As “Acrobatics and Tumbling” emerges, can we leave the word “cheerleading” behind?

September 5, 2010

You may have heard that USA Gymnastics will now sanction competitive college cheerleading competitions.

But, technically, they aren’t sanctioning cheerleading competitions — they’re sanctioning NCATA meets.

What’s the difference, you ask?

It’s true that the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (until recently called the National Stunts and Tumbling Association) is essentially an adaptation of competitive cheerleading. (Check out the footage from a meet.) To understand why it’s being called something else and developed as a new activity, let’s start here:

10-09 Cheerleading Perceptions

To the general public, this word evokes a wide variety of ideas, and many of them are not athletic.
We want the athletic forms of cheerleading to be respected as such, by society and the institutions that govern sports, for safety and regulation purposes. If parents/coaches/athletic directors/principals still associate cheerleading with non-athletic performance art, they won’t be as likely to take the steps to mitigate the risks associated with its athletic elements. And as long as there’s confusion about whether cheerleading is considered a sport, we won’t have uniform rules and regulations nationwide. The language we use is an important tool to get that point across. So, what do we do?

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Possible Solution 1: Try to change the public’s definition of the word “cheerleading,” or the word “sport.” Possible Solution 2: Don’t worry about what non-cheerleaders think, and continue to regulate cheerleading ourselves. Possible Solution 3: Create a new word for the athletic part of cheerleading to separate it from the non-athletic element.
This is what most of us try to do constantly, and it’s tedious work. Athletic forms of cheerleading are gaining more respect. But being generally respected and legally defined as a sport are different things. Any cheerleading squad that cheers for another sport will never be considered a sport itself — at least not legally. Right now, cheerleading rules vary from state to state, and according to the multitude of companies and organizations that host competitions. Governance by non-profit organizations has become much more centralized over the past decade, but without recognition from the Office for Civil Rights, cheerleaders will likely never get the kind of resources that other athletes get, or compete on a professional level. By isolating the athletic elements of cheerleading and calling them something else, we can develop them as a solely competitive activity that has a chance at being named an official, legal sport. While cheerleading itself won’t be named a sport, officials will recognize that many of the elements are the same.
Regardless of whether Acrobatics and Tumbling remains a sport, we’re probably still going to have to stick up for cheerleaders. Some folks still won’t understand that being a sport doesn’t always require throwing a ball around, and that cheerleading is not stuck in the 1950s. Some people and companies would rather keep pursuing this route. All-star cheer could achieve sport status someday, but it would probably take many years. This is what the NCATA is doing. The recent announcement that it will be sanctioned by USA Gymnastics means that it’s on the fast-track to becoming a sport, because gymnastics already has a national and international governing body and is recognized by the NCAA.

Solution 3: Can we really leave the word “cheerleading” behind?

Insisting on dropping the name “cheerleading” for the new sport might confuse people — they know cheerleading when they see it, after all. And distancing the new sport from the word “cheerleading” almost feels disrespectful to its origins. The commonly made argument that competitive cheerleading should have another name because “it isn’t cheering and it isn’t leading,” isn’t convincing. People don’t worry about a word’s origin after they understand its meaning; for example, you don’t hear anyone asking why “football” has little to do with feet.

However, most of society will always use the word “cheerleader” to describe anyone who supports a team from the sidelines, or enthusiastically supports an idea.

When I see a headline that says a politician is “cheerleading” for health care reform, I don’t picture someone doing back-handsprings through the Capitol. And while “pro cheerleaders” are technically dancers by the definitions that most cheerleaders and dancers use, folks generally slap a “cheerleader” label on the whole group. In fact, most mainstream media use photos of dancers to illustrate cheerleading stories, which furthers the idea that they’re basically the same, when they actually require very different skill sets, which require very different coaching and safety standards.

We could just decide to not worry about society’s perceptions and disregard the general cultural confusion about what the word “cheerleading” means. But language is important. It is a huge factor in how people define ideas.

Clarification of what we really mean when we talk about competitive cheerleading will be a huge asset, both to athletes who want the benefits that come with being an official sport, and for sideline cheerleaders who demonstrate a skill set that has been identified as a sport.

Despite our emotional attachment to the word “cheerleading,” it’s best to leave it on the sidelines for this new adventure. We will still love cheerleading for what it is, and sideline/school teams and all-star squads will continue to thrive alongside Acrobatics and Tumbling teams, because the activity is just that popular. Besides, at the moment, Acrobatics and Tumbling is still limited to all-girl, collegiate squads, which is just a small part of the competitive cheerleading world.

Now is the time to get excited that Acrobatics and Tumbling has a chance of being a Title-IX-approved, NCAA-approved and perhaps even Olympic sport long before we originally thought possible. It’s an exciting time to be a cheerleader — er — you know what I mean.

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