Monday, October 7, 2019

Cheer Leading, Title IX, and #NotLikeOtherGirls

Here's a fun fact for you.  Did you know that three of the U.S. presidents so far have been cheerleaders?  (In other words, 7% of U.S. presidents.)  The three presidents were George W. Bush, Ronald Regan, and Dwight Eisenhower.

I remember George W. Bush being mocked for this a little during his presidency.  Considering all that was going on, it struck me as a weird thing to mock.  And in fact, even if nothing had been going on, I still would have found it weird.  Cheer leading is a sport, after all, and he wouldn't have been mocked had he played football in high school or college, right?  And, not to dismiss the achievements or physical prowess of footballers, but it takes a hell of a lot more strength to throw a girl into the air than it does a ball.

So what's the deal with people mocking male cheer leaders?  The answer is misogyny, of course.  Cheer leading is a "girl" sport and feminine interests tend to widely be looked down upon.

More on this, coming up soon!

By the way, cheer leading isn't a "sport."  That's not my opinion.  That's a court ruling.

I only recently learned about this; I thought cheer leading was totally a sport, but nope, it is classified as a non-athletic extracurricular, like puppet-making.  This was ruled upon by a federal appeals court. High school and college cheer leading, which I always thought of as a sort of gymnastics, aren't covered by Title IX.  Title IX is a 1972 federal law that mandates equal opportunities for men and women in education and athletics, and it deems whether or not an activity can be legally called a "varsity sport."  This legal distinction is important because Title IX allows school sports to offer academic scholarships as well as safety regulations, allowances for athletes, access to tutoring and coaching and housing, medical facilities and services, and other support.

 Not athletic, apparently.

You might be saying, "So what?" right now.  The answer is, cheer leading, as a not-sport, is responsible for 65% of catastrophic injuries in women's athletics in high schools and carries the single highest rate of catastrophic injuries for women in sports (or "athletic extracurricular activities," since, again, cheer leading is "not a sport" despite being athletic and competitive and organized).  Cheer leading doesn't get safer at a college level; collegiate cheer leading accounted for 70% of all female catastrophic sports injuries.  The lack of safety equipment and regulation, combined with the tendency of the sport to throw humans into the air like hackey sacks, is a lethal combination.

It's hard to understand why there's no effort to make cheer leading a Title IX sport and thereby create federal regulations on its safety.  But there's a reason why it's not, and the reason is a sinister one.  Most cheer leading apparel and equipment is owned by a company called Varsity Brands.  Varsity, a private company, also owns and runs nearly all national competitions and regulatory bodies.  If cheer leading were to be declared a sport Varsity would have to forfeit managing competitions to an independent body, to avoid creating a significant conflict of interest.  In the court case where the U.S. Federal Appeals court decided cheer leading wasn't a sport, guess who else was present to argue the case against cheer leading as a sport?  Varsity has been lobbying for years to keep a stranglehold on their monopoly by insisting it's not a sport while running the national competitions for it.  Talk about a scam.

I only just learned about cheer leading not being a sport at work, while we were watching college football.  I was horrified.  Cheerleaders are already getting financially shafted; the average NFL cheerleader only makes $75 - $150 a game, raking in maybe $5,000 a season if she's lucky, despite practices being a full-time job.  In other words, they earn less than minimum wage.  Oh, and also, they often have to pay a fee to audition for the "job" in the first place.  Having a whole industry that exploits people for labor while also denying them academic scholarships and basic safety precautions is something we should be rallying against.  So why aren't we?

I hate to say it, but sexism.  And sexism from all sides, too.  Cheerleaders probably get more guff from other women than from men, who dismiss them as vapid, smiling, bubble-headed blondes without recognizing the legitimacy of the grueling work hours, discipline, and rigorous physical activity they put themselves through in order to be cheerleaders.

It's all part of the "Not Like Other Girls" phenomenon.  What is this phenomenon?  It's the distancing of self from other women in an effort to establish that one has a rich, complex, individual value.  The problem is that it's done by putting others down.



It's a highly anti-feminist approach to trying to establish one's value outside of one's gender.  The ways in which people dismiss cheerleaders is a great example of the real harm that this type of thinking can do.

There's no easy answer to sexism, though there is an easy answer to the problems with cheer leading, which is that it should be made a Title IX sport and that the Varsity Brands monopoly needs to be broken up.  Not all of us might find cheer leading to be interesting or valuable, but that doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye to the very real effects it has on its participants.  Feminists would do well to try to protect cheer leaders by legitimizing their sport.  We should strive not to dismiss cheer leading or cheer leaders as nothing but smiling faces; they are truly athletes and are entitled to the same protections as other athletes.

By the way, being a cheer leader isn't, and never has been, mutually exclusive with being smart, tough, socially conscious, emotionally mature, or complex.

Y'all forget about Shuri from Black Panther already...?

We need to withdraw support from Varsity and push the government to legitimize cheer leading as a sport.  But first, we need to start identifying sexist biases in our society and counteract them.  We need to stop internalized misogyny from causing us to react with derision to traditionally "feminine" interests and dismiss those interests as unworthy of respect.  We need to start building each other up like so many human pyramids.

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