Besides the mothers of Chapman’s football players, Jillian Bellamy knows that there isn’t a huge fan base for Chapman’s cheer team. Bellamy, a co-captain for the upcoming school year, said that cheerleaders at any level – high school, college, or professional – find themselves operating as a sport that bolsters other sports.
“A lot of the challenge comes from the fact that cheer is not given respect in and of itself,” said Bellamy, a junior mathematics and integrated educational studies major. “It’s hard to find people to support people that are already supporting people.”
That identity has created a disparity in how professional cheerleaders are treated. According to an April 4 New York Times article, NFL cheerleaders aren’t unionized like players and are often subject to strict requirements.
Bailey Smith, an ex-cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints, is suing the organization after being fired for posting an Instagram photo that the team deemed inappropriate.
Most cheerleaders are subject to hyper-specific rules like not wearing sweatpants in public, not being seen with players in public, jewelry and nail polish limitations and maintaining an “ideal body weight.”
Jordan Haley, a Chapman senior economics major and former captain of the cheer team, said that, in high school, she was subject to restrictions on appearance. Nails had to be either French tip or a muted color, hair dyeing was restricted to colors like blonde or brunette and no piercings were allowed.
“My coaches kind of lied to me in high school,” Haley said. “They used to say that (the judges) can tell how injured you are based on the color of the beds of your nails. Whatever they said goes and you have to fall in line.”
Skylar Brock, a sophomore communication studies major and co-captain for the upcoming season, said that, besides Smith’s firing, she isn’t surprised by the treatment NFL cheerleaders face.
“I watched (TV show) ‘Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team’ when I was younger, so it didn’t surprise me,” Brock said. “I feel like it’s been like this for a really long time and the fact that the girls keep trying out doesn’t really help,” she said.
Most NFL teams have about 40 cheerleaders, but some tryouts, like one in 2015 for the Houston Texans cheer team, bring in 1,000-plus people.
“There are so many girls that can do the same thing,” Brock said. “That’s how I felt the first year trying out at Chapman and I told myself, ‘Wow, literally everyone here has the exact same skills that I have. What’s going to be able to make me stand out and get on the team?’”
Brock said roughly 70 girls showed up for the first day of Chapman’s tryouts in spring 2017. The three-day tryout, which will take place from May 1-3, includes two nights of learning material before a performance in front of a judging panel.
This year, the panel will feature current captains Bellamy and Brock, last season’s captains, Fiona Zaring and Haley, and the team’s first-year head coach, Emily Hepp. Fifty to 60 girls remained on the final day of last year’s tryouts.
The process can be nerve-racking for some: Bellamy, who was on her high school’s cheer team for four years, said she was “super paranoid” at Chapman’s tryout.
“There were so many people at the tryout,” she said. “I didn’t feel confident in my spot at all.”
After decisions are made, the team holds 10 p.m. to midnight practices on Mondays and Wednesdays, decorates football players’ lockers on Fridays, attends pregame tailgates and holds raffle ticket sales and practices before Saturday games. Everything the team chooses to purchase, including traveling to away games, has to be covered out of pocket, said Bellamy.
While the team can fundraise, Bellamy said most of the money it made this season went toward paying their coach, and some will go toward the team’s first banquet later this month.
Even with the effort and money the team puts in, stigma pervades. Emphasis is often put on appearance, there’s a notion that cheerleaders are not intelligent, and some people even claim cheerleading isn’t a sport, Haley said.
“It’s a bummer that it all comes down to appearance and that’s what a lot of people care about,” Haley said.
An economics major who works in information technology, Haley said people don’t believe her when she says she’s a cheerleader.
She was made fun of at work for being both a cheerleader and a sorority member. It caused her to remove her high school and college cheerleading captaincies from her resume until talking with a family friend, who told her that George W. Bush used to be a cheerleader.
“There is definitely a fear there of being viewed a certain way, but you kind of have to get over it,” she said.
Bellamy and Haley – who is Bellamy’s “big” in the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority – said cheerleading is what kept them at Chapman.
Since tryouts take place in April or May, freshmen can’t try out for the team until the end of the year. Bellamy, who is from Saratoga, California, felt homesick and was prepared to transfer until she made the team.
“It ended up being the reason that I stayed, because my best friends are on the team,” Bellamy said. “It all sounds so cliche. I feel like people say, ‘Oh it’s my home,’ but it really is.”
Haley had a similar experience in her freshman year, and also considered transferring before she made the team.
“(In) cheer, you can get put through the ringer sometimes and I think it’s something that we can all bond over,” Haley said. “It’s something that’s fun and something that puts you in a good mood because you’re there to encourage people and if you’re encouraging other people, you’re going to feel that back.”