Over on NPR, Frank Deford asked if cheerleading is a sport.
I must admit, in high school, I absolutely despised cheerleading, precisely because so many cheerleaders considered themselves athletes. At least at my high school, the cheerleaders did not compete against other squads as is more common today.
I suppose we first have to ask what goes into being a "sport," and I'm not sure that there is a cut and dry answer. The two conditions I value the most are (1) a sport must involve formal competition, and (2) a sport must require competitors to utilize their bodies as the primary medium through which the competition takes place, in such a way that physical conditioning is central to the competition.
Although a courtroom legal battle is clearly competitive and relies on body parts to some degree, physical conditioning is not central to the competition.
To me, horse racing and auto racing are not sports, and their participants are not athletes. I'm sure there is some heavy disagreement on that last statement, but the way I see it, the horse/car is doing the bulk of the work in those events, not the person (or athlete).
So what is the controversy surrounding cheerleading?
In competitive cheerleading, the participants are engaged in high physical training, and notably with regard to physical dangers, the risk of catastrophic injury is very high, especially for females. And as the name indicates, in competitive cheerleading, there is formal competition against other teams.
Part of the controversy might be that unlike other NCAA sports, cheerleading teams do not compete very often.
Where I teach, the cheerleading team has won eight consecutive national championships, most recently at the Division II level. Unfortunately, the team only gets to compete once per year (technically, they get to compete a few times, but they only make one annual trip for competition). The rest of their activities involve practice for their national competition, and practice for their performances at university sporting events. And this is where I think the implicit controversy truly lies, though it will never be explicitly stated.
Cheerleading is traditionally gendered as a highly feminine performance-based activity that supports athletics. Under popular belief, femininized cheerleaders exist to support the "true," masculine athletes.
Go to any high school, college, or pro basketball or football game, and what is the cheerleaders' primary function? To compete against the opposing team's cheerleaders? No, the cheerleaders' primary function is to support the athletes (male or female), who are considered more masculine and the central focus of the event. The cheerleaders are peripheral.
Additionally, because cheerleading is based so heavily on being pretty, it is further marginalized from the so-called real, masculine sports. This is precisely why sports like synchronized swimming and ice skating are so often femininzed and ridiculed as sports, even though those sports always involve competition (and from what I've heard, the training for synchronized swimming is among the most difficult in the sporting world).
All sports are spectacle. But the more a sport's performance-based attributes require looking pretty (e.g., smiling, wearing gaudy attire), the less it will be considered a sport by mainstream fans because being pretty is feminine, and sports are supposed to be tough masculine turf.
Thus, cheerleading has key elements going against it when trying to be defined as a sport—the competitions are few and far between (actually, many cheerleading teams never compete), and more importantly, society definition of cheerleading as a highly feminine activity.
This shows us how sport is a microcosom of society. That which is peripheral, supportive, and pretty is deemed feminine. That which is central, served by others, and physically tough is deemed masculine.
David Mayeda is author of Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society