Cheer Like a Girl

On Friday nights, a Manhattan College team pounds the pavement in Draddy Gymnasium, perfecting their agility, strength and stamina. They run, train, lift and stretch. But are they athletes?

This is the Manhattan College cheerleading team, and the answer to that very question is at the center of a nationwide debate on whether or not college-level cheerleading should be considered a sport.

Cheerleaders - Fuhrmann
Kevin Fuhrmann/Courtesy

Court cases have made the legal definition clear: cheerleading is not a sport. A federal judge ruled that way in 2012 in a lawsuit brought against Quinnipiac University. The ruling said Quinnipiac had violated Title IX regulations when it removed its women’s volleyball team and replaced it with a competitive cheerleading team, because cheerleading was in fact not a sport.

“The implications of this ruling pushes the issue for colleges and universities to demand and act in fair ways to both men and women,” professor of kinesiology Shawn Ladda said. “Title IX was passed in 1972 and still it is estimated that a large percentage of colleges and universities are not in compliance with the law.”

The decision spurred controversy and intensified a national debate over whether cheerleading is inherently an athletic endeavor or an accessory. People siding with the ruling say cheerleading lacks some of the qualities that make up a sport, like a scoring mechanism or official rules. Critics of the ruling, like medical professionals and cheerleaders themselves, argue that cheerleading is not only a sport, but one of the most physically challenging and dangerous ones.

In the middle of this back-and-forth are the cheerleaders at Manhattan College, who say a lack of understanding of the rigors of cheerleading (often glossed over as being girly or easy) taint it as a distraction rather than a sport.

“I lift girls, so I’m equally as strong,” senior captain Katie Smolko said. “Cheerleading has been definitely one of the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done,” she said, listing a host of sprains, concussions and black eyes that have ensued.

“No matter how you classify a sport, cheerleading fits,” Smolko said.

Junior captain Emily Knight says cheerleading takes stamina.

“You’re slapping your legs until you’re red,” she said. “It takes training and you have to have endurance. Society says it’s easy because it’s girls.”

But the fact that their effort goes without the label of ‘student athlete’ has left some cheerleaders dissatisfied.

“We cannot have a competition team because we’re not one of the Title IX sports. It’s kind of like an intramural team,” cheerleader Brianna Sheehy said. “The things that we do, I consider it a sport. We try to practice just as much and it’s just as important that we perform to the best of our abilities.”

The team is expected to practice, be present at all home men and women’s basketball games and travel with the teams to the MAAC and NCAA tournaments. Even so, it doesn’t have access to support services like athletic academic advising, priority class registration or facilities like locker space.

“We don’t get as many of the opportunities that we get. We do not get scholarships to do it,” Sheehy said.

“[We get] none of the same breaks that athletes do,” junior captain Emily Knight said. “We don’t get to pick our schedule first. We’re practicing at night from 9 until 11 [at night].”

Knight said a lack of understanding from administration contributes to their experience. At the Manhattan Madness pep rally held last semester, students were given glow sticks to hold in the stands, but some students started throwing them at the cheerleaders instead and caused a dangerous situation.

“People are flipping in the air … something could go wrong,” Knight said. “People can get really injured. Even administration doesn’t fully understand. If that glow stick hit me … I’d be paralyzed or dead. It only takes one thing to happen.”

This discrepancy between the perception of cheerleading and its dangers and challenges may actually have to do with gender.

Kimberly Fairchild, Ph.D. and associate professor of psychology, described the cultural history of sports and how gender roles factor into them.

“Going back 100 years, 200 years, sports [were] something that was male-dominated,” Fairchild said. “Men were supposed to be the ones showing strength, and women were supposed to be at the home and nurturing. And if we think about what sport are … men’s sports like football, where there’s a lot of violence and aggression … isn’t appropriate for women to be doing.”

“I think the way the sports that gets … defined is in a male leaning definition, the skills, the ability, the aggression,” Fairchild said, “all of those types of words that we typically associate with men instead of women.”

So it may seem a little ironic that the modern model of female-dominated cheerleading is actually a far cry from its original model as an all-male activity at various colleges and universities. Cheerleading squads began as men’s “yell squads” or “pep squads” that would amp up the crowds at football games. Only decades later did women begin to join, in the 1920s through 1940s.

Now, it is entirely dominated by females, although some cheerleading teams, including Manhattan College’s, have one or more male members.

“Once women were allowed formal schooling, cheerleading became feminized and sexualized,” Ladda said. “Society is more accepting of a woman cheering for sport rather than to play a sport relegated to the sideline rather than a playing field.”

Given cheerleading’s history, it is difficult to separate it from the issue of gender. Some cheerleaders describe feeling objectified for their looks rather than appreciated for their skill because of it.

“People would literally stare at you and it would make me uncomfortable when in reality I’m doing athletics,” Sheehy said about looks she would get in high school. “…Just because I’m wearing a skirt doing it, doesn’t mean anything.”

To an extent, that kind of experience continues into college.

“There have been times where like random guys come up to us and try to take a picture of us,” Smolko said. “So that’s a little strange. We just try and be positive.”

Knight also added that cheerleaders are expected to look and act a certain way. As for looks, Knight talked about comments about the team on Yik Yak, an anonymous social platform.

  “They called one girl fat, and ugly. It’s still degrading,” she said. “You wouldn’t say that to the women’s lacrosse team. I just got inducted into an honor society. [The notion that] you have to be a dumb blonde to be a cheerleader, it’s so not true.”

For now, Sheehy hopes these gender norms will begin to change.

“We had a guy try out for the cheer team and it kind of broke the norm,” she said. “It’s not awkward to do this. We were all really accepting of it. That can definitely start breaking down the barrier that cheer is a girly sport.”