The job of a cheerleader is often thankless. When my high school had a pep rally or football game, I remember the impressive stunts the cheerleaders would perform, but they were seen as temporary entertainment and not the focal point of the game. Few people, besides parents, really acknowledged how challenging their stunts were. And that’s a shame.
It’s a shame because most people’s experiences are like mine – briefly acknowledging what cheerleaders accomplish. But then that moment passes, and we go on to follow the game or event that the cheerleaders are supporting.
Even competitive cheerleading, which features incredible stunts and tumbling routines that can defy logic and gravity, doesn’t get much attention.
“I don’t really follow competitive cheer, and I love cheer,” said Jillian Bellamy, a co-captain for Chapman’s cheer team. “So I don’t really know who pays attention to that.”
Cheerleaders often find themselves underappreciated. At every level – some start cheering before high school – they face antiquated and sexist stigmas that focus on their appearances, assume they lack intelligence and even suggest that cheerleading isn’t a real sport.
Not only are those stigmas woefully incorrect, but they reveal a lack of understanding of the sport’s difficulty. Competitive cheerleading involves complex routines that require precision and strength. Even cheer teams like Chapman’s, which is more dance-oriented, practice for hours each week, memorizing mentally and physically challenging routines.
Try to do a back handspring or perform a dance routine in front of a crowd and then attempt to make the argument that cheerleaders aren’t athletes.
Some professional baseball players can sit on a bench for a full game with a wad of chewing tobacco in their mouth. Most of their profession is sitting and standing, yet baseball gets called“America’s pastime,” while cheerleading is mocked and stigmatized.
But baseball, a traditionally male sport that requires specialized talents, like throwing and hitting 90 mile-per-hour fastballs, receives acclaim and respect. Since cheerleading is less specialized and female-dominated, it is often disparaged.
Cheerleaders at all levels are often subject to strict requirements about their appearance, such as when they can wear their uniforms or even how they paint their nails and dye their hair. In the NFL, cheerleaders can’t even be seen socializing with players, meaning they’d have to leave a restaurant if a player showed up.
According to The New York Times, NFL cheerleaders are paid low wages, fined if they don’t have the right clothing or pompoms, and have to sell calendars of themselves in scantily clad outfits. Since there can be thousands who try out for professional teams, cheerleaders are seen as expendable. They can’t unionize and if they make one “inappropriate” social media post, they can be fired.
Just because there are more people in line to cheer does not excuse the behavior of team owners who enable and promote this treatment of their cheer teams. They are athletes, just like the football players they support, and should be treated with the same respect.
To be clear, cheerleaders at all levels aren’t asking for pity. They work hard, are proud of what they do and support each other. They don’t need our recognition or our praise, but they undoubtedly deserve it.