Three Cheers for Cheerleaders!

Flying high with the Eaglecrest cheerleaders and their competitive sport.

Not everyone is ready to put cheerleading in a new category, however. As Mariah Burton Nelson, author, former professional basketball player and national lecturer on the roles of women, sports and society, points out, "Even though it requires athletic skill, discipline and practice, cheerleading is not a sport, because cheerleaders function primarily on the sideline -- they are not the main event. When they compete against other cheerleaders in a separate event, then it becomes a dance or gymnastics competition -- and it should be called something other than cheerleading, because at that moment, no one is being cheered for."

What's more, Burton Nelson continues, "Title IX was created to give girls other opportunities beyond cheerleading. If cheerleaders count as athletes under Title IX, that means there will be that many fewer opportunities for girls to play basketball, volleyball or field hockey. It would allow school administrators to justify an imbalance in other female sports."

Rhonda Blanford-Green is the assistant commissioner for the Colorado High School Activities Association and the state's main cheerleader for cheerleaders. She graduated from Aurora's Central High School in 1981, where she was both a cheerleader (she keeps a black-and-white photo of herself in uniform taped to her computer) and a track star. She attended the University of Nebraska on an athletic scholarship and came within two one-hundredths of a second of making the 1988 U.S. Olympic team in the 100-meter hurdles. Next month she'll host a panel in preparation for the state's argument to the Department of Education.

The Eaglecrest squad.
Anthony Camera
The Eaglecrest squad.
Eaglecrest cheerleaders give it the old high school try.
Anthony Camera
Eaglecrest cheerleaders give it the old high school try.

Blanford-Green says that in Colorado, cheerleaders are already held to the same academic and eligibility requirements as school athletes such as football players. An Eaglecrest cheerleader spends between twelve and fifteen hours practicing per week and an additional four or five hours cheering at sporting events. Add to that monthly competitions on the weekends, and a cheerleader could potentially log more hours in a week than most other athletes on campus.

"As a state, we have to take the lead on this and tell the [federal government] what we want," Blanford-Green says. "We're going to have everything in place -- a schedule, rules, policies -- so they can look at us and say, 'Yes, cheerleading is a sport, and cheerleaders are athletes.'"

So far, Blanford-Green hasn't met any in-state resistance to her cause. Schools with larger cheerleading squads are eager to add the girls to the sports budget (and possibly beef up their football program), and schools with smaller squads are eager for recognition. And while she's satisfied that today's cheerleaders are deserving of a new recognition, she wonders if the administrators and students are ready for it.

"I see a reversal in the perception of cheerleaders taking place, but it's hard to do it overnight, especially from a faculty standpoint," Blanford-Green says. "Most high school athletic directors are men, now in their forties, who were athletes when they were in high school. Their perception of what a cheerleader is is still based on what they held when they were in high school. For them to see these girls as athletes is very hard."

Getting the feds, and the courts, to see the girls as athletes has proved difficult as well. Typically, Title IX has been challenged at the collegiate level, where sports budgets are well into the multimillion-dollar range. But recently, legal squabbles have been coming from both high schools and middle schools.

In July, high school cheerleaders seeking recognition won a minor legal tangle in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Parents of two cheerleaders sued Holdenville Public Schools and demanded that their daughters get the same access to coaches, locker rooms and travel expenses as recognized school athletes. Although lawyers for the school district initially argued that cheerleading was not a sport, they later agreed to a back-bending settlement. In the end, the cheerleaders received all the amenities of other athletes, including a few new lockers, once they agreed to take on the eligibility requirements of athletes.

"Cheerleading has typically not been a sport under Title IX," the school's attorney, Karen Long, told a newspaper. "But I expect this case to be a trendsetter."

Still, Burton Nelson contends that this kind of nibbling at Title IX and its acceptance into the mainstream is going to unravel the intentions of the original mandate. Giving cheerleaders recognition as athletes, she says, will not make it so: "If it is legitimatized as a sport, that will return us to the old system, where boys are athletes and girls are seen as sexy, trivial, cute, supportive playthings on the sidelines."

Jo Jo Small has been a cheerleader at Eaglecrest for four years. "If it weren't for cheerleading, I wouldn't be at Eaglecrest," she says. Jo Jo's younger sister chose to attend another high school, and the two cheerleaders engage in a bit of sibling rivalry.

Last year -- Jo Jo's first with the varsity competitive team -- she felt vindicated when the team won the state championship. "I needed to prove to the other girls, especially the older ones, that I belonged on the team." This year she wants to help the team win so that she can "help give the younger girls a taste -- to show them that it's all worth it."

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