Existing scholarship on competitive cheerleading’s struggle for sanctioning and recognition under Title IX supports a conclusion that, while cheerleading perpetuates certain stereotypes, it is nevertheless a sport American women created for themselves, and it offers many of the same benefits of participation as other sports do. Research on (a) acceptance of and obstacles to high school and collegiate cheerleading today, (b) regulatory controls, (c) and media interest and hegemonic implications is reviewed. Myths and issues surrounding the safety and health of competitive cheerleaders are examined, including sexual abuse and sport injury.

Cheerleading in the Context of Title IX and Gendering in Sport

As sanctioning and recognition of competitive cheerleading today grows under the protection and regulation of Title IX, one might wonder if the society is regressing. In the 1960s we threw off Betty Crocker and Father Knows Best for the feminist movement and bra burning. Does the new sport of cheerleading represent backpedaling—with the added twist of actual (if limited) tax-dollar support of the phenomenon? How and why did cheerleading become competitive? Who are these new teams and why aren’t their members playing basketball, soccer, softball? Much of this paper is a review of existing research on (a) acceptance of and obstacles to high school and collegiate cheerleading today, (b) cheerleading regulatory controls, (c) and media interest in and hegemonic implications of cheerleading.

Competitive cheerleading hit the scene in the late 1970s, when the television network CBS first televised the Collegiate Cheerleading Championships, in 1978 (Mercer, 2006). Throughout the 1980s, tosses, stunts, and routines evolved increasing originality and difficulty. Safety guidelines were introduced by groups like the National Cheer Conference (Mercer, 2006). New cheerleading organizations formed, eager to develop rules and guidelines for the sport: the Universal Cheerleaders Association, American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors, National Council for Spirit Safety and Education, NFHS Spirit Association, Recreation Cheer Coaches Association, U. S. All Star Federation. Decades later, however, only 26 states appear to have given high school cheerleading Title IX status, despite its fierce competitiveness, its organization and rules standardization, its popularity and entertainment value, and the multimillion-dollar-value of the cheerleading industry. It seems safe to assume that cheerleading is ingrained in the American psyche as a female pursuit, an activity thus inferior to, for example, football and basketball as far as many social institutions are concerned. Perhaps in supporting cheerleading—insisting that spirit competitive squads, as they may be known, deserve to be treated like other athletic teams, including in their receipt of federal funding—individuals and groups are furthering, after all, the post–Betty Crocker agenda.

Like most sports, cheerleading was born in the male domain (although today 90% of cheerleaders are female). Purportedly, in 1898 one Johnny Campbell stood up before fans at a University of Minnesota football game to organize their enthusiasm. From that germ came today’s competitive sport, although it took until the 1920s for women to participate. In the 1940s, with men at war, women moved into cheerleading in numbers, equaling or exceeding their predecessors’ achievements. After World War II ended, cheerleading remained dominated by women, and so it continued to the millennium (Mercer, 2006).

It is widely known that many American public figures have been cheerleaders, for example presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. Other former cheerleaders in U.S. government include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, while celebrity cheerleaders include Ann Margret, Paula Abdul, Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, Katie Couric, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Douglas, Sally Field, Samuel L. Jackson, Madonna, Steve Martin, Reba McEntire, Cybill Shepherd, Jimmy Stewart, Meryl Streep, and Raquel Welch (Ninemire, 2008).

Today’s 3.5 million cheerleading participants over age six (Lin, Huang, & Esposito, 2007) thus have many role models. No doubt, they have contributed to the public acceptance of the sport that has spread to official acceptance and media popularity. The struggle for cheerleading’s recognition as a competitive team sport has slowly brought the activity to most high schools and universities in the country. Enactment of Title IX legislation has helped.

Title IX and Female Athletes

Title IX called for gender equity in school athletics, and part of its challenge was to increase girls’ interest in playing and competing in sports. Since its enactment, sports participation among females has soared, although still trailing the rate of participation by males. The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights requires schools to pass one of three tests of gender equity in athletic participation. Each school must demonstrate that (a) numbers of male and female athletes are substantially proportional to total numbers of males and females enrolled, or (b) that the school has a history and continuing practice of program expansion for an underrepresented sex, or (c) that the interests and abilities of an underrepresented sex have been fully and effectively accommodated (National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, 2008). Few institutions can offer evidence of compliance under the first two options; many instead opt to comply by “fully and effectively” accommodating female students’ interests. Since the early 1990s, two thirds of institutions have asserted their compliance this way, but the question, of course, is how to measure those interests (Rhode, 2007).

In 2005, Title IX was amended to allow institutions to use e-mail surveys to measure students’ interest in sports. If survey results indicate “sufficient” student interest, the school’s compliance is allowed to be presumed (unless a relevant “significant” occurrence has taken place). The Department of Education website offers a model survey, which certainly could be found underwhelming by a student pressed for time or hesitant about participating in athletics. Enforcement of survey completion would, furthermore, seem next to impossible—and what qualifications will be required of those who write and update such surveys and analyze the data? Another problem lies in the definition of terms: What exactly do “sufficient” and “significant” mean in this context? The loophole, of course, has critics:

Without any notice or opportunity for comment, the Department of Education issues an “Additional Clarification of Intercollegiate Athletics Policy Guidance: Three-Part Test—Part Three,” allowing colleges to use a single e-mail survey to show that they are meeting women’s interests in playing sports. (National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, 2008, p. 6)

The Women’s Sports Foundation condemns the survey as a Title IX loophole, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has asked schools not to use it (Brady, 2007).

Even Title IX’s best intentions can do nothing about recent decreases in the funding of athletics. The general slowdown is part of the reason for disproportionate female participation in sports. At the college level, only a small number of institutions need not worry about their budgets, and where there are competing demands for funds, athletic departments can experience shortfalls. Women’s sports has to compete as men’s sports does for available dollars, and all programs are subject to constraints. Suggs (cited in Rhode, 2007) explains that,

in the relatively well-off Division I institutions, expenditures have been rising faster than higher education budgets. Those budgets have, in turn, been rising faster than inflation. It is by no means self-evident that preserving intercollegiate competition in all male sports should be a priority for all schools or for society generally. Nor is it clear that the increasingly commercialized and competitive model of male sports is the one most women want to replicate. Title IX controversies raise broader questions about the role of sports in higher education that deserve closer public scrutiny.

Perhaps dissatisfaction with the traditional (male) model of athletics does contribute to females’ lesser participation. But that model is still key to such funding as is available. A sport like cheerleading, in order to gain federal funds, must meet the same criteria traditional sports must meet for that sanction. Like other athletes, cheerleaders can expect to have to comply with rules governing seasonality, numbers on squad or team, minimum athletic competence, approved use of equipment, and other matters.

Since the passage of Title IX, the added status women’s sports has gained by complying with the male model has, ironically, diminished women’s role in coaching and athletics-directing, especially at the college level. As Rhode explains (2007),

As opportunities for female students have increased, opportunities for female professionals have declined. The rise in status and financial resources in women’s sports has attracted male competitors for coaching positions. As a result, only 42% of women’s teams have a female head coach, compared to over 90% in 1972. . . . In the pre–Title IX era, women held almost all administrative positions in women’s athletics programs.20 Today, almost all of those programs are merged with men’s, and less than a fifth of athletic directors are women.21 (p. 14)

How must young female athletes view their own importance as they see fewer and fewer women trusted with authority in the world of sports? Advancement of female athletes has clearly had its ups and downs, which have affected the development of cheerleading, as well.

Title IX and Cheerleading

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation (2000) a sport is (a) a “physical activity which involves propelling a mass through space or overcoming the resistance of a mass,” (b) “a contest or competition against or with an opponent,” (c) “governed by rules which explicitly define the time, space and purpose of the contest and the conditions under which a winner is declared,” and (d) intended primarily to “compare[e] . . . the relative skills of the participants” (¶3). Does cheerleading comply with theses requirements? The foundation’s opinion on whether cheerleading and some other activities are indeed sports covered by Title IX and education department Office of Civil Rights (OCR) protections is a guarded one. Sufficient quality opportunities for competition is a Title IX concern, the foundation notes; the OCR assesses “the number of competitive events offered per sport, the number and length of practices and the number of pre-season and post-season competitive opportunities” (¶6). Thus if a cheerleading squad or drill team has as its overarching mission not presentations at male teams’ competitions, but rather

compet[ition] against other drill teams or cheerleaders on a regular season and post season qualification basis in much the same structure as basketball or gymnastics and if the team conducted regular practices in preparation for such competition while under the supervision of a coach, [then] these activities could be considered sports. On occasion, these groups could also put on exhibitions at boys’ or men’s sports events, but these exhibitions could not be their primary purpose. (¶7)

Still, the foundation warns that attempting to relabel girls’ existing, funded programs as sports programs when they are not is “unethical,” and that “danceline, drill team, cheerleading, baton twirling or the marching band are [in many cases] clearly not fulfilling the definitional requirements of sport” (¶8).

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) appears interested in distinguishing sports competitors from cheerleaders involved only in extracurricular activities. A 2006–07 NFHS survey on participation counted participants on “competitive spirit squads”: cheerleading, pom, kick, dance, and drill teams. In terms of number of participants, such squads rank among the top 10 sports in high schools nationwide (National Federation of State High School Associations, 2007, p. 47). The squads comprise competitive athletes who over the past several years have qualified and been recognized as athletic teams by OCR under Title IX.

Collegiate cheerleaders operate within their institutions’ athletic departments, but are not always deemed to represent a sport. When a squad’s central purpose is to support and promote athletes in other sports, then it does not qualify as a sports team. To qualify, a squad must meet five OCR criteria for varsity sports, as follows:

  1. Selection of squad members must be based largely on factors related to athletic ability.
  2. The squad’s activity must have as a primary purpose the preparation for and participation in athletic competition against other, similar teams.
  3. The squad must prepare for and participate in competition in the same way other teams in the athletic program do, for example by conducting tryouts, being coached, practicing regularly, and being scheduled regularly for competitions.
  4. National-, state-, and conference-level championship competitions must exist for the squad’s activity.
  5. The squad’s activity must be administered by an athletics department.

While the specification of what makes a sport a sport has no doubt been beneficial to cheerleading, cheerleaders are like other female athletes nationwide in facing challenges to the advancement of their sports. Typifying these challenges is the case of McCormic and Geldwert v. School District of Mamaroneck and School District of Pelham (2004). Hoping to be observed by college recruiters, two female athletes wanted to compete in high school soccer during the fall. They attended schools where, by tradition, boys used the athletic facilities for their fall and winter sports, relegating girls’ soccer season to spring. Spring soccer not only potentially deprived them of collegiate opportunities, it interfered with their participation in state and regional championships, the girls claimed. In affirming the trial court’s finding for the girls in this case, the U.S. District Court of Appeals said,

Title IX was enacted in order to remedy discrimination that results from stereotyped notions of women’s interest and abilities, and to allow a numbers-based lack of interest defense to become the instrument of further discrimination against the underrepresented gender would pervert the remedial purpose of Title IX. (McCormic and Geldwert v. School District)

Unlike the two New York school districts of McCormic, the school district for Lacey, Washington, where there are three public high schools, made a willing effort to increase girls’ participation in sports (which had significantly trailed boys’). The district surveyed girls about the sports they would enjoy that were not already available to them. As a group they chose gymnastics over lacrosse, water polo, and power lifting (Wochnick, 2007). It may seem a small step, but the survey is nevertheless an encouraging sign that the fundamentals of Title IX are being implemented and organizations are acting on the Title IX tenet that girls’ purported lesser interest in sports does not justify boys’ greater access to sport.

Title IX also mandates that athletics funding for girls must be on a scale with that for boys. When Florida’s high school athletic association recognized cheerleading as a sport in 2007, cheerleaders looked forward to smaller personal expenditures for coaching, facilities, insurance, transportation, and uniforms. Cheerleading teams in states whose high school athletic associations do not sanction cheerleading cover their own costs, often running to hundreds of dollars monthly. During the 2006–07 school year only 26 states were represented in cheerleading competitions; yet how many states actually recognize cheerleading as a sport is hard to determine, because qualifying is difficult and registration and entry fees are high (Peters, 2003). Despite the sport of cheerleading’s recent recognition in Florida, squads have encountered roadblocks to financial support, in the form of school district decisions to delay an inaugural season until the 2008–09 school year. Public budgets are tight and, despite Florida high school cheerleaders’ new status, few school districts’ allocations covered spirit squads. Even when allocations do come, competitive cheerleaders will pay for extras (e.g., choreographers, camps) out of pocket and with the old standby, the fundraiser. Non-school-based all star teams are on their own, of course, financially.

A byproduct of nearly 30 years without sport status is competitive cheerleading’s reliance on private enterprise and independent, often certified professionals to supply training, coaching, and mentoring. All star gyms or clubs exist that have been tailored to the demands of cheerleader preparation, featuring for example spring-mat floors that meet competitive “specs.” Not surprisingly, most public high schools lack such ideal facilities. Their floor mats tend to be of foam. Nor are public school teachers reliably equipped with the background and certification ideal for leadership in so-called “adapted” sports. Further, as within the coaching profession generally after Title IX, ever fewer of the coaches overseeing high school competitive cheerleaders may be female. This does not bode well for a 90%-female competitive spirit sports constituency.

Health and Well-Being of Cheerleading Athletes

Cheerleading presentations are judged on originality of choreography, athleticism of athletes, showmanship—and degree of risk, as well. Cheerleading injuries have led to their fair share of law suits. [In at least one recent case, however, an injured plaintiff lost her bid for compensation from an allegedly negligent school (Krathen v. School Board of Monroe County, Florida). The Florida cheerleader and her parent had signed a certification of consent and release from liability, and an appellate court confirmed the trial court’s decision that the signed certification released the school board from liability (Herbert, 2008).] Injuries aside, the many benefits of sports participation to girls have been noted by Title IX supporters (and others). Research shows girls who play sports to be relatively more likely to graduate, to have greater confidence and better self-esteem and body image, to avoid teenage pregnancy, and to avoid drug use. Athletics is, furthermore, the kind of physical activity that builds muscle, reduces fat, reduces risk of heart disease, and prevents osteoporosis. A teen who exercises for only two hours weekly still reduces her lifetime risk of breast cancer. Of course, competitive cheerleaders can become injured, and there are as well two further health issues commonly associated with the sport: eating disorders and sexual harassment.

Sport-Related Injuries

Quantifying the risk of injury to cheerleaders is a challenge, given the lack of a national database tracking such incidents (Lin, Huang, & Esposito, 2007). What does exist are frequent alarming reports decrying near-epidemic levels of injury in the sport. The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, for instance, reported that out of all athletes, cheerleaders are most likely to suffer catastrophic injury. According to Pennington (2007),

Emergency room visits for cheerleading injuries nationwide have more than doubled since the early 1990s, far outpacing the growth in the number of cheerleaders, and the rate of life-threatening injuries has startled researchers. Of 104 catastrophic injuries sustained by female high school and college athletes from 1982 to 2005—head and spinal trauma that occasionally led to death—more than half resulted from cheerleading. . . . All sports combined did not surpass cheerleading.

But such reports may well need to be questioned. The executive director of the Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors, Jim Lord (2007), has argued with the publishers of the statistics, making the following points to refute many of the dramatic claims about cheerleading:

  1. The numbers being used are the same as those over the past two years, yet they are given as if this is continuing information and that injury rates continue to rise. No participation figures, relevant background information or corresponding data for other athletic activities are presented in these articles. In fact, no actual injury rate is ever given.
  2. Cheerleading does not have more serious injuries than football, hockey or all other sports combined. Over 350,000 people were treated in emergency rooms for football related injuries in 2004. That number is often ignored because there are probably more football players than cheerleaders, and it is primarily males that participate. It may be more realistic to compare cheerleading numbers to women’s basketball as the participation numbers are likely similar. In the same year in which 26,000 cheerleaders were treated in emergency rooms, they were sitting next to over 100,000 female basketball players. Nearly quadruple the amount of emergency room visits for women’s basketball, who a) have more access to an athletic trainer to filter out minor injuries and b) who do not participate in a year-round activity.
  3. The numbers being given also do not account for the fact that cheerleading is nearly a year round activity that takes place across sports seasons. Any comparison to other activities must account for the shorter participation time for those sports. Consider an athlete that participates in football and in basketball and is injured once in each season. Now consider another athlete participating on a cheerleading squad that cheers for football and basketball and is injured once during each of those seasons. The two injury rates are statistically equal, yet cheerleading will be shown to have twice the number of injuries. Without injury rate information, the statistics show what the author intends to show.
  4. Using emergency room visits is also inflammatory in that the vast majority, over 98% of those visits, were classified as “Treated & Released, Or Examined & Released Without Treatment.” The average person reading “emergency room visit” envisions 26,000 cheerleaders going into the emergency room on a stretcher. There are obviously serious injuries that need emergency procedures including hospitalization, but to include the percentage that were treated and released or even released without treatment needed only adds to the misrepresentation of cheerleading injuries and obscures the strides that have been made with regard to safety.

The report from the National Center for Catastrophic Injury incorporated statistics dating to 1982. Lord makes the valid point that cheerleading today enforces safety rules and stunt standards not enforced in the past. Numbers and types of flips and tosses are regulated and strict guidelines govern equipment from clothing to mats. It should also be remembered that through the 1980s, cheerleading was one of very few athletic outlets deemed acceptable for girls, so an injured girl athlete stood a relatively good chance of being a cheerleader.

Eating Disorders

Like young females in the population generally, cheerleaders in recent years are at a rising risk of developing eating disorders, which Pirtle (2002) contends are conservatively estimated to affect 5–10 million young American women and kill 50,000 directly. Doctors do not understand why women develop eating disorders, according to Pirtle, but do know that these disorders have death rates higher than any other psychiatric illness. Cheerleaders are at risk of eating disorders because (a) they share the same risk factors as young females who are not cheerleaders, (b) their sport has an “aesthetic” standard as well as an athletic one and performs before large audiences and even on television (which proverbially adds 10 lb), (c) they wear revealing costumes that may increase body consciousness as they highlight thinness, (d) the stunts they perform, as in the sport of gymnastics as well, are easier at low body weights, and (e) coaches have historically claimed small size produces more proficient tumbling and stunting (it is not uncommon for cheerleading teams to enforce weight standards with group weigh-ins) (Thompson, 2003). Scholarly research on cheerleaders is rare, but one study found high school cheerleaders to exhibit more body dissatisfaction and more eating disorders than college cheerleaders (Thompson, 2004).

Eating disorders in women and girls can lead to three interrelated health problems referred to at times as the female triad: lack of energy, menstrual disorders (amenorrhea), and weak bones (osteoporosis) (“The Female Triad,” 2006). Adulthood infertility and bone fractures (females accumulate about 50% of bone mass as teens) are potential effects. At greatest risk from the triad are those who participate in “aesthetic sports” (cheerleading, diving, gymnastics), weight-class sports (rowing, judo, karate, boxing, body building), and long-distance running. According to one study, primary menarche at 15 years occurs in 1% of girls in the general population and in 22% of girls competing in aesthetic sports. Cessation of periods might occur in 2%–5% of young women in general, whereas a study of one women’s track team found 65% of the athletes to be amenorrheic (“The Female Triad,” 2006).

Sexual Harassment

According to at least one study, students who experience some form of sexual harassment far outnumber students who get through school with no such incident. The research included 8th- through 11th-graders, 80% of whom, the results indicated, had been sexually harassed at school in some fashion—girls and boys alike. In colleges and universities the rate among female students, according to a survey, was 62%; harassment was occasionally the cause of dropping a course or avoiding a particular location (National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, 2008, p. II).

Cheerleaders are young women who literally stand out in the crowd, making them prime targets for sexual harassment. Sexual harassment lawsuits are common in education: When a cheerleader sued Marshall University over alleged sexual harassment, counsel at the Higher Education Policy Commission (the board that coordinates public colleges in West Virginia) said “lawsuits against the commission ‘happen about every day’” (Leubsdorf, 2006). Perhaps not surprisingly, a Westlaw search shows the vast majority of lawsuits involving cheerleaders to fall into the category of sexual harassment.

The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education’s report Title IX at 35: Beyond the Headlines reiterates the legal power stemming from Title IX as it relates to sexual harassment in schools at any level:

Sexual harassment is sex discrimination that is prohibited by Title IX, whether the student is harassed by employees such as teachers or coaches, or by other students. Students who have suffered sexual harassment may sue for damages in court under Title IX, but schools have an obligation to end harassment that goes well beyond their monetary liability. OCR issued a Sexual Harassment Guidance in 1997, which was revised in 2001, that requires all schools subject to Title IX to maintain an environment that is free of sexual harassment and to remedy the effects of harassment on the victim. (National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, 2008, p. II)

Title IX may protect cheerleaders (to some extent) from sexual harassment in public schools, but all star competitive cheerleaders function in environments not necessarily subject to Title IX. Harassment could go unpunished there, but in at least one case crime did not. In Vancouver, Washington, a cheerleading coach was sentenced to a nine-month jail stay and 10 years’ registration as a sex offender for having sex with a 16-year-old athlete he was training. As many other states do, Washington prohibits teachers and coaches from having sex with students, whatever the student’s age (Rice, 2008).

Hegemonic Implications

Title IX has greatly increased opportunities for girls and women to participate in sports. Since the statute’s enactment in June 1972, the number of female high school athletes has increased over 900%, from some 290,000 to 2.9 million. Women’s participation in intercollegiate sports has soared from 16,000 to 180,000, or more than 450% (Rhode, 2007). While the express purpose of Title IX was to prohibit sex discrimination in institutions receiving federal funding, the regulation also explicitly permits organizers of school-based contact sport programs to segregate competitors by sex. (The primary contact sports are boxing, wrestling, rugby, ice hockey, football, and basketball; other sports whose purpose or major activity involves bodily contact may also be included.) As McDonagh and Pappano explain (2008),

A recipient may operate or sponsor separate teams for members of each sex where selection for such teams is based upon competitive skill or the activity involved is a contact sport. However, where a recipient operates or sponsors a team in a particular sport for members of one sex but operates or sponsors no such team for members of the other sex, and athletic opportunities for members of that sex have previously been limited, members of the excluded sex must be allowed to try-out for the team offered unless the sport is a contact sport.

McDonagh and Pappano illuminate, moreover, the reality that the use of Title IX to sanction segregation within the contact sports has been a signal to non-contact sports (and some other activities) to follow suit. Title IX does not seem to suggest that billiards, chess, or bridge should be sex-segregated, but they have been. Title IX would seem to encourage, not discourage, mixed-sex teams for tennis, skiing, bowling, and even discus throwing, with men and women competing against each other. Title IX’s language separating male from female within the realm of contact sports perpetuates the male model of sport more than it promotes the equality of men and women. Not accepted on those teams, women have been distanced, connoting inferiority of their athletic ability and perhaps their will to compete.

Women stepping aside is an old theme, not confined to sports but reappearing readily even in cheerleading—90% female or not. For example, Thompson (2003) examines how it is assumed that, where cheerleader physical standards are concerned, it is the female gender that must hold to the mark. Thompson cites a 1996 study by Reel and Gill that found that cheerleaders were pressured from many sides to lose weight. The weight-watching college coaches who were interviewed claimed that below-average-sized females (and males) better demonstrated the required flexibility, in the same way that above-average-sized basketball players better demonstrate the ability to get to the basket. The argument as it figures in cheerleading, apparently, is that the females must be small so that males can lift them.

A case in the Superior Court of Connecticut involved a cheerleader dismissed for failing to satisfy her squad’s weight restriction (Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Michelle Budnik v. State of Connecticut, University of Connecticut, et al., 1996). Her suit was dismissed on appeal, with the following remarks:

As for the weight restriction, the hearing officer found that the defendant, UConn, had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for imposing the weight standard. . . . [I]n order for the entire squad to perform advanced partner stunts, which included lifting and tossing, it was necessary for general limits on how much the female cheerleaders, the “tosses,” could weigh. [The cheerleading coach] did not arbitrarily pick a number, but reviewed comparable programs at different schools to set the maximum at 125 pounds. The cheerleading coach testified that tossing was involved in 85 to 90 percent of the cheers the squad performed. (Budnick v. Connecticut, 1996)

It is not likely that any mention was made before the Court of male cheerleaders’ ability to bench press the 130 lb required by team rules. Thompson (2003) asks why coaches can’t as easily require male cheerleaders to be stronger as requiring female cheerleaders to be lighter. Another option would be the elimination of stunts, something the University of Nebraska’s athletic director suggested, concerned about safety (Thompson, 2003). But we need to remember the sensationalism Lord (2007) pointed out as coloring reports on cheerleading injuries. Male-dominated sports do not seem subject to censure simply because they involve risk. No one suggests removing tackling or the kickoff from the playbook. What is advised is increased safety awareness, proper supervision, and training in proper techniques—the same things that are recommended by organizations governing cheerleading.


The sport of cheerleading is here to stay. If it can perhaps be accused of perpetuating stereotypes with its sexualized performance—“aesthetic” standards, revealing costumes, pom-poms—competitive cheerleading also provides an example of American women turning the tables. Cheerleading was originated by men and handed to women in a sort of afterthought. But once it became women’s, it was developed with courage, perseverance, and creativity into something different, competitive cheerleading: women’s own sport for which they struggled and which they are establishing in more and more states as well as internationally.

Volumes have been written on the benefits of participating in sports, and women have proven their love for sports’ competitive demands: skill, strength, precision, courage, excellence. The sport of cheerleading incorporates all of these, truly earning respect and support for its athletes as they work to manifest their own view of the world through sports. Title IX rightly works to afford them equal opportunity: After all, the greater the success of women in any sport, in any endeavor, the greater the success of the society as a whole.


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