The XX Factor

They’ve Got Spirit

Last week, USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for gymnastics, announced that it will begin sanctioning events for the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association. The association is a new organization itself, composed of just six schools with competitive cheerleading teams. But this move may be the impetus for better organization, and safety, for competitive cheerleading.

“Cheerleading-not basketball, not softball, not even field hockey or ice hockey-is by far the most dangerous sport for girls,” reported in May; more than half of the injuries were related to stunting, when cheerleaders hurl one another into the air. Cheerleading, the wisdom goes, took the place of gymnastics as high schools began to eliminate the sport, fearful of insurance rates and catastrophic injuries, only to find themselves saddled with more teenage girls with broken bones and worse. But because cheerleading isn’t officially a sport, the schools, and governing bodies, have laxer safety standards and less money to pay for trainers, well-trained coaches, and other support staff. If cheerleading becomes a sanctioned sport within colleges, perhaps higher standards will trickle down to feeder high schools, middle schools, and “all-star” gyms, where cheerleaders don’t support a football or basketball team but just compete, Bring It On -style, in tournaments.

If cheerleading becomes an official, NCAA sport, the acrobatic pastime may see improvement in areas beyond its injury rates. In 2008’s Cheer! Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders , Kate Torgovnick chronicled a season with three cheerleading teams: an all-girl squad from the University of Memphis, a co-ed team from the underfunded, historically black Southern University; and the cheer powerhouse of Stephen F. Austin University. It is the chapters on Stephen F. Austin University, a perennial winner, that demonstrate how badly cheerleading could use some limits and oversight: The school offers multiple scholarships that draw hard-core cheerleaders, many of whom admit that they would never be in college without the sport and frequently transfer schools to chase better teams. With no limits on eligibility, one male cheerleader is going on his eighth year of collegiate cheerleading; performance-enhancing drugs are such an open secret that one guy gives another a hypodermic-needle pen as a gag gift. (Perhaps the two examples together explain why, in photographs of the team, there are several men clearly suffering from the early stages of male-pattern baldness.) A girl suffers from a raging cocaine problem and then introduces it to her roommate; others have bulimia and anorexia, spurred on by their stunting partners complaining about their weight. And the coaches are young former cheerleaders themselves who don’t fully grasp the responsibility of their positions: When one girl falls and hurts herself severely, they delay taking her to the hospital-where she’s diagnosed with a fractured skull and seizures.

Maybe Stephen F. Austin University’s Lumberjacks won’t join the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association in the immediate future. But perhaps USA Gymnastics’ foray into cheerleading will eventually help the sport eliminate some of its more unsavory characteristics.