Not a sport?
Cheerleaders reflect on life as an ‘activity club’
Marcus Clem | copy editor
Wave your pompoms, dance a few simple moves, repeat chants, stand on the sideline and look pretty: That is the pop culture job description pegged to cheerleaders.
It couldn’t be further from the truth, Mickey Walker says. The activity of cheerleading has evolved to become much more challenging athletically. People who say it doesn’t deserve “sport” status are wrong, Walker says.
“There are always going to be people who believe that, but don’t judge a book by its cover,” Walker, sophomore in biology, said. “A lot of these girls and a lot of these guys work really hard.”
Last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics said school sports associations should designate cheerleading as a sport, and make it subject to safety rules and better supervision. That would include on-site athletic trainers and limits on practice time.
Last year, the Associated Press reported cheer injuries made for 37,000 emergency room visits for girls from ages six to 22, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That’s more than four times higher than in 1980.
Walker injured herself recently after she fell during a team practice.
The main issue that confronts Pittsburg State’s cheer squad isn’t one of image; it is one of recognition. Cheer is not classified as a sport by either the Athletics Department or the NCAA.
At PSU, cheerleaders are officially defined as an activity club that is covered by the Athletics Department, head coach Linda Graham says.
To support the squad, Graham must make an annual request to Student Government Association (SGA) for a student fee allocation, independent of the Athletics Department.
That pays for cheerleader scholarships (capped at $1,000 per year) and equipment. Any cost overruns not covered by SGA’s allocation must be paid for out of pocket or privately raised, Graham says.
“We are strictly financed through student government,” she said. “We get zero money from the Athletic Department. Most people don’t know that. We are governed by the Athletic Department, so to speak … I don’t know how they govern without paying for anything.”
Graham says that SGA usually makes up the difference for needed expenses.
“Student government is very supportive, and we appreciate every bit of what they give us.”
The cheer squad is as representative of the university as any other athletic team on campus, John Rowe, assistant coach, says, while also being something of a family.
“We do a lot of team events. We go bowling together, we have movie night, we have team dinners,” he said. “They always have opportunities to spend time with our families. These guys always take care of each other; number one.”
A lot of the cheerleaders spend as much or almost as much time in the classroom as they do training. Walker says she is not the only member of the cheer squad who is majoring in a science or other intensive-study field.
Even those who concentrate on athletics, such as Lindsey Worley, squad captain and junior in recreation and exercise science, have very little time for secondary pursuits.
“People don’t understand how much physical endurance and activities and time and effort goes into this year-round,” she said.
Cheerleaders report for summer tryouts in April, train during the summer and go right into football season, Worley and Graham say.
If the football team wins, that means more work, especially if the postseason extends into basketball season as it did during last year’s NCAA Division II National Championship run. Winter break is reduced to only a handful of days in any case.
If either the men’s or women’s basketball teams are successful in their postseasons, cheerleaders travel with the teams. With last year’s women’s appearance in at the NCAA tournament in San Antonio, Texas, work continued right up to April tryouts.
“We began the tryout process and then we started the whole thing over again,” Worley said. “It’s this way year after year… no other sport does what we do.”
Another aspect of the team that defies popular conception: Most of the overall roster is male.
“I call this team a retirement home for athletes for the guys, because it gives them a chance to stay competitive throughout college,” Rowe said.
It was strange to work so closely with women in a competitive athletic environment when he joined the team, says Thorne Penrod, senior in exercise science, who played football at PSU for 3 1/2 years.
“Coming into it, at first, you’re not really sure what all you can do with the girls and what you can’t,” he said.
Walker says the men are a critical part of the team, but new recruits are fairly easy to come by.
“Basically, all you have to say is, ‘Want to stunt with some really hot girls in sports bras and spandex?’” she said. “That usually works.”