Legitimizing the Feminine?: Regulation and the Politics of Cheerleading Injuries

Curator's Note

Just as male athletes have gotten bigger, cheerleading maneuvers have gotten increasingly acrobatic.  To the point that many are essentially gymnasts- minus regulatory benefits that come with being a gymnast.  

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons stated in 2010 that close to 90% of most serious fall-related injuries in cheerleading were sustained performing on artificial turf, grass, traditional foam floors or wood floors.  Not exactly safe landing areas if you're going to be catapulted into the air at accelerated speeds. 

Yet for all of the discussion about concussions in contact sports, one comparatively hears little about the risks in cheerleading.  One possible reason this garners little discussion is that regulation might blur the masculine-feminine divide of which it is a part.  
There have been calls to regulate cheerleading, perhaps most controversially to count it as sport in the NCAA (which, in turn, would qualify it as a possibility for schools to meet Title IX).  Proponents maintain that NCAA athletes receive stricter safety oversights than your average "club" activity.  If cheerleading squads on the high school and college level compete against other squads regardless, why not open that door? 

Many are reluctant to do this, believing it rewards subsidiary roles for women cheering men on.  For however many competitions cheerleaders may have, their descriptive function is to “lead” the “cheers” for the men who are presumably doing the “real” competing.  Interestingly, Jackson’s sister (also a former cheerleader) is not shown lamenting the fact that her sister can no longer compete, but instead lamenting that her social life, that cheerleading presumably helps bring, has been taken away. 

Images of professional cheerleading are decidedly “heterosexy,” stressing traditional femininity and de-emphasizing acrobatics.  In fiduciary terms, cheerleading rewards traditional feminine beauty moreso than raw athleticism (think swimsuit calendars and a more dance-oriented pro cheerleading style).

Acknowledging the increase in concussions and other injuries that high school and college cheerleaders are experiencing disrupts that narrative and forces us to engage in the traditionally masculine idea of risk.  It might also help slow a disturbing trend of concussions, fractures and other disastrous outcomes.


Great post. The debate between sport vs activity will continue with cheerleading seemingly until the NCAA makes a final decison on whether or not to re-format and sanction competitions. If cheerleading is recognized as a sport, it would immediately shoot to the top of the list of NCAA sports with the highest rate of career ending injuries. I think that would provide any governing body pause with how to proceed. 

The question of risk is a good one also. There's something to be said for the activity that supports the sport being riskier than the sport itself. Cheerleading in professional sports separates dance teams and traditonal cheerleading, but neither approach the level of gymnastics and creativity that you would find at a college level cheerleading competition. Essentially once you go pro, the risk is removed and the sport becomes more of an activity. 

I think if the NCAA were to instill some guidelines for head to head competition (i.e. gymnastics) or to standardize a scoring system there would be a stronger case for cheerleading to be seen as a sport. If it were to be finally taken that way, then the question of injury would HAVE to be addressed appropriately. 

Thanks for the response, Steve! 

Here at GSU, we have cheerleaders and a dance team.  Whenever I see the cheerleaders flipping and flying in the area, I'm compelled to note that I don't typically see that at Falcons games, I just see women in cheerleading outfits whose role more represents what GSU's dance team does.  But the general public tends to conflate the two sometimes.

While regulations would reward cheerleading's risky elements, in fidicuiary terms, cheerleading would likely still reward traditional standards of feminity moreso than raw athleticism.  One doesn’t imagine the Dallas Cowgirls risking a severe concussion whilst gyrating in the hopes of encouraging Tony Romo to lead another touchdown drive.  Instead, it's the swimsuit calendar that will make the dough.

Which, in turn, explains why the pros probably have little interest in having women flipping around and risking injury.  Concussions are not a saleable topic where women are concerned:  it disrupts the fantasy of cheerleading being just one more representation of "delicate" femininity. 

What a great way to kick off the week as we explore representations of brain injuries in sports by destabilizing the notion of sport altogether.  As Bryce points out, the risks cheerleaders subject themselves to are very real, and yet they enjoy a fraction of the consideration that more "masculine" arenas receive in terms of that risk.  How ironic that the threat of injury and concussions could legitimize these athletes by leveling the proverbial playing field.

I am also intrigued by the flipside of this argument, as many of these traditionally "masculine" sports are currently dominated by discourses on the threat of brain injuries (which is where our theme week comes in).  We are only now beginning to see the impact these discourses will have on these sports, as well as the backlash from leagues/athletes/fans.  While no one I have spoken with wants an athlete to be injured, there seems to be a limit to that concern when it threatens the very foundation of a beloved sport like football or hockey.  The potential for this hypermasculine "tough guy" being lost is very intriguing as we move forward, as all athletic endeavors must reconcile the risk of brain injuries while still providing a product that is engaging to media audiences. 

As one fan eloquently said to me, he doesn't want his football being "pussified" by losing the hard hitting that made his favorite players of the past into masculine icons.  This intrusion of femininity into these masculine arenas seems to be the specter that haunts discourses of brain injuries, and Bryce's post illustrates this convergence from the opposite perspective brilliantly. 

Great work Bryce. While slightly tangential to your post, the cheerleading injuries emphasize one of the more curious stats on concussions, which is that female college hockey has a higher incidence of concussions than the NFL. Women's college hockey can't be as violent as pro football (checking isn't even allowed), so why the higher concussion rate?

I suspect what is true of what doctors postulate as reasons for why this is so for female hockey, is also true of cheerleading, which is that a woman's neck is not as adept at absorbing impact (as they're physiologically "weaker").  The interesting thing about that explanation is that males also have to deal with more intense contact, so having a "stronger" neck should make no difference, and reveals that the concussion rate in the NFL, or NHL, for example, is probably grossly understated.

The other popular reason is that women tend to be more honest when it comes to self diagnosis. And we already know why males are terrible with this: from day one, pain is defined by brutish male coaches as a 'figment of psychology': a mere limitation, or barrier before success. Which is as foolish as it is uneducated. 

Great post. And David, you took a relevant point right out of my mouth regarding the differing rates of reported concussions in men's and women's sports.

I recall an old back page column by then-Sports Illustrated columnist (now at ESPN) Rick Reilly in which he decreed that cheerleading was not a sport. If I recall, he later wrote that he had never in his life received more angry mail than after that column (and I believe he lampooned the messengers by suggesting they wrote things like "You're an idiot," with hearts dotting each "i"). 

I always find the "is it a sport?" argument to be an odd one, but in this case the answer has regulatory consequences. As someone with a long running interest in preventing sudden cardiac death in athletes, I tend to feel that as soon as a cheerleader with, say, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy collapses and dies in practice or competition, and it hits headlines that she may have been saved by prompt medical attention, the issue of whether or not cheerleading is a "sport" will be a moot one. Clearly, these are athletes doing potentially dangerous things, and emergency medical care should be provided whenever possible whether or not it is required.  

On a complete sidenote, the activities that produce brain injuries can be surprising. In doing background research for an article, I was surprised to find a high concussion incidence reported in the lone survey I came across of equestrian sports. The concussions were suffered largely by people grooming horses who were knocked into a stable wall when the horse shifted its weight. 

Great feedback everyone, thanks! :-)

The masculine-feminine divide perhaps also plays into the mathematical certitude of a lot of sports that are considered "male" even if women play them (i.e. team that puts the ball in the basket more wins...case closed), whereas cheerleading is much like other activities that HAVE been sanctioned as Olympic sports such as synchronized swimming and figure skating.  These athletes take great risks but compete to vague ends.

Where I find the masculine-feminine divide relevant to this week's theme is that images of cheerleading are definitely sexualized more than male athletes are-- or sexualized in a different way, at least.  What makes a female athlete "heterosexy" is not her risk-taking:  making people confront the fact that one false step could lead to this person losing memory, cogent speech or loss of other physical functions completely disrupts the cheerleader fantasy.  So some people perhaps find it best just not to talk about it.

Whereas when male athletes are sexualized, risk is an understood party of the equation.  Think of leading man Keanu Reeves in The Replacements telling his teammates "Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever."  Maybe if more "dudes" dug scars, than cheerleading would be regulated?

Thanks for introducing this topic.

Having studing risk assessment regarding cheerleading during a participant-observation project in figure skating--a sport where I don't think competing to "vague ends" is quite the issue either--I question whether vague ends and protecting "heterosexy"-ness are the key issues in limited attention to danger in cheerleading, and whether there is as little attention as you suggest.  Human interest stories about injured cheerleaders abound in local and national media.  Insurance providers have taken note that cheerleader accidents make up a huge percentage of their payouts for catastrophic athletic injuries.  Critical studies have appeared like Kate Torgovnick's book "Cheer!" (Touchstone, 2008), which follows three teams from different types of schools through a season, showing how sexism and racism contribute quite specifically to whether, for instance, teams have access to trainers, or suffer the same fate as players in women's sports, like hockey, that are presumed to be populated not by hot straight girls but by big, hulking dykes.  At one school she profiled, the all-female squad received less support than the team with men on it, and the team from the HBCU, like the Clovers in "Bring it On," had little hope but an Oprah figure to get them to their (different) nationals.  In real life, however, Oprah wasn't coming.  

The show that Torgovnick's book inspired, the CW's recently cancelled "Hellcats," suggests that distaste for looking at sexism and racism, as much a disinterest in interrupting a cheerleader fantasy, deters attention from matters like injury.  "Hellcats"  retains the problems of insufficient funds to pursue competition and the disparity in resources compared to the teams deemed real sports with athletes who take risks that matter.  But evil, not ordinary, administrative decisions appear to cause racial and sexist inequities, the spectacle of college romance across racial boundaries plays race as a non-issue, and attention to racialized context is largely relegated to the situation of that one, usually black, male of color from the 'hood  familiar from "Fame," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Save the Last Dance," and more.

Great feedback Erica!  I was aware of Torgovnick's work but the insurance info is VERY illuminating. 

I think I may have misrepresented my point somewhat when I referred to "vague ends."  Perhaps another way to phrase it is "subjective sport."  Since the vast majority of people that are familiar with the CONCEPT of cheerleading have never actually seen a cheerleading COMPETITION, they have no idea how it is judged.  As such, their only thought when women go flying through the air is "why the heck are they risking their neck like that?"  If a hockey player goes into the corner and takes a big hit, they answer that question more readily based on the tangible purpose they see in the game ("he went into the corner to get the puck, you need to score to win and you can't score without the puck...").

In terms of reconciling my point of "heterosexy" imagery (which isn't purely a physical representation, I would argue) with your discussion of greater systemic discrimination, I think one of the images of feminity associated with cheerleading is the passive, unquestioning support.  To the sexist mind, the cheerleader cheers, she is not there to question.  The moment that the boat is rocked about issues of regulation, funding or so forth, she is questioning and disturbing that image.  

And of course, women who participate in activities that violate the masculine-feminine norms face a whole *host* of challenges, not withstanding just getting people to pay attention to the injuries that they may be suffering.

in light of reading that piece, Alyx, that the cheerleaders went on strike with the players in 1987.  Nothing like solidarity, right? (rolls eyes)...

And Easterbrook again nails it in here:  an uncomfortable relationship between cheerleading and various strands of feminism may prevent some people speaking up about the issue that normally might.  

One wonders if the Bears, Browns, Giants, Lions, Packers, and the Steelers (none of whom HAVE cheerleaders) are to be condemned for providing an opportunity for more women to be in their organization or to be applauded for not exploiting a loophole that merely looks like opportunity.

Adding some thoughts to the observed differences between the 'pro' cheerleaders and the college/high school cheerleaders:

You mentioned that 'pro' cheerleaders are not asked to perform the intense acrobatics that student cheerleaders are. To me, the psychology of 'rat race' applies here about as visually as it could. Young cheerleaders learn, refine, and risk the stunts they do so they can demonstrate their viability, capability, worth, power. Once they 'reach' the beacon of the cheerleading world, 'pro' status, they are immediately contained. Their power no longer comes from visual demonstrations of physical strength--it comes from their being allowed into the 'pro' arena. They have proven themselves worthy of the 'pro' athletes who own the pro arena...they now are empowered by the men. They are now powerless without them. They are no longer powerful, they are trophies. 

I am reminded of the movie "An Education", which articulated the female rat race of education...attending a top institution to work hard and think exceptionally well, in the ultimate aim of attracting a cultured, affluent husband, rather than achieving self-reliance. Neitsche and Descartes were a charade, never really offered for access.

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