Opinion | Cheerleading proves that athletes can be tough and glamorous

By Talia Spillerman, Staff Columnist

The Netflix show “Cheer” follows the cheerleading team at Navarro College, a junior college in Texas, as they prepare for the biggest, most important competition in collegiate cheerleading — the National Cheerleaders Association Championship in Daytona, Florida.

This hit, nine-episode docuseries emphasizes the many positive attributes of college cheerleading, such as athleticism, commitment, perseverance, charisma, personality and determination — portraying cheerleading as a sport that requires creativity and artistry, as well as strength and toughness.

After watching the documentary, there is no doubt in my mind that cheerleading is a sport. In fact, since cheerleading blends style and glamor with grit and strength, it can help us to rethink how we view sports and athletes in general.

Before I get into cheerleading, I must define what a sport is. This is difficult to answer since no one set of skills clearly separates sports from other activities. Some sports are team-oriented, such as football, whereas others test an individual’s capability, such as swimming. Even the Olympics have no set standard of what qualifies for an event — the inclusion of a sport is dependent on a vote. The definition of a sport is vague, denoting it as an activity that requires “physical prowess” and “competitive nature” — which are both qualities of cheerleading.

Cheerleaders have to use agility, perseverance and focus to perform their complex routines. At the NCA championship, cheerleaders compete against teams across the country with a choreographed performance that is two minutes and 15 seconds long. In their routines, cheerleaders complete flips, handsprings, pyramids, stunts and other gravity-defying skills that show impressive flexibility and strength. Cheerleaders’ skills are comparable to those of gymnasts and divers, even though these sports are supported by the NCAA, unlike cheerleading.

Still, the NCAA — the governing body of college athletics — does not consider cheerleading a sport since their participation numbers and sponsorship rates do not meet their standard. However, this notion has been challenged in recent years.

In order to stay in compliance with Title IX regulations that require equal athletic participation opportunities for women, Quinnipiac University elevated the status of its cheerleading team to a varsity sport after canceling its women’s volleyball program in 2009. The volleyball team then sued the school, claiming that redirecting funds meant for women’s sports to cheerleading violated Title IX.

U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill agreed with the volleyball team — noting that in the future, cheerleading may be a sport, but it was too “disorganized” and “underdeveloped” to have that designation currently.

Ultimately, the organization of cheerleading contributed to this decision — not the aspects of the actual sport itself. As the number of cheerleading participants increases across the country and the world, it opens the door for it to be considered a sport in the near future. 

Nevertheless, cheerleading’s distinct elements, such as supporting other sports and wearing glamorous outfits and makeup, make some doubt whether it is a sport. But why can’t a sport require competitiveness and athleticism and also have aspects of showmanship and aesthetics? Being glamorous does not take from the athleticism needed for the sport.

Numerous sports require different skills — basketball requires hand-eye coordination, while running requires speed. Swimmers need to know how to move swiftly through water, while javelin throwers need to have the strength to throw an object as far as possible. Cheerleading’s sport-specific skills involve performing with style and strength.

Additionally, when cheerleaders support sports teams, it doesn’t detract from the athletic aspects of their own sport. It’s similar to a professional football player addressing fans at a press conference — it doesn’t take away from the grit used to play the game, instead just a necessary part of participating.

As a society, we tend to believe that athleticism equates to aggressiveness and grittiness. Cheerleading shows us that this does not have to be true. Many cheerleaders are athletic, strong, hardworking and glamorous. If we continue to spread these values together, maybe this will encourage more people in sports to embrace these characteristics.

Talia Spillerman writes about anything and everything. Write to her at [email protected].