Saturday, July 24, 2010

sport of cheerleading?

one of the fairly minor stories in the news recently has been the rather odd question of whether cheerleading can be called a sport. A connecticut US district court has declared that it isn't. a small connecticut university says it is.

as a fan of neither of sports nor of cheerleading, i find it an interesting question, in a very disinteresting way. the only sport i have ever liked is figure skating, and i like it more for its artistic than its athletic qualities. adults running around playing with balls and bats and hockey pucks seem silly to me, grownups paid to do large-scale versions of children's games. living in boston, i view the red sox simply as infrequent obstructions to my subway travels, and am relieved when the season is over. it was funny when the soccer championships were suddenly all over the news, and i kept getting congratulatory or commiserating emails from friends who thought my love of the netherlands would extend to their sports teams. it doesn't.

for cheerleading, i have even less interest, and more dislike. it has always seemed to me an unsavory combination of camp following, standing-by-your-man, and the sanitized wholesome-porn of the beauty pageant.

the compacting of a form of publicly worshiping male athletes into an athletic form of its own seems like a bizarre notion, but it raises interesting questions. it arises out of a law that came into being out of a respect [grudgingly given, i surmise] for women: male high-school and college sports were being funded by their institutions; female sports teams were not funded, or at best less funded. now, women's football, women's baseball, women's volleyball must now be equally funded.

this was terrific for women on these teams. but it turned out to be only a partial answer to the discrimination question. though Title IX required universities to give equal opportunities to female athletics as to male athletics, or lose all government funding. at first the answer seemed relatively simple. give women their own basketball and football teams, and perhaps add a few more sports like volleyball for women. in some cases, however, this has been enough. but many schools have discovered over the years that "sports" as traditionally defined are less interesting overall to women than to men, and this meant that women's teams were being less funded than men's, however much the institutions tried to equalize it.

i remember reading a few years ago of one college that saved its funding when someone came up with the idea of creating a synchronized [figure] skating team. the ice as already there for the hockey team; why not use it for a more 'feminine' sport? at least as of the time i read the article, this worked perfectly, and the the new synchronized skating team gained modest fame as one of the best in the world, while the rest of the sports program remained unheralded outside the college.

the subject has been in the news lately, because quinnipiac university in connecticut dropped it women's volley ball team and substituted competitive cheerleading in a general overhaul of the sports depatment [golf and outdoor track, both treated as male sports, were also dropped].

the women's volley ball team sued the university and won their case. it creates a complicated situation though, since women in sports were suing against a program that involved MORE women being funded for sports--if indeed cheerleading was allowed to be called a sport. it's a controversy bound to pop up at other schools, with the country's lousy economy and fewer students being able to afford college.

what makes it so interesting to me, who wouldn't go near a volleyball game or a cheerleading competition, is that it will require a larger definition of sports, or a willingness on the part of the government and the universities to reconsider the privilege given to sports over other voluntary endeavors. why should sports in an academic institution be given government funding in the first place? shouldn't funding be reserved to the activities the universities are created for--intellectual activities, courses on a range of subjects? i raise the question, and in fact i would like to see this happen, but it won't. it is,however, worth hypothetical consideration.

since, for better or worse, it won't happen, another consideration is to add similar funding requirements to other extra-curricular activities. i've seen some terrific theatre, opera, and modern dance in colleges. i may be wrong, but i don't think these are government funded in any large way. if so, and if seems that as many female as male students are involved in them, could they not be included in a larger definition of what is funded? certainly they require as much skill as football does, so for that matter do traditional female skills like quilting, embroidering, etc--at least if they're done well.

more likely, and with precedent in the larger world, is to expand the definition of sports. the rise of cable tv, and with it 24-hour-a-day sports stations, has the interesting and sometimes bizarre result in the redefining of sports activities. championship poker seems to me an odd sport, since though it requires great mental skills, the only physical activity need is an ability to flip a card over. but it does offer an opportunity to expand other activities into 'sports.' if physical strength and dexterity are at all important, surely cheerleading requires a great deal more of those than poker does. competitive dance is also a sport now in the world of cable sports networks: perhaps this is a result of the fact that figure skating, and in particular its most controversial form , ice dance, is an olympic sport. if the colleges were permitted to follow suit, with the blessing and bucks of the department of education, the funding problems might be lessened.

and cheerleading? that offers yet another problem. can an activity whose function is to ceremonially worship a recognized sport be seen as a sport in itself? even with the occasional but real presence of some male cheerleaders, and with the fact that cheerleading is sometimes done for female teams it remains in its origins and in its execution secondary to the major sport for which it provides encouragement and inspiration.

one way or another, and in ways i doubt that many feminists of the second wave foresaw, the results of feminist activity seem to be creating a challenge to the world of sports. and that, at least, deserves to be cheered for.


MCB said...

This is such an interesting article Karen, and it certainly got me thinking. I have to admit, I feel that if a sport requires physical dexterity and mental focus, then cheerleading must be a sport. What else could it be filed under? I feel the fact that this is still a controversy is because somehow society still defines more "feminine" sports as easier and less competitive than "masculine" sports. It is viewed as something women do. Therefore, not a sport. These deep sexist roots are what powers the argument. (I personally feel there are no "feminine" or "masculine" sports. There are simply sports). I think if we strip ourselves of this previous way of thinking, society and the world of sports will be able to move forward. :)

karen lindsey said...

i certainly agree that there are no true 'feminine' or 'masculine' sports. but the society we live in declares them so. indeed feminine and masculine are such social contstructs, i distrust them as anything other than what society has dubbed them.

would you envision cheerleading as a sport to be removed from its secondary football-extolling context?

Pelvis Costello said...

Cheerleading is removed from the context of other sports when the ladies on these squads compete around their state and in National competitions. During these events, the cheerleaders only compete against other cheerleaders. They are judged on their dexterity, the complexity of their moves, and synchronization. There's more, I'm sure.

My mother used to coach cheerleading for Saint Francis' middle school. The powers that run competitive cheering do what they can to keep it from being classified as a sport as it would require regulation on the state and federal level for safety and training, as well as put a lot of attention on the sheer obscenity of the "governing boards'" profits.

Penn & Teller recently looked into the world of cheerleading on their rather abrasive show, "Bullshit!" I recommend seeing it if you get the chance.

Chester said...

well. i am trying again to leave a comment