Thursday, March 13, 2008

Some Thoughts on Competitive Cheer

As we have written about in the past, the sport of competitive cheerleading exists at both the college and high school level. To be clear, "competitive cheer" is not the same as sideline cheer, which is, for Title IX purposes, a form of publicity and promotion. But when a cheerleading squad exists for the sole purpose of training and competing against other squads throughout a regular season, it is considered by many -- including OCR, under the right circumstances -- to be a sport, entitled to all of the benefits that other sports receive. This development is controversial, however. Many have a hard time taking competitive cheer seriously -- both because it's a sport where the winner is not determined by a scoreboard or a time clock (though it's certainly not the first sport to rely on subjective scoring system), and because it invokes by association the gender stereotypes perpetuated by traditional sideline cheerleading.

Both high school and college cheer were in the news this week, inspiring me to offer some reflections on this new sport. First, there was this article in the Baltimore Sun, which profiled the competitive cheer squad at the University of Maryland. Maryland is the first, and currently only, college to offer competitive cheer as a sport. Oregon will be joining them next year. However, the article points to some evidence that this isn't necessarily the beginning of a trend. OCR ensures that schools aren't passing off their existing sideline cheerleaders as athletes under Title IX, which means schools actually have to spend money on competitive cheer, like any other sport -- a big deterrent. Additionally, one source suggested that while cheerleading squads might enjoy the occasional competition, they are reluctant to give up their sideline role, as going competitive would require.

I got a difference sense on the viability of competitive cheer by reading this column in the St. Petersburg Times. Author John Cotey reported on the inaugural Florida state championship in competitive cheer, which involved 175 schools and nearly 4,000 (all female) athletes. He made it clear while he personally doesn't fully embrace the sport -- pointing out that "bright red lipstick was apparently required," that "athletes were in curlers...[and] ribbons were part of the uniform" -- he ultimately comes out in favor competitive cheer, emphasizing that despite the spectacle (DJs, airbrushed souvenir t-shirts, roses and corsages for sale) the competition was serious. His account suggests that high school competitive cheer is, at least in Florida, a viable, sport that is catching on, and producing potential future college participants.

If competitive cheer is really catching on, the question women's sports proponents will have to ask is whether a sport that incorporates "lipstick, ribbons, and curlers" can coexist with those women's sports that challenge gender stereotypes and broaden the scope of what society considers appropriately feminine appearance, behavior, and activity. Some might say there is already pressure on female athletes to emphasize traditionally feminine appearance without embracing a sport that seems to require it. At the same time, those of us who are questioning the validity of competitive cheer should be careful not to let our paradigm of sport be limited by its traditional definitions, which were, historically speaking, created by men. Competitive cheer might represent an opportunity to expand the definition of sport, however slightly, from its patriarchal origins. I don't have a final answer, but I'm open to the possibility of competitive cheer as a feminist project.