Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is Cheerleading a Sport?

In an editorial called "Stuff your pompoms. This isn't sport." British columnist Victoria Coren weighs in on the "is cheer leading a sport?' debate. I like a lot what Coren has to say about feminism. When asked if she was a feminist Coren replied "My first, instinctive reply had taken the question to mean: "Do you believe in equal pay, equal rights and social freedom for all?", but, in 2010, that is surely just another way of asking: "Are you normal or a moron?" But I'm less takem by what she has to say about cheerleaders: "They aren't doing sport. They are waggling their arses near boys who are doing sport." I don't think Coren has watched much modern cheerleading. It looks pretty athletic to me.

Here's a clip from the Rick Mercer Report on the cheerleadering team from The University of Western Ontario. I'm not weighing in on complicated issues regarding funding and equal access for women's sports but the debate can't be solved simply by throwing up your hands and saying the equivalent of "I know sport when I see it and that isn't it." While I do wish that in Western's case the men's and women's uniforms were either equally skimpy or equally not, modern cheerleading is co-ed and VERY athletic.


David said...

Somebody else suggested that sports have referees, not judges. That one's rank is based primarily, or substantially, on aesthetic criteria rather than objective measures tends to suggest to me that these are artistic activities rather than sports.

Figure skating was more sport-like when the "technicals" were given more weight and one could win or lose based one's ability to accurately perform figures.

On the other side, curling is clearly an objectively measured activity, but is it "athletic" enough to be a sport?

It just boils down to just another demarcation problem, albeit one that's easy to understand and explain in a bar ;-)

David H. said...

Let's think about triathlon. Clearly a sport. A finisher's final time is dependent upon their swim, bike, run, transition times AND a referee's time penalties (based on their judgement, i.e., if an athlete was drafting too close to anothe...r during the bike leg). There is clearly a judgement call.

In gymnastics, cheerleading, etc. the final score is also based on an aggration of several criteria, each of which may have an individual score and which is based on (some would argue) very specific technical criteria that have admittedly some subjective component, but are ultimately at the discretion of the judges. (Did the 'athlete(s)' execute a maneuver correctly?)

In certain other competitive sports, e.g. baseball, the scoring is highly dependent on the call of the 'umpires' (not 'referees' or 'judge's, yet performing exactly the same function). Was a pitch thrown over the plate or not, or was a runner safe, etc. (Did the pitcher execute the pitch correctly?

One line of thinking is that sport and athletics relates to a competition with respect to the 'athlete's' motor abilities and performances. An activity would be 'more' of a sport the greater the physical demands AND the objective measure of competitive superiority. This would put activities on a scale of some sort.

What I have in mind is something like plotting, say, 'comptetition-ness' on the X-axis of a graph, and 'physicality' on the Y-axis. The higher that an activity would rank on BOTH the X- and Y-axes, them more that it would be a sport.

In this sense, it would be improper to ask whether or not an activity is a sport (yes vs. no). Instead, the question ought to be 'to what degree is something a sport?' It's exactly the same in ordinary language when we ask whether something is hot or not. We may well say that 'This coffee mug is hot' but really our concept of 'hot' (or not) supervenes on a notion of 'how hot'. [Note that one's threshold for 'hot' vs. 'not hot' may be somewhat subjective. A mug of coffee may feel tepid to me but hot to my 3 year old daughter. But really what matters is the degree; that's what let's us be precise.]

So marathon running would very much be a sport, as would hockey. Power cheerleading and gymnastics would also be sports but possibly less so in the objvective comptitive sense yet very much so in terms of the extreme physcial demands. Aerobics would be less of a sport since there is no competive aspect even though it would rank very high in terms of the physical demands. Curling would be a sport in the sense of the competitive aspect, but clearly less so in terms of physical demands (but clearly above games like darts or chess).

I'm going for a 10k run now and I'll give this more thought during my run. See ya.

Wayne Norman said...

I blogged briefly on this when the issue blew up following a US court ruling during the summer. Then I asked the more general question "When is a sport not a sport?" which I blogged on here:

Obviously we don't expect there to be a clear platonic line between physical activities and games that are and are not worthy of being called "sports". But we can have an interesting discussion about when we want to consciously "sportify" some activity -- that is, to turn some physically demanding activity into a competitive sport by making opposing "players" or teams do it before judges.

My personal opinion: I find very few athletic competitions interesting when they do not involve defense, and hence strategic rationality.

Emily Ryall said...

I think one of the reasons that many of us have a distaste for calling cheerleading a sport is the connotations that go along with the activity; in that, as you say, it is associated with scantily clad girls cheering their big, strong men on in serious athletic competitions.

There is no reason, by definition, why cheerleading couldn't be considered a sport (if we say that sport has to involve some kind of competitive, physically skilful activity), but it would need some serious rebranding to get over its historical allusions.

James said...

Well, it's clear from Samantha's very interesting link that cheer-leading in the London, Ontario region is indeed co-ed and very athletic. Which is interesting, especially when its connotation for me were, just as Emily says, "scantily-clad girls cheering their big, strong men on in serious athletic competition." My cheerleading stereotypes are duly challenged!

I suppose the worry is that cheerleading is all about what it says on the tin, leading applause, and that certainly doesn't sound like a sport. But what the UWO team seem to be engaged in looks like pretty serious gymnastics. And certainly gymnastics is a sport even in a context where it gets called cheerleading. At this level, do they still do it at the edge of a football field? (And, if so, does anyone bother watching the football?)

There maybe comes a point where you have a branch of gymnastics and scholars of sporting history will tell you, In fact this form of gymnastics originated as the leading of applause by scantily clad girls, but who would think it now… And at that point it would be as silly to object on feminist grounds as it would for those with a distaste for things militaristic to feel concern that many sports like archery and javelin throwing presumably began their lives as military exercises where soldiers practiced killing people.

Of course the Coren piece was largely in response to the fact that cheer leading is starting to crop up in UK school curricula as a sport. So it would be interesting to know how co-ed and athletic cheerleading in the UK is.

Sport is of course a pretty vague category. Actually, I suspect arguing about "Is X a sport?" isn't always necessarily focused on the right question. By way of analogy conceptual art sometimes provokes fierce debate where its detractors urge that "It isn't art". I think it's simpler to avoid bogging down in all that, conceding that it's art all right but just urge, if you are unimpressed, that it is extremely bad, perhaps worthless art. In Britain we consider darts to be a sport (at least going by which bit of the newspaper carries news of it), never mind curling, and that is fine by me. But I would nonetheless feel a child of mine was being shortchanged by her educators if I found out that a significant amount of school time supposedly dedicated to sport was being spent stood in front of a darts-board. But after watching Samantha’s link, any comparable disposition to be unhappy at her school time being eaten up by cheer-leading, might be defeasible if I learnt more about what that was to involve.

Mike Austin said...

I had a student in summer school a couple of years ago talk about her days at another university as a student-athlete, and when it came out that she was referring to cheerleading some of the males in the room scoffed. I agree that it is now often very athletic, but I will admit that when my daughters decided to play basketball rather than be cheerleaders I was glad. I think this is because of the historical connotations, but I also like to see women/girls participating in sports that used to be and in many ways still are primarily the domain of men/boys.