by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
NFL cheerleaders recently accused the Oakland Raiders of paying them less than minimum wage and not paying for their expenses. The two cheerleaders who filed the class-action lawsuit complained to the media that cheerleaders are shown little respect.
Some cheerleading coaches think that what’s happening at the professional level can be traced to high school practices. They say it’s time for schools to give cheerleaders the respect they deserve — and time to treat cheerleading like a real sport.
So has the time come to fight, fight, fight?
Some CTA members, in the words of the popular cheer movie, say yes, bring it on!
Cheer has changed
For decades, cheerleaders were mostly pretty, popular pep leaders. But over the years, cheerleading has become physically demanding, requiring strength, skill, and the ability to perform aerial and tumbling feats.
Does cheerleading get the respect it deserves?
Noooo, fumes Kristine Durfee, Red Bluff High School cheer coach.
“People don’t realize how much hard work is required or how strong you have to be. It’s not just about being coordinated and looking nice. You have to lift people up in the air, throw them and catch them. There’s no other sport that requires that. You throw and catch them while in transition to your next formation, so it’s not just catch and drop. You have to be skilled and talented to do that.”
Like most teams, Durfee’s cheerleaders are constantly fundraising to pay for uniforms, tumbling mats, travel and other expenses. They start practicing in summer and drill after school and on weekends. They can’t afford to enter competitions, although Durfee thinks they are certainly good enough to compete.
As cheerleading has become more competitive and focused on “stunts,” safety has become more of an issue, she says. Coaches, once merely “advisers,” are now certified through the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA), an organization dedicated to cheerleading safety and education of coaches through certification programs, offered online and at coaching conventions. Previous experience as a cheerleader is helpful for coaching, but not a requirement.
Sport vs. activity?
Cheerleading is not considered a sport, but many think it should be, including the Women’s Sports Foundation and the American Association of University Women.
“I think it should be a sport,” says Durfee, Red Bluff Union High School Teachers Association. “They take tumbling classes and are gymnasts. They are athletes and are required to perform like athletes. But they are not treated the same as athletes.”
Desiree Turner, cheer coach at Oakland High School, agrees.
“Yes, it should definitely be a sport,” says Turner, Oakland Education Association. “They practice year-round and put in as much work as a football player or basketball player. They do stunts. I require them to go to cheerleading camp so they can learn how to do it safely. We do lots of fundraising so they can go to camp.”
“To me, it already is a sport,” says Lily Saephan, a junior on the cheer team at Oakland High. “Anybody who says it’s not — well, they need to think again.”
Because cheerleading is not considered a sport, it’s usually unfunded. That means bake sales, car washes and students paying out of pocket, with those in wealthier schools having parents paying for professional choreographers and consultants.
“It’s tough to come up with the money at an inner-city school,” says Turner.
The AACCA’s position is that cheerleading does not meet the requirement of being a sport because the primary purpose is not competition, it’s raising school unity at athletic functions. They opted to put cheerleading into a new, developing category known as “athletic activity.”
Title IX consideration of cheerleading as a sport was nixed when the Office for Civil Rights ruled that cheerleading would not be considered as a factor when it comes to gender equity in sports.
But arguments like this don’t sway Jesse Cerda, coach for the Skyhawks at Summit High School in Fontana, winners of the 2012, 2013 and 2014 USA Nationals in Anaheim.
“It should be considered a sport because of the safety factor,” says Cerda, Fontana Teachers Association. “We’re lucky to have support from our athletic department to provide trainers to make sure kids are safe. Due to our socioeconomic level, our kids don’t have money to take private lessons. We can’t afford to go to camp, so I host a camp on campus, bringing in people who are qualified to teach choreography and help with stunts.”
Eileen McGrew, whose teams have won regional, state and national championships during her 22 years at Agoura High School, isn’t sure whether cheerleading should be designated as a sport, noting that it is not sanctioned as such by the California Interscholastic Federation.
“It’s progressing like any other sport,” she says. “Cheerleading is an activity, and our main purpose is supporting the athletic teams at the high school. Above and beyond that it’s also a sport. It’s a tricky situation.”
She coaches several teams, including the Crowdleader Division first-place team at last year’s Nationals in Anaheim. Some of her teams pay extra for competitions; others only perform at school events.
Cheerleading is part of her school’s athletic department, which offers funding, unlike most schools.
“It’s something we fought for,” says McGrew, a former cheerleader who knows how to rally the fans.
Cheerleaders are various shapes and sizes
Cheerleaders still get a bad rap for being snobby and focused on looks. That image lingers, thanks to shows like “Glee” where cheerleaders are mean.
Actually, today’s cheerleaders are much more inclusive. They come in a variety of looks and body sizes. A few cheerleading teams even include students with special needs.
“Sometimes we are all portrayed as being stuck-up, which is a stereotype,” says Red Bluff High School cheerleader Chase Feusi. “They think we are always wearing our uniforms at school. We aren’t like that at all.”
Cheerleaders say the main benefit isn’t prestige but being part of a team and learning important life skills.
“It’s a really good bonding experience,” says Agoura High varsity cheerleader Samantha Starling. “These girls are like my second family.”
“Cheerleading helped me to get through high school,” relates Monesha Stroman of Oakland High School. “Once I started cheerleading, my grades got better.”
Her coach, Turner, adds, “Cheerleading helps girls work together because they have a goal they are striving for. It gives them confidence and self-esteem. When you see girls blossom and mature, it’s so worth it.”
Boys can be cheerleaders, too.
“There’s not many of us,” says Everett Fitzpatrick, Agoura High junior varsity. “But we’re awesome.”
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