College Football Traditions: Why Are Cheerleaders Still in Use?

Adam Jacobi@Adam_JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterMarch 28, 2012

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 07:  The USC Trojans 'song girls' perform before the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on November 7, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. The Trojans defeated the Devils 14-9.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It's 2012. College football bears scant resemblance to its pre-war iteration.

The players are now all genetic freaks, where you'd better be either at least 230 pounds, a world-class sprinter, or a cannon-armed wizard who can hit a penny with a football from 60 yards away.

Technology pervades every aspect of the sport, from the precise engineering of the ball, to the synthetic turf to the uniforms using materials that didn't exist 15 years ago, to the multitude of cameras on hand for every type of angle imaginable, all available for replay seconds later on the HD jumbo-tron.

In fact, just about the only things that haven't changed about football in the last 75 years are the 100-yard field, the 11 men on each side, the referees in their silly black and white stripes...and the cheerleaders.

Every school short of Texas A&M has cheerleaders, and no matter where you go, they all fit a pretty narrow profile: long-haired (or, with male cheerleaders, short-haired and clean-shaven), athletic, attractive, small (among females, anyway), and impossibly cheerful.

This isn't to say any of that is necessarily bad, but even in a sport with roles as specialized as football's are, you could find more physical variance between defensive tackles (or kickers, or punters, or centers, get the point) than you would between cheerleaders. There is a pattern being followed. 

But why do we have the cheerleaders? Seriously, stop and think about that. There must be a purpose they serve, but what is it? Why, at every single football game, is there this group of bubbly 20-somethings doing light acrobatics and shouting platitudes at the crowd? Let's think about this:

It's tradition

Tradition is butter. It makes things more enjoyable, but by itself it's useless at best and harmful at worst. Tradition is not a merit; it is a historical aspect. 

They lead cheers, duh

I'm as opposed to the replacement of human labor to save a buck as anybody, but surely, if the intent behind cheerleaders was just to lead cheers, that task could be done far more efficiently with the video screen. Furthermore, the strict demands on physical appearance don't fit into this very well. Would a crowd seriously be less likely to join in a "Let's Go Tigers!" chant if the cheerleaders had normal female physiques?

For sex appeal and satisfying the male gaze

This would be a decent argument to make in terms of the dance squads and their routines (some of which can be downright salacious, especially outside of the NCAA). But there isn't much about the cheerleaders themselves that's very exploitative.

Yes, the outfits are very skimpy and flattering when it's warm out, but they'll wear jackets and stuff like the rest of us in lousy weather. Further, the chants, stunts and everything aren't even remotely suggestive. They're downright family-friendly. It's not exactly difficult to titillate an audience, but college cheerleaders don't even try (which, let's be honest, is a good thing).

It's also worth noting that the professional and international sports are way, way higher on the sex appeal aspect than college sports. College cheerleaders are, pretty much across the board, wholesome. I suspect that's not a coincidence, but I'm not sure why that's the case.

Because of sexism

Perhaps there's something to the notion that "men go on football field, women wear skimpy clothes" is a vestige of the narrow, rigid gender roles that typified mid-20th century America, and that cheerleaders' continued existence only reinforces those. And yet, again, there are male cheerleaders doing and saying pretty much the same things that female cheerleaders do. Moreover, those female cheerleaders also cheer at women's sporting events, too. 

And finally on this topic, there is only one school that sticks to male cheerleaders (or yell leaders, as they're called). But I'm not exactly sure Texas A&M has kept this tradition out of a deep abiding respect for women's equality.

To keep the crowd's attention during dead time

We might be getting to something here, since football is about 90-95 percent standing around and basketball is one long string of TV commercials briefly interrupted by fits of sport. If you lose the crowd, you lose home-field (or home-court) advantage.

But generally, the cheerleaders aren't the ones doing large-scale things; it's that pesky dance team again or a marching band or some weird fan promotion thing. And let's be honest, that crowd isn't going anywhere. It's not like they just wander off and go home if they get bored in the middle of the second quarter.

Also, baseball is one of the most boring, idle sports in the world, so you'd think cheerleaders would be the biggest deal in that sport more than any other. Not so much!

It's a societal equivalent of the peacock's plumage in that the most attractive members of that group (in this case a student body, but in pro sports a fanbase/geographic region) are paraded out as a demonstration of that group's superiority. So it doesn't matter what the cheerleaders actually do once they're on the field, the whole point is that they're there for everyone to see and judge the entire school/fanbase by.

That's oddly specific and a little demeaning to the cheerleaders and their free will, but that's an interesting theory! 

So, seriously: why does college football have cheerleaders? I'm not opposed to them, and I don't think they're harmful in any material way. I'm just legitimately curious what they're there for in this day and age. Let's talk about this. Comment away, friends.