In October, 1999, Sports Illustrated published an opinion piece in which the author, Rick Reilly, made many outrageous and derogatory claims about cheerleading. In response to that commentary CheerHome.com editor Todd Erlich has prepared the following response. Sport Illustrated declined to comment on the original article, the response, or the subject in general.
It was with both sadness and outrage that I read Rick Reilly’s commentary in Sports Illustrated. Sadness, from the belittling of a sport which has brought both joy and personal enrichment to many. Outrage, from the inaccuracies, ignorance and prejudice which all played a part in what is labeled journalism.
Mr. Reilly’s first claim about cheerleading is that it is “about as safe as porcupine juggling”. He cites two examples from “his buddy” as evidence of a problem. In addition he quotes an article in The Physician and Sportsmedicine1. I would first like to point out that the P&S article clearly states, “… cheerleading carries a relatively low risk of injury…” The article goes on to say that cheerleading injuries do tend to be more severe. However, it also states, ” Little literature is available comparing the severity of injuries from cheerleading with that of other athletic activities. Much of what has been written is anecdotal and focuses on isolated case reports.” Mr. Reilly also refers to a ‘study’ from The University of North Carolina. In fact this ‘study’ is a compilation of data from other sources. It cites a few statistics dating back to 1980 and presents no comparison to other sports or analysis of any significant amount of data.
This is hardly grounds for claiming that cheerleading is any less safe than other sports. The Physician and Sports Medicine further states that cheerleading injuries are attributed to “lack of experience, inadequate conditioning, poor supervision, non-cushioned playing surfaces, poor nutrition, and poor shoes. ” Mr. Reilly fails to note these reasons, which I believe are a result of the failure of administrators to ensure the safety of cheerleaders. Poor supervision is the result of budget constraints, insufficient training and lack of experience among those hired as coaches in many organizations.
Lack of experience, inadequate conditioning, inadequate surfaces and poor shoes can all be easily fixed by providing the resources and support to cheerleading that other sports receive. Mr. Reilly himself recognizes this when he states, ” We have girls building three-story human pyramids, flipping one another 30 feet in the air, and we give the boys helmets. ” Yes, Mr. Reilly, the boys get the helmets and the girls get held responsible for the failure of athletic departments to provide a safe environment for cheerleaders.
Maybe Mr. Reilly’s comments and the common bias against cheerleading simply prove that old stereotypes and misconceptions are alive and well when it comes to young women. The bias is evident in comments like, “(cheerleaders) face the crowd, lost in their bizarre MuffyWorld.” I’m not really sure what it means, but I am certain it is degrading. Most people are not aware that cheerleading was started by young men. Furthermore, the justification that cheerleaders can be ridiculed because of their attire makes me wonder how Mr. Reilly feels about today’s popular professional tennis players. I say, let’s allow the participants in a sport to chose the most appropriate attire. Should fashion play a part in this choice? Ask a few professional sports teams how much they spent designing uniforms that are appealing. And, of course, those tennis players surely have an eye towards fashion when they select their uniforms.
The most outrageous and destructive of Mr. Reilly’s comments is an implication that drug abuse and eating disorders are a common and inherent part of cheerleading. He states, “If they’re lucky, (cheerleaders) might grow up to become Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. In the book Deep in the Heart of Texas, three former Cowboys Cheerleaders wrote that they snorted coke, gobbled diet pills and vomited to lose weight.” First of all, I have worked with thousands of cheerleaders and have never heard any of them state an aspiration to cheer for a professional sports team. Equating high school cheerleading with ‘professional’ cheerleading is like comparing high school wrestling to professional wrestling. Same name, different sport. Secondly, and more importantly, however, is the implication that cocaine use has anything to do with cheerleading. This is simply absurd and has no basis in fact. The third point I’d like to make regarding this comment is that eating disorders are a tragic situation in the lives of many young women. Vigilance by coaches and a legitimate concern for the well being of all athletes should be a goal of all athletic departments. As far as cheerleading contributing to these problems I would suggest that other sports are far more likely to encourage such behavior and problems. How many wrestlers are required to lose weight or maintain a lower than natural weight each season? How many football players are encouraged to gain weight (possibly with the use of steroids)?
Cheerleading is clearly not some passing fad, having been around for over 100 years. With over 1 million participants around the world it is clear that this is a very popular sport. Mr. Reilly states, ” Studies show that by the time otherwise smart girls hit high school, they start to raise their hands less in class, let the boys take the lead. Isn’t cheerleading the same thing, only outdoors?” No Mr. Reilly, it is not the same thing. Cheerleading gives young women an opportunity to be leaders (hence the name cheerLEADING) in front of hundreds, even thousands of people. It takes courage to perform in front of, and attempt to lead, a large crowd. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that college cheerleading gives many young women the opportunity to take leadership roles, often times being chosen over males. As the coach of a coed college squad I generally chose female captains (instead of male squad members) based on their experience and dedication. The bottom line is that cheerleaders want to perform in front of large crowds. Football and basketball games give them the opportunity to do so. In a way, cheerleaders are taking advantage of male sports teams that provide a crowd. The fact is that girls willingly choose to be cheerleaders with enthusiasm and excitement. Mr. Reilly’s inability to understand their preference to be cheerleaders has resulted in an unfounded attack in which he labels the millions of people who have participated in cheerleading as ‘dumb’.
What Mr. Reilly fails to realize is that sports are no longer just a game. They are a big business. Hundreds of people work to not only ensure that the teams win, but also that the game is more than just a game. Sporting events are a show; complete with halftime promotions, bands, contests and many other features that have nothing to do with the game. Cheerleaders are one of the oldest and most important parts of this show. Are cheerleaders in some way subservient to the players? No more so than the band members, concession stand employees, promotions managers, announcers, camera crews, ticket takers and countless others who turn games into events.
Is there any truth to Mr. Reilly’s statement that “cheerleaders have no more impact on the game than the night janitorial staff”? As a college cheerleading coach at two different Division I universities, I was asked and sometimes required to have squads at away basketball games. These directives came from the Athletic Director. The Universities provided the necessary funding for meals, rooms and transportation. So I ask Mr. Reilly: Would the universities require cheerleaders to attend games at considerable expense if there was no value in their presence? I would also suggest that a poll of college basketball coaches would show, at a minimum, that they have a positive attitude towards cheerleading. I suppose Mr. Reilly feels that he knows how to win games better than coaches and Athletic Directors.
Vicious attacks such as Mr. Reilly’s are often the result of fear or ignorance. Clearly, Mr. Reilly knows very little about cheerleading and has seemingly not bothered to research the subject that he chose to write about. I am saddened by the low journalistic standards that Sports Illustrated seems to hold, at least in this case. Presenting an opinion piece, which is clearly based on bias against women, shows an ignorance of the subject matter and misrepresents legitimate studies is reprehensible for a national publication. It is my sincere hope that Sports Illustrated and Rick Reilly reconsider their opinions.
1 Cheerleading Injuries: Patterns, Prevention, Case Reports , Mark R. Hutchinson, MD The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Vol. 25 No. 9, September 1997.