. They must hold girls up in the air with extreme awareness because points are deducted for moving their feet or losing a smile while doing so. The rounds they perform must be executed very well in order to finish with a high score. Cheerleading has safety judges which act as referees in a competition. They watch for illegal stunts and deduct points if the stunts are not safely performed. An immense deduction is given if the back spot takes his or her eyes off of the girl in the air. The rules become stricter as cheerleading becomes more of a sport and cheerleaders are expected to adjust to the rules and regulations. Cheerleading has encountered many changes, other than the rules, from the past to present.

History of the DebateCheerleading has come a long way from when it was just a popularity contest and its sole purpose to cheer for boys who were indeed playing in a "real sport" such as football, basketball, or baseball. According to the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors (AACCA), cheerleading has taken major steps over the past twenty years. It now includes some of the more talented athletes at school and is not just an activity for popular students. This is true for almost all high schools where the girls are expected to try-out for the team performing elite skills. They need the endurance of a runner or football player, and the gracefulness and flexibleness of a gymnast in order to be considered for the team. Pamela Colloff, staff writer at Texas Monthly, would agree that,Cheerleading has changed since the days when Herkie taught girls to do pom-pom routines to the tune of 'Lollipop.' The technical skill and athleticism that are required by squads have made cheerleading more than just a popularity contest. At many 4A and 5A high schools, the baseline at tryouts is no longer poise or a pretty face; it is a rounded-offstanding back handspring, a technique that only students who have had years of practice in gymnastics can execute. (5)Colloff addresses a very well debated point within her argument that cheerleaders are now forced to acquire skills before they even tryout for the team. Cheerleading is becoming a sport that now includes many athletes that would be good at any other sport. This eliminates the preppy blond girl with no muscle and brainpower from joining the cheerleading team. Since cheerleading teams are beginning to consume some talented athletes, talk of whether or not it is a sport thickens. The athletes that choose to cheer instead of run on the track team are pushing to make cheerleading a serious and well-respected sport.

Although a majority of cheerleading squads sole purpose is to entertain a crowd, motivate other athletic teams, and hopefully get the crowd on their feet, there are also teams who have become a competitive cheer squad, and a sport on their own. The teams have gone from simply entertaining a group of fans to taking a mat and performing a routine to be judged against other squads. Cheerleading teams are not much different in some sense from the football and basketball teams they cheer for. Their passion rests within competing against other cheerleading teams, performing their best skills and stunts in front of a panel of judges, and reaching goals that they set for themselves such as obtaining a harder skill. Cheerleading teams are switching from sideline to competitive all over the world. As cheerleading teams work towards making cheerleading a recognized sport, a big controversy continues to rise. Linda Vaccariello, executive editor for Cincinnati Magazine, breaks down the debate as to "Whether or not cheerleading is classified as a serious athletic endeavor, or whether or not it is a perpetuation of a female stereotype" (Vaccariello 4). This debate is causing people to question, what exactly is a sport?Cheerleading as a SportAs defined by the dictionary, a sport is "an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature." When surveyed, the public defined a sport as, "A physical activity." Some people wrote that a sport must involve a ball. This eliminates the world-recognized sport of track and field, which those same people agreed, is indeed a sport. Others said that a sport is something that one does for a long period of time. If this were the case, then playing video games, Internet surfing, and applying makeup, which people do for hours at a time, would be considered a sport. Through conducting the survey, it became evident how problematic defining a "sport" really is. No one knew the accurate definition, and no one said the exact same one. Asking people to define a sport seemed to be comparable to what it would be like to ask them why the sky is blue. The Public's imaginations allow them to come up with a definition, but their quick, un-reliable assumptions surely cannot actually determine what the world calls a sport. Though some were better than others, it is safe to assume, no one really knows what a sport is. The most credible definition of a sport came from Coach Ruddell, "I would define a 'sport' by saying that it was a physical activity that provided athletes to showcase their well-rounded athleticism." This definition can be ridiculed just like all the others, because it claims that athleticism determines a sport. If athleticism and physical difficulty defined sports, "I could make climbing the stairs while drunk a sport, since that requires a far more taxing effort than table tennis - which is, of course, a sport" (McCarthy 1). Athleticism cannot determine a sport because several other activities, such as playing tag, are athletic. If athleticism cannot determine a sport, the safest way to deem cheerleading is a sport is to compare it to another sport, such as gymnastics.

Senator Judith Zaffirini, a former cheerleader and Texas Monthly writer argues that cheerleading is a lot like gymnastics and therefore, should be considered a sport. She claims that "Today, cheerleading is a sport that requires athletic prowess. They're gymnasts" (Zaffirini 2). If cheerleaders are gymnasts, then they certainly are participating in a sport, however some argue that even gymnastics is not a sport. According to Dan McCarthy, sports editor for the Stanford Daily, an activity cannot be called a sport "unless you are making an immediate, athletic response to your opponent's physical action - not a sport. Out: golf, sailing, synchronized swimming, billiards, chess, poker, weightlifting, cheerleading, gymnastics" (McCarthy 2). Cheerleading, though it does compare to gymnastics a great deal, cannot be called a sport for that reason alone because people, such as McCarthy, believe that gymnastics is not even a sport. McCarthy also argues "Cheerleading is not a non-sport because it's typically for neurotic blondes with disorders of both the eating and attention deficit variety (although it is); it's a non-sport because there's no on-the-fly competition" (McCarthy 1). This is in deep contrast to Erik Brady, editor of USA Today, who argues that cheerleading is a sport because "College and high school cheerleaders compete for national championships. They risk terrible injury. They get recruited for college scholarships. And, in some cases, they put in more practice hours than the football team" (Brady 1). Cheerleaders practice for the same amount of time as, and as hard as football players. Football is a sport, and Brady would support that, cheerleading is also a sport. However, Harry Crum, Projects Coordinator for the University of Mississippi, arguesCheerleading squads are not created just to compete. Although there are exceptions, if the football and basketball teams were eliminated from the sport's program then most schools would terminate the cheerleading squad as well. There is no doubt that many girls join cheerleading squads purely for the competitive nature of the activity, but that doesn't make it a sport. They were created to support the team, whether they actually like to or not. (2)Crum makes it clear that cheerleading should not be a sport because it was created years ago to support other teams and to "cheer" for them. If this were the case, basketball would only be a sport now if men wore short shorts because it was a sport when they did and now it has evolved and cannot be considered a sport. It seems tedious that something such as attire can determine a sport but according to Colloff, and many cheerleaders, whether or not their purpose is to compete or entertain is a minuscule reason and should not determine if what they do is a sport or not. Cheerleading has evolved over time, and Colloff would agree, its sole purpose really is becoming to compete. Cheerleading may not have been a sport years ago, and it may have been something created for a certain purpose, but that purpose has changed. It is becoming more dangerous and much more comparable to other sports such as football which are indeed, well-known sports.

Too Dangerous Too Watch?Many people shake their heads at the idea of cheerleading being a "sport". Sport or not, cheerleading is as dangerous as most sports. People are more likely to get hurt being lifted in the air for a cheer formation than getting tackled in football. According to Pat Beirne, Central Michigan cheerleading coach, "Someone tends to get a twisted ankle every practice." According to a study done by Heather Cabot, from ABC news health, "16,000 cheerleaders get injured every year doing stunts and tumbles" (Cabot 1). Also, according to CBS news, visits to the Emergency room by cheerleaders have more than doubled in a recent 13-year span. Cheerleading tends to be more dangerous than other sports because the back flips and stunts the teams are expected to perform are abnormal and bizarre. Cathy Booth Thomas, Dallas bureau chief of Time magazine, claims that "You need muscle for lifts and precision up in the air, and there's a constant risk of injury. What we do takes as much preparation as football. People don't understand how much pressure it is." (Thomas 1). Thomas argues that cheerleading is a sport because of the risk of injuries but on the other hand, Rick Reilly, in his 19th year as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, argues "I don't hate cheerleading just because it's about as safe as porcupine juggling. I also hate it because it's dumb" (Reilly 69). Cheerleading is a very serious task and has the risks of big-time sports, which seems to bring controversy as to whether or not this might actually make it more or less of a sport.

Some argue that cheerleading is too dangerous to be classified as a sport, while others argue that it is dangerous enough to compare to other sports. Harriet Barovick, writer for Time magazine, claims "Such injuries as broken noses, knocked-out teeth and ankle sprains are common. According to recent data, the rate of cheerleading injuries, caused in large part by increasingly elaborate stunts, was six times as high as that of football injuries among High School kids" (Barovick 1). Barovick thinks that these high injury risks solidify cheerleading as a sport but Reilly claims, "Cheerleaders lose more time from their activity because of injury - 28.8 days per injury - than any other group of athletes at the High School level," (Reilly 69) and it is "Responsible for nearly half the High School and college injuries that lead to paralysis or death" (Reilly 69). With all those stunts and maneuvers such as jumps, pyramids, twirling, flipping, and tossing, several cheerleaders are getting hurt while "cheering on the home team". Cheerleading is a high-risk sport that is obviously as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than any other sport. Cheerleaders participate in a sport that puts them at risk of injury and what they do requires great athleticism.

Like Any Other SportCheerleaders are indeed athletes, but according to the American Association of Cheerleading coaches and Advisors, "If athleticism of cheerleading is not recognized, the supervision will continue to fall to teachers that are not qualified to adequately supervise. Additionally, existing advisors will not receive the training necessary to provide adequate supervision of an increasingly athletic activity" (2). Cheerleading, proven more dangerous, should have a qualified, well-experienced coach. Coaches are only hired with qualifications if cheerleading is recognized as a sport. As a debate on its own, this brings up a major concern to the safety and fairness of cheerleading, sport or not. The coaches should be very well qualified as they are for any other sport but will not be unless cheerleading is considered a sport. Cheerleading, with or without a qualified coach, has rules that must be followed; therefore, it is similar to other sports.

Cheerleaders must follow several rules and guidelines because "Deductions will be given for vulgar or suggestive choreography, which includes but is not limited to movements such as hip thrusting and inappropriate touching, gestures, hand/arm movements and signals, slapping, positioning of body parts and positioning to one another" (Colloff 6). Judges take this sport seriously and they "Note everything, from the uniformity of a jump to the sharpness of a head wag to the enthusiasm behind a smile. The routine must be synchronized, skilled and spirited beginning to end, because there are no do-overs, no best-of-three tries" (Vaccariello 3). Cheerleaders are required to attend practice just like any other sport and though Reilly and Crum might consider their practices frivolous, they work out to maintain good physical shape and practice the cheers that are performed in unison at every Friday night football game. Their cheers and stunts they practice to perfection must be legal and follow strict guidelines just like football plays. If a cheerleader steps off the mat at a competition points are deducted just as the other team gets the ball if a player travels while dribbling. Cheerleading enforces strict rules and guidelines and is very demanding both mentally and physically, just like any other sport.

Cheerleading requires a great amount of strength and it is physically demanding. It takes an athletic and in shape person to be a part of a sideline or competitive cheerleading team. Reilly says, "It's athletic, but it's not a sport" (Reilly 70), and McCarthy also would agree with Reilly and says, "Athleticism, preparation, and fitness, while commendable, do not make a sport" (McCarthy 1). Athleticism and fitness do not come first in defining a sport so, "it must be the immediate, reactive physical implementation of a strategy designed to beat an opponent" (McCarthy 1). In a cheerleading competition, one cheerleading squad performs a physical routine to beat an opposing squad. Cheerleading, mainly competitive cheer, meets both of McCarthy's sport requirements. Whether or not Cheerleading should be considered a sport continues to be argued as other issues arise.

Another issue that arises with cheerleading being a sport is how expensive it is. This issue seems irrelevant, but it actually is a rather large part of the cheerleading-as-a-sport debate. The expenses of cheerleading make it less like any other sport. Poor families are unable to allow their children to tryout for or join the squad because it is so expensive. According to Thomas, "The price of perfection runs high in dollars too. Cheerleading clothes and camps typically cost about one thousand dollars a year. That's a problem in poorer schools like Euless" (Thomas 2). Other sports, such as football, seem to have no major expenses even close to those of cheerleading. The financial burden of cheerleading persuades people to think that it is an extracurricular activity, similar to art or drawing class where several expensive tools must be purchased for the class. Cheerleading is more expensive than other sports, but that seems hardly effective on whether or not cheerleading should be recognized as a sport. More important issues, such as the constant desire to be thin, allow people to question cheerleading as a sport.

Cheerleaders tend to wear revealing uniforms and practice clothes. According to Sharon Thompson, professor and coordinator of health promotions health, the skills they must acquire and perform with proficiency require a low body weight therefore girls are at risk of developing eating disorders. Cheerleading does require a vigorous athlete, but one stunt group includes a flyer, two bases, and a back spot. The stronger girls take their spot as bases, taller girls become back-spots, and the lighter girls are flyers. There is no need or requirement for girls to gain or lose weight because they do not have to weigh in as compared to wrestlers. There is no pressure for the heavier girls to lose weight and become flyers; however, some girls develop eating disorders because they assume they should be slim. Eating disorders are similar to steroids in any other sport. Most athletes feel the need to gain muscle mass, while cheerleaders feel intense anxiety to be thin.

Eating disorders, present in cheerleaders, are also common in females and males who are not cheerleaders. Though more attention is placed on cheerleaders as they take their place in front of a crowd, people are more conscious of this problem. Many people who suffer from eating disorders, and are not cheerleaders shroud it in secrecy. According to John M. MacKnight, MD UVA Sports Medicine, "Girls who play soccer, or participate in any endurance sport, are at risk to develop eating disordered behaviors" (MacKnight 1), and these athletes "assume that being lighter will be beneficial to their athletic endeavors" (MacKnight 1). These eating disorders are present in all athletes, both males and females, in all sports. Therefore, the risk of developing an eating disorder present in cheerleading only makes it more like all other sports. The constant desire to be thin can also be remanded from the media, which portrays the most beautiful girls and models as extremely thin with un-average unattainable bodies.

Cheerleading in the MediaThe media portrays cheerleaders as sexual icons. Cheerleaders lose respect through shows such as Cheerleader Nation, which followed Dunbar high school's competitive cheerleading squad from Kentucky, and MTV's Made "I want to be a cheerleader," which follows a ditzy blonde around and turns her into a high-class cheerleader. These shows render the message that cheerleaders are dumb and have absolutely no purpose in reality. The media consistently portrays cheerleaders as playboy girls in short skirts with no more talent than looking pretty. This constant image of a ditzy, beautiful, stupid girl in an extremely short skirt persuades the public to think that is how all cheerleaders are when in reality, being clueless and blond are not requirements at tryouts. According to Pat Beirne,Both guys and girls are required to run a timed mile, conduct an interview one on one with me, perform their top tumbling skills, stunt with several different stunt groups hitting all the progressions along with the most elite ones they can, and they have to stand out as a unique individual. They are required to earn their spot on my team. Several students have tried out, but I am looking for people who are determined and talented. (Beirne)The requirements for making Central Michigan's cheerleading team, as well as any cheerleading team, become more unattainable for the average person every year.

The media spreads the message that any one who is popular can be a cheerleader in movies such as Sugar and Spice, Bring it On, Not Another Teen Movie, Clueless, and Harvard Man. These moves depict the misapprehension that female cheerleaders are unintelligent and male cheerleaders are homosexual. In reality cheerleaders are smart individuals because they are required to keep a high grade point average in order to remain on the team, and being gay is not a tryout requirement for a male. The image of a popular, very pretty girl being a cheerleader in most movies has swayed the mind of the public that cheerleading is not a sport. It does not help that "The cheerleader had always been an object of desire; she was the unattainable girl at the top of the high school caste system, the prettiest one in the class" (Colloff 1). Though some cheerleaders do always have a positive attitude and may be full of spirit, the media stretches this stereotype by broadcasting "Shaking pompoms and blasting KC and the Sunshine Band's 'Shake Your Booty" (Colloff 1). The media discourages cheerleaders who work very hard and compete at national championships because people do not take them seriously. This causes most teams to have to work very hard to obtain a non-ditzy reputation and gain respect. Cheerleading is far from being respected like the sport of football but has been climbing in popularity, which helps in the quest to make it a sport.

Sport or Not, It Does Not MatterPeople believe that the sole purpose of a cheerleader is to cheer for a football team or a large group of sweaty boys who are competing. Others believe that cheerleading is now a sport. Cheerleading is a sport in that it meets all the requirements of every definition of a "sport" people can come up with, and it is very comparable to every other sport that exists in one-way or another. The most legit and credible definition of a sport comes from the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors, which states,A physical activity which involves propelling a mass through space or overcoming the resistance of a mass, 'Contesting' or competing against/with an opponent, and its governed by the rules which explicitly define the time, space and purpose of the contest and the conditions under which a winner is declared, and its acknowledged primary purpose of the competition is a comparison of the relative skills of the participants. (AACCA 1)The AACCA claims that a sport is a sport if its primary purpose is to compete. Sideline cheerleading can be eliminated because these teams do not just compete and competing is one of the biggest factors in determining a sport. However, competitive cheerleading teams exist with the sole purpose to compete. The world of sports would agree that cheerleaders are outstanding athletes with the strength of that of a football player, and they are as poised and flexible as many gymnasts and dancers. After researching several different intakes of what a sport actually is, cheerleading meets each and every standard that exists. According to Coach Ruddell,I don't think you can argue with people about cheer. It's either something you understand and then you would agree that it's a sport or you don't understand it and so you don't agree. All the arguing in the world won't change the never-ending argument. I would agree that it's controversial and probably will always be. I agree that it's different from 'traditional ball' sports. (Ruddell)Cheerleading is known as an "athletic activity" because it is different than other sports, and is not yet considered one on its own. However, if cheerleading were considered a sport, the teams that exist would lose many opportunities they have now such as competing outside of state, competing outside of their conference, and being able to practice and go to camp in the summer. Cheerleading has advantages as an "athletic activity," and there seems to be little hope that it will officially be considered a sport.

The debate will continue to grow, as more female athletes become cheerleaders, and the sport of cheerleading is not recognized as a sport. Cheerleaders who believe their work is unrecognized because cheerleading is not a sport should understand that even if cheer were acknowledged as a sport, they would still have to deal with criticism as any other sport does. Along with sports comes the rivalry and competition with other teams and fans. Fans of other sports, such as football, will continue to disrespect cheerleaders because the maneuvers they do, stunts for example, are unusual. Cheerleading, athletic activity or sport, requires great skill and is a great mental and physical experience for those who participate. Some would say that it is enough to be considered athletes and there is no argument there, cheerleaders, sport or not, are indeed exceptional athletes.

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