Back in the day, cheerleaders ruled. Making the team was the pinnacle of a girl’s high school career. Not that I would know. The cheerleaders were generally good-looking, had all the right moves and were guaranteed instant popularity. Two of Lawrence High School’s most winning cheerleaders of the 1960s are good friends of mine today, but we probably wouldn’t have connected in high school. They were on the A Team. I was in the library.
That was a long time ago, but girls still compete for coveted places on their schools’ cheerleading squads. And it’s still a glamour gig. Participants say that cheerleading is a sport that requires as much skill and timing and strength as gymnastics. But as we break glass ceilings and insist on a woman’s place in the home and everyplace else, cheerleading seems by definition to be a secondary endeavor to whatever sport is being played.
At a time when we are re-educating ourselves about sexism, conscious and unconscious in our culture, we need to monitor closely, and possibly re-evaluate, the very concept of cheerleading and how it affects a young woman’s image of herself. I question, too, how it affects our young boys’ attitudes about their female classmates.
I understand that cheerleading is also big business, with conventions and competitions across the country. The rivalries are so intense that some years ago, the mother of a cheerleader in Texas was found guilty of trying to kill a teenager who was her daughter’s main competitor. Yikes.
Fear of unbridled, crazed cheerleading moms isn’t my concern, however. I think we need to move away from cheerleading because it is too often sexist and demeaning to girls and women.
Last spring, at a high school sports banquet in Kenosha, Wis., a coach gave out several “mock” awards, including a “big boobie” award to a girl with large breasts and a “big booty” award to another teen with a notable rear end. According to a story in The New York Times, many of the parents in attendance were appalled. One father eventually reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union, which warned the high school that the behavior, as reported, would not be tolerated.
The Times reported that the coaches who were involved had also been making inappropriate remarks to the girls and verbally harassing them during practices. The ACLU said that the school district was in effect enabling sexual harassment, which was a violation of federal nondiscrimination laws.
The ACLU asked the district to re-educate and discipline the cheerleading coaches and to begin mandatory anti-harassment training for district employees. Emma Roth, an ACLU attorney, said that if the district did not immediately enact policies to keep the girls safe, the ACLU would file suit.
“It’s so important that we intervene at a young age and girls are taught their worth and are treated equally,” Roth said. “When that doesn’t happen, they carry this message for the rest of their life.”
At another high school in Cleveland, according to The Times, a coach was reprimanded for mocking a female cheerleading for being “fat” and forcing her to wear a uniform that was too tight.
In a larger and more public arena, National Football League cheerleaders have filed numerous lawsuits against their employers for sexual harassment, unfair business practices and discrimination. Need more proof of their relative value to the football industry? The soon-to-be-released Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey was signed to a four-year, $15 million contract last year. The average NFL cheerleader makes about $10 an hour, according to Money magazine.
At my grandson’s school, it starts early. I went to his basketball game a few weeks ago and watched as the eighth-grade boys charged onto the court, all guts and glory. After the second quarter, the cheerleaders came onto the floor to do their routine. The boys played ball and the girls did their cheers. Through the prism of today’s sensibilities, the cheerleading seemed tone deaf to the call for gender equality.
There are exceptions, when the athleticism of cheerleading is featured and the criterion for team admission is skill and not looks. There are male cheerleaders on some teams, but I still vote to let school cheerleading go the way of the gym suit. It had its day, but now it’s awkward, ill-fitting and out of date.
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.