Student Well-Being

School Cheerleading Evolving Into Competitive Activity

By Adrienne D. Coles — April 26, 2000 5 min read
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To high school senior Joshua Cordell, being a competitive cheerleader and a star quarterback is about the same. As a member of Parkway High School’s championship competitive-cheerleading squad in Bossier City, La., the 18-year-old considers himself as much an athlete as his school’s football or basketball players.

Students like Mr. Cordell are the new breed of cheerleader. No longer selected largely for their popularity, the new cheerleader, organizers of the activity say, is more likely to be one of the most talented athletes at school.

The evolution of competitive events for cheerleaders has led to more vigorous and dangerous stunts, along with spirited performances. In addition, more cheerleading competitions are being televised to a national audience, which has given the activity broader appeal and a new respect.

But the changes have also led to elimination of the traditional activity at some schools and to complaints that this new breed has forgotten its fundamental purpose: rousing the crowd.

Chance for Scholarships

While competitive cheerleading’s popularity has been climbing, interest in traditional cheerleading has waned. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the Indianapolis-based governing body for high school activities, 143,900 students participated in cheerleading five years ago; by the 1998-99 school year, the number had fallen to 130,900. During that same time, however, participation in competitive spirit squads grew from 27,500 to almost 60,000.

Much of the growth can be attributed to the increased availability of college scholarships for competitive cheerleading, said Karen Halterman, a vice president of the Dallas-based National Cheerleading Association, which sponsors competitions for high school and college cheerleaders.

In fact, Mr. Cordell dropped football at Parkway High to focus on cheerleading because he believed it would improve his chances of getting a scholarship.

Besides, cheerleading is a big deal in Bossier City. Parkway’s 17-member squad, which consists of 12 girls and five boys, holds the current state championship title for competitive cheering and won the top prize at the National Cheerleading Association’s competition last year.

The Louisiana team, which trains 11 months a year, is an example of how much cheerleading has changed in the past 20 years.

When Paige Carter joined the squad as a freshman, she was just looking for something fun to do. “It’s much more work than anyone could ever imagine,” said Ms. Carter, now a junior and the squad captain. “We train and condition as much as any other athlete.”

Becky Gray, an English teacher at the 1,000-student Parkway High, has coached cheerleaders for 25 years and has seen the activity’s metamorphosis firsthand."It’s no longer cute girls on the sidelines with pompoms.”

Facing Extinction?

While many students and coaches welcome the change, some worry that the more competitive focus may bring about the extinction of traditional cheerleading.

Jim Lord, the executive director of the Universal Cheerleaders Association, said that cheerleaders in recent years have gotten away from rousing the crowd in support of the school’s team.

“Some squads are too performance-oriented and not into the more traditional things,” said Mr. Lord, whose Memphis, Tenn.-based organization represents cheerleading coaches.

Ms. Halterman also sees the more traditional aspects of cheerleading as the primary task of a squad, but says she hasn’t noticed a decline in those traditions.

“Most competitive cheerleaders are also part of more traditional teams,” she said. “They don’t want to forgo that experience.”

Parkway’s Ms. Gray requires her squad to cheer at football and basketball games. “Our first obligation is to support the school,” she said, “and our members must realize that support and competition must go together.”

But in Farmington, N.M., administrators are contemplating transforming the activity. Middle school administrators in the 10,200-student district want to replace their all-girl cheerleading squads with spirit squads that would include girls and boys. And while the goal was to make the activity more inclusive, the decision has divided students, parents, and administrators.

A coalition of parents bought the squads some time last week after presenting the school board with hundreds of signatures they had collected in support of the current setup. Superintendent Tom Sullivan and middle school administrators hope to come up with an alternative by the beginning of next month.

No such options were available for the cheerleading squad at Willmar High School in Minnesota, however. School board officials there voted to dissolve the program last month after the squad fell victim to a lack of interest by its 1,350-students.

The number of cheerleaders had been on the decline for the past three years, according to Principal Ron Erdmann. Only 16 students signed up this school year. The difficulty in finding team advisers drove the point home for Mr. Erdmann."Most of the young ladies are going out for other teams,” he said.

While neither cheerleading association has called for competitive cheerleading to be declared a sport, some coaches and cheerleaders are pushing for that recognition. They hope such a designation would provide more funding and respect for their programs.

Some administrators and activities associations have viewed sanctioning cheerleading as a sport as an opportunity to meet Title IX requirements for gender equity. But those hopes ended when the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights stated in 1995 that cheerleading would not be considered when looking at equity issues. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding.

So far, only a few state athletic associations have decided to declare competitive cheerleading a sport. In 1994, Michigan became one of them. Since then, it has seen the sport grow from 1,800 girls to more than 2,600 in 1998-99. In comparison, the state’s schools have more than 12,000 traditional cheerleaders.

But Suzanne Martin, an assistant director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, foresees a drop in that latter number.

“Many cheerleaders are not leading cheers, they’re performing,” she said. “Performing is not what their objective should be, and it is not what the crowd wants,” she said.

Old and New

The best cheerleading combines the new and the old, Mr. Lord of the Universal Cheerleading Association said.

Mary Rambler, a cheerleading coach at the 1,200-student Broken Arrow High School outside Tulsa, Okla., agreed. Her 24-member squad is the state champion.

“Yes, we compete, but cheering on the sidelines is still huge,” she said.

Still, she added, cheerleading has come a long way.

“It’s gone from who’s the most popular to who’s the most skilled,” Ms. Rambler said. “Some of the best athletes will very often be involved in cheerleading.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as School Cheerleading Evolving Into Competitive Activity

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