Equal opportunity for what ?

by John Q on February 20, 2004

In the middle of yet another scandal about American college sports, the NYT chooses to run an editorial calling for cheerleading to be recognised as a competitive sport (It is implied, though not clearly stated, that this sport would be open only to women).

I prefer watching cheerleading to watching American football and I have no problem with claims about its athleticism and so on. And I’ll concede Allen’s arguments that injuries might be reduced if the activity were run on a more professional basis (of course she doesn’t use the dreaded word ‘professional’, anathema to the NCAA).

Nevertheless, this seems to me to be a case where unsound premises have been pushed to their logical conclusions, with predictably bizarre results. The basic problem is the mixture of higher education and professional sport, which makes about us much sense as if high school cafeterias doubled as French restaurants.

Isn’t there even one university president prepared to take up the banner of Robert Maynard Hutchins and get universities out of the entertainment industry?



Tom West 02.20.04 at 11:21 am

  1. To me untrained eye, cheerleading looks like a sort of “team gymnastics”. I’ve seen a few minutes of such competitions on TV, and it certainly seemed as sporting as synchronized swimming. Also many men involved (useful tossing people 8m in the air). No “give us an ‘A'” at all :-).

  2. In the United States, popular support for educational institutions is in a very real and to a large part based on its involvement with sports. Alumni donations are famously based on the school’s athletic performance and community involvement is based almost entirely on the institution’s sport activities.

    Why on earth should educational institutions eliminate their most important pillar of community and alumni support? It sounds like a perfect way to slash funding from both the taxes (the community) and donations. Slight exaggeration, but Sports makes education possible – *not* the other way around.


jdsm 02.20.04 at 11:53 am

“Sports makes education possible – not the other way around.”

Because of course in other places no-one has education which stands to reason because they don’t take sports very seriously.

Surely it’s possible to decouple sport and education. I can’t really believe that the bulk of Harvard’s vast endowments come from people concerned solely with the ice-hockey team.


Ophelia Benson 02.20.04 at 1:00 pm

This is one of my favorite tooth-grinders.

“Why on earth should educational institutions eliminate their most important pillar of community and alumni support?”

Because of the irrelevance factor that John mentions. What does it say – what does it tell students (and alumni and the great American public in general) – about what we really think of education when universities are seen as things attached to football teams?


Barry 02.20.04 at 1:06 pm

“Because of course in other places no-one has education which stands to reason because they don’t take sports very seriously.”

Of course. For example, I hear that in Europe the few, scattered survivors of six-week vacations and national health care can’t even *read*, because they don’t even have real football :)


Ophelia Benson 02.20.04 at 1:06 pm

I did an In Focus on this at B&W about a year ago – there was a flurry of articles (well, a couple, anyway) in the US press about sport v. universities and what they’re for. So the In Focus has a lot of useful links.

Sports & Education


Matt 02.20.04 at 1:17 pm

There are some (a few) colleges in the US that have a different attitude. Many years ago, when I was a grad student at Yale, the student paper ran an interview with a female undergraduate who had been a cheerleader in high school– she was distraught about the University’s low level of support for the college cheerleaders, complaining that “the cheerleaders here don’t even have personal trampolines”.


Ophelia Benson 02.20.04 at 1:24 pm

I didn’t even notice this the first time around.

“Slight exaggeration, but Sports makes education possible – not the other way around.”

That’s hilarious.

Slight exaggeration – yes, you could say that.


TomD 02.20.04 at 1:35 pm

President Bush Was A Male Cheerleader!

No discrimination against male cheerleaders, please!!


dsquared 02.20.04 at 1:36 pm

‘Course, cheerleading at Yale isn’t just for girls

(I would just like to add that if you search Google for “bush cheerleader”, you do indeed get roughly what you deserve).


Ophelia Benson 02.20.04 at 1:42 pm

Oh, no, not a bit, I discriminate against all cheerleaders quite impartially.


Jason 02.20.04 at 1:43 pm

Why the assumption that the sport will be only open to women? Many, if not most, competitive cheerleading squads – both in secondary and higher education – are co-ed.

I’m not sure I see how giving cheerleading such a status immediately puts it on par with the (in my mind) out-of-control football and basketball (male only, of course) teams. We’re talking about giving some funding to a squad so they can participate in competitions and allowing them to use varsity-only equipment and trainers.

Isn’t there a significant difference between *most* college sports (especially women’s sports, which are almost always underfunded even though they frequently out-perform the men’s teams) and the few (again, usually men’s basketball and football) that have become more a professional league? It’s not like a college cheerleader is likely to leave school two years early to accept a bid into the pros.


yabartleby 02.20.04 at 2:16 pm

jason wrote

(especially women’s sports, which are almost always underfunded even though they frequently out-perform the men’s teams)

and, exactly as frequently, perform worse. No?


Ophelia Benson 02.20.04 at 2:36 pm

Isn’t the interesting subject here sport and education, rather than cheerleading? I mean, cheerleading is fascinating and all, but


limberwulf 02.20.04 at 3:24 pm

I have no issue with a sports team helping to fund a school. Granted, tuition and scholarships should be the primary funder, but additional monies brought in due to an entertainment factor does not seem to be a big deal. I doubt there would be so much fuss if the entertainment that brought in the big bucks were symphony or theatre.

That said, I do have an issue with sports having such a focus that it overshadows academics. And I find it a disservice to all of the students when the athletic stars are not held to the same standards as the rest of the students. That does not help the players, nor is it fair to the non-players.

As for cheerleading becoming a sport, I rather doubt it will reach the level of the sports team any time soon. Further, I think the athletic qualities of the cheerleading teams would be accentuated, and the teams more carefully trained, if it were made a fully competitive sport. In fact, making it an athletic sport may very well reduce the exploitiveness of it and do away with the disrespect that it has been shown. Gymnastics is well respected for great athleticism, cheerleading often has the reputation of a bunch of hot, easy girls dancing around and satisfying the eyes of those bored with the game. I think the women (and men) that work very hard at their art deserve better.


Ophelia Benson 02.20.04 at 3:34 pm

“I doubt there would be so much fuss if the entertainment that brought in the big bucks were symphony or theatre.”

Yes but that’s because classical music and theatre/drama are academic subjects. Cheerleading and basketball aren’t. So one has to decide how one is going to define ‘entertainment’ before drawing conclusions from that, it seems to me. Of course one can also discuss how to define ‘academic’. Me, I think it ought not to include cheerleading. For the same kind of reason I would think it very odd (and then go away and never come back) if CT suddenly started talking exclusively about cheerleading. It’s a different kind of subject – I think.


limberwulf 02.20.04 at 4:02 pm

Granted, general classifications of theatre do place it in the more “academic” category. However, a performance art, such as cheerleading, is not so far from performance art such as ballet. It is certainly closer than basketball. Its more of a crossover between the two, or at least, it could become that if it were made cometitive.

To go a step further, sports in general involve a great deal more than physical ability and excersize. To perform well at any sport requires intense mental training, and to perform well at a team sport requires that same mental training plus development of cooperation with other individuals working towards the same goal. In fact, one of the most used arguments against homeschooling is the concept of team sports and other social interactive and ccoperative activities. As a homeschooled person I do not buy into that entirely, but as an athlete, I recognize the academic benefits to mental training and to physical health.

Bottom line, I think sports have a place in education, tho once again, the focus can certainly be overdone. Basketball and cheerleading arent going anywhere, so I would at least like to make cheerleading something more than an eyecandy parade, for the girls’ sake if nothing else.


limberwulf 02.20.04 at 4:06 pm

Also, I agree that if CT started talking exclusively about cheerleading it would not hold my interest in the least, but saying it should not be all about it and that it should not include it are two diffrent things. I do not think this discussion is out of place on CT, nor on a college campus. If it gets to the point on CT or on a college campus where it dwarfs everything else, as some colleges have allowed their sports teams to do, then I certainly agree that it is out of line.


Ben 02.20.04 at 4:15 pm

Here, north of the border in Canada, sports are really just a sideshow. Universities do not offer athletic scholarships, money for athletic teams is tiny compared to the united states, and athletes are not celebrities that get special treatment is classes. It is one of the reasons I came to Canada from the US for an undergraduate degree. My university’s women’s hockey team was national champions several years in a row, thanks to the olympic gold-medalist goalie, but few of the students know her name or face. Canada does lose some athletic talent to the US, but I think the universities gain socially from it.


Ophelia Benson 02.20.04 at 5:31 pm

Yes if it’s there for recreation and fun and play and all that, that I think is a great thing. But the kind we have here, no.


Jason 02.20.04 at 5:53 pm

yabartleby wrote:
and, exactly as frequently, perform worse. No?

Perhaps … but then, I’m not sure how that helps your case against my broader point, which had to do with the lack of equity in support. My even broader point was that aside from men’s basketball and football, college sports are usually a little less “professional” (in terms of the original post) and not as large a detractor from the educational goals of a university.

I’ve never been told that my students and I aren’t allowed to use the campus parking lots because a (men’s or women’s) lacrosse game is scheduled during class time. That has happened on more than one occasion for a men’s football or basketball game. Of course, usually the students just used that as an excuse to skip class.


Josh Narins 02.20.04 at 6:09 pm

My college was based on the ideas of Robert M. Hutchins.

It is called SImon’s Rock College, associated since the early 1980s with Bard.


I was B.A. graduate #239 (depending how you count).

Real Analysis (after Calc III) had one other student (aged 15) and the Japanese teacher. I hope that guy’s OK.


JSN 02.20.04 at 6:10 pm

That’s not right, he was the only one in Modern Algebra with me, not real analysis.


Davis X. Machina 02.20.04 at 6:59 pm

Why have basketball and football been able to trick-bribe the universities to run their minor leagues for them, at the cost of hundreds of millions, when baseball and hockey, where some players come up through the colleges, but many, perhaps most do not, failed to do so?


Judith 02.20.04 at 7:25 pm

I don’t think cheerleading can be recognized as a
“competitive sport” because it cannot stand on its own. What is cheerleading in the U.S. without a football or basketball team to cheer? If a person enjoys jumping and leaping, etc., and wants to compete against others at school sponsored events, they can join the gymnastics or track team.


EKR 02.20.04 at 9:51 pm

Well, there certainly are cheerleading competitions (e.g. http://www.cheersport.net/Nationals/national_index.htm) so I think it’s at least arguable that cheerleading can stand on its own.


sidereal 02.21.04 at 2:09 am

“Yes but that’s because classical music and theatre/drama are academic subjects. Cheerleading and basketball aren’t.”

Decouple philosophy and gymnastics? What would Plato think?


Ophelia Benson 02.21.04 at 3:11 am

Err – cheerleading and basketball are gymnastics?

Who knew!


the hanged man 02.21.04 at 6:33 pm

Since when is cheerleading only open to girls? I’m with the other commentors who say that a lot of colleges have guys on the squad.


Tom T. 02.21.04 at 11:09 pm

Yes but that’s because classical music and theatre/drama are academic subjects. Cheerleading and basketball aren’t.

What about dance?


Dave F 02.23.04 at 12:03 pm

Ophelia Benson: I seem to recall the esteemed National Gallery flogging itself as “an ace caff with rather a nice gallery attached”.

For those who don’t get cheerleading, see the admirably energetic movie “Bring It On” which certainly opened my eyes and was hugely enjoyable. A lot of chaps are needed, by the way, for the girl-tossing bits of choreography.

By the by, I found out on ESPN that skipping rope is a national sport in America – and believe me, you have never seen skipping till you have seen its annual championship.


ahem 02.24.04 at 3:53 am

The varsity sports system is vital to the American collegiate system because it sustains dozens of institutions which would otherwise be closed down on academic grounds. In short, a successful football/basketball team allows countless thousands of not-very-bright people to get academically-worthless batchelors’ degrees.


ahem 02.24.04 at 3:55 am

He said, misspelling ‘bachelor’. Dear me. It’s been a long day.

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