Pop quiz: what equipment do you need to play a sport? If you’re like me, a few things probably came to mind: a ball, net or something similar, depending on what sport you play; a uniform; good sneakers and a water bottle.
A few things that didn’t make the list: makeup, hair bows, glitter–all essential parts of cheerleading.
Sports are athletic activities, not beauty contests. It’s hard to seriously entertain the notion that cheerleading is a sport when appearance seems just as important as skill, especially on lower-level teams.
The Women’s Sports Foundation has various stipulations for something to be considered a sport; one of those is that “the acknowledged primary purpose of the competition is a comparison of the relative skills of the participants.” Cheerleading, the Foundation goes on to explain, generally does not meet this requirement: although squads do act like sports teams by going to competitions, these activities are usually secondary to their role in crowd enthusiasm.
In fact, the WSF goes on to explain that many schools are trying to name cheer, among other activities, a sport because schools are trying meet their Title IX requirements. Activities like cheer, dance and baton twirling are female-dominated, preexisting and already funded, making them easy ways to meet the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. Indeed, says the WSF, “It seems obviously transparent and unethical [to call these activities sports] when danceline, drill team, cheerleading, baton twirling or the marching band are clearly not fulfilling the definitional requirements of a sport.”
The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators concurs, stating that “the primary purpose [of cheerleading] is not competition, but that of raising school unity through leading the crowd at athletic functions.” Additionally, the AACCA reports in a position paper on cheerleading’s status, naming cheer a sport actually hurt squads.
Without increased funding, squads designated as sports had more restrictions on travel, practice time, transfers and fundraising. Some squads even had to comply with mandates that they participate in at least as many competitions as athletic support events in order to meet the definition of a sport. The AACCA concludes that the best designation for cheerleading is “athletic activity,” which acknowledges participants’ athleticism but maintains the balance between competition and school spirit events.
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.