CHEERLEADING: An American Ritual by John Francis

CHEERLEADING: An American Ritual

Like Mom, apple pie and baseball, what could be more American than cheerleaders and cheerleading? After all, we created cheerleading, we’re the best at it (hello, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders!), we feature them at most of our major sporting events (OK, so we have goofy mascots at baseball games), they’re part of everyone’s high school experience, we created cheerleading competitions and we have almost 4 million of the spirited scream queens (and dudes, or yell leaders or stunt men as they’re sometimes called because they do most of the heavy lifting).

But hold onto your pom-poms. According to some accounts, cheering and chanting in unison at sporting events started in the 1860s in Great Britain. That activity supposedly made its way to our shores and we adopted it from the Brits. There are those who claim baseball and football (real football, not the sport they call soccer), also got started in jolly old England.

Of course, there’s not much attribution for all those claims, so we’ll stick with cheerleading as a red, white and blue America-born activity — or sport, which it isn’t, but should be. C’mon, golf is a sport, so is badminton, but cheerleading isn’t? Have you seen a cheerleading competition, where gymnastics, tumbling, leaping, and dancing are all part of complicated, athletic routines?

Plus, there’s been a growing call to abandon or ban cheerleading, especially on the professional level, as sexist, dehumanizing and because it just exists for “entertaining the male gaze with ever-shrinking costumes,” as Vice Sports says in its editorial “It’s Time for the NFL to Ban Cheerleaders.”

Vice Sports makes some great points, especially in the area of treatment of the cheerleaders on the NFL level, where they are almost indentured servants (some of the more absurd “guidelines” include “don’t say ‘I’ or ‘me’ too often, don’t eat too much bread in public, don’t be opinionated, and don’t argue with or question supervisors.”) Several cheerleaders have lawsuits pending against the NFL and the teams they cheered for.

“If the league and its teams really cared about women, they would step up and reassess the working conditions of NFL cheerleaders, and the message that this demeaning tradition sends to players and viewers,” Vice Sports says. “Isn’t it ridiculous that they are putting on this veneer of caring about women while they’re simultaneously objectifying and dehumanizing their most visible female employees?”

The NFL has its share of problems, especially these days with concussions and head trauma, labor disputes, and a public beef with our president, so cheerleading is low on its list of priorities.

And on the college level, where cheerleading began in the 1890s, cheerleaders, which are usually made up of coed squads, some with scholarships, will never go out of style. Can you imagine a college football game without cheerleaders? It’s un-American to think otherwise!

Colleges (and high schools, for that matter) also have associations that govern cheerleading and set up rules for participation and competition.

Experts even point to a specific date when cheerleading as we know it began: Nov. 2, 1898. That’s when “America’s first cheerleader,” Johnny Campbell led the cheer at a University of Minnesota football game that gave him his moniker: “Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!”

Like Campbell, most of the cheerleaders of the day were men. Women didn’t become part of squads until the 1920s. Cheerleading grew from that fateful day in Minnesota and in 1923, women were allowed to cheer for the first time, also at Campbell’s alma mater. They added tumbling and acrobatics to their routines to really pump up their routines and excite the crowds.

But it wasn’t until the 1940s, when men went off to fight in World War II, that women started filling the positions vacated by men going off to war.

But, oddly enough, it was a man who more or less started the modern trends in cheerleading we see today. Southern Methodist University cheerleader Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer held the first summer cheerleading clinic at Sam Houston State Teacher’s College in 1948. He not only came up with the still-popular “Herkie Jump,” he invented the spirit stick and pom-poms. Where would cheerleading be without the ubiquitous pom-poms? Herkie went on the found the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) in 1961.

By the 1960s, almost every high school and grade school, even so-called “pee wee” leagues had cheerleaders. By 2005 almost 97% of cheerleaders were female, although in colleges that figure was more at 50/50. By the way, male cheerleaders are called just that, male cheerleaders, although the Urban Thesaurus has a number of pejoratives for male cheerleaders that would make a sailor blush.

By the way, the first NFL cheer squad wasn’t the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, who debuted in the 1972-1973 season, but the squad for the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts. But the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders seem to get most of the attention these days. They even have their own reality show, “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team,” a porn film “Debbie Does Dallas” (and its four sequels), the made-for-TV movie “The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” and its sequel, and untold guest appearances on popular TV shows.

But the one film that seemed to have brought cheerleading into the national consciousness was the 2000 film “Bring It On” starring real-life former cheerleader Kirsten Dunst and its five (yes five) sequels.

More TV shows and movies followed, of course, including campy horror comedies such as 2013’s “All Cheerleaders Die” and the hit TV show “Glee,” in which one of the main characters played the captain of the cheer squad called The Cheerios, but was kicked off after she got pregnant. There are even cheerleader video games now, but mostly in Japan. Not enough gratuitous violence for American video fan boys.

And, of course, the retro 80s and slutty cheerleader is always a popular choice for Halloween costumes these days. Even for men, usually grossly out of shape. Guess they’re being ironic.

So whatever you call it, a tradition, a culture, an activity, a rite of passage, a sport, or even a ritual, cheerleaders and cheerleaders have become part of our national consciousness and have become truly American — as much as Mom, apple pie and baseball.

All books are available at Click on title to learn more.
Cheerleader!: An American Icon
by Natalie Guice Adams and Pamela Jean Bettis
Varsity’s Ultimate Guide to Cheerleading
by The Editors of Varsity and Rebecca Webber
Cheerleader: Ready? Okay!
by  Elissa Stein

Back to Home