The Business Behind CheerleadingTuesday, March 20, 2012 By Reid Van Mouwerik
A girl weighing somewhere between 90 and 110 pounds is vaulted up and held overhead by five other young women. Sometimes this girl, standing on the hands of her teammates, scorpions a leg back that she draws in with both arms to touch to the back of her skull. Should someone fail anywhere in this crucial structure, that same skull could find itself dropping through the air where it will sometimes collide with a few dismayed and disgraced faces before coming to an emergency stop among the same arms that lifted it twelve feet from the floor. This skull, protected by nothing but a bright, ten-dollar bow and tight pony tail, can sometimes crash through the decagram of arms meant to rescue it to meet a floor that is sometimes padded, and sometimes as unforgiving as a high school track. In competition, this entire feat must be performed with every single face wearing an ear-poppingly overjoyed smile (for Overall Spirit points). This is modern cheerleading. The Wilson cheer team is very good at it. And fortunately for Wilson’s cheerleaders and their skulls, the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) declared cheer an “activity” in 2008. Activities are just one step away from being officially subsidized sports in the OSAA handbook, which distances the OSAA from cheer in a way that is analogous to the OSAA’s relationship with other self-funded sports like women’s lacrosse – the OSAA orchestrates the competitive culmination of a state championship and demands certain standards of safety in competition; yet the OSAA does not subsidize practice space, uniforms, officiating, travel, or many other significant accoutrements. This is actually an important victory, because in 24 states, high school cheerleaders still struggle for legal recognition thanks to the less-than-panacean yet deservedly-touted-as-kickass Title IX, a piece of 1972 federal legislation that put the requirement for gender equity in school sports into law. Unfortunately, cheer was excluded from the list of “sports” protected in the bill. This exclusion leaves much of cheer ill-regulated when it comes to safety. Also, an obscene amount of money is being made thanks to this hole in Title IX by a firm called Varsity Brands – a 30-subsidiary conglomerate that works in many unsettling ways to wring every cent they can out of the families with children that call cheerleading their passion. The power and greed of Varsity have conspired within this gap in Title XI to keep cheerleading unsafe and exploitable. Some of Varsity Brands’ 30 easily-misperceived-as-independent subsidiaries stage competitions. Other Varsity subsidiaries then squeeze money out every single conceivable product or service that leads up to those competitions (e.g., uniforms, All-Star teams, coach certification, fake hair, camps, shoes, gyms). Of the competitions, the most lucrative are the strangely multitudinous “Nationals Championships.” The most common question cheer-outsiders at Wilson have is: “Why the hell are there so many Nationals?” How is it possible that Wilson’s 2010 team won two different US nationals in one year? There can’t be more than one competition calling its winners “National Champs,” can there? I mean maybe different divisions, as seen in the OSAA’s State Cheer championship, – in which Wilson placed 1 st in the 5A small school division – but there is only one national champion in each division in any form of legitimate competition, right? And are Wilson’s girls really slam-dunking a legitimate national championship year in and year out? The answer is no, not even close. There were, at last count, sixty-six individual “National Championships,” each producing so-called National Champions in every age division. All that is required for entry is a sizeable registration fee, and each of these 66 nationals is organized from within the inky conglomerate of Varsity. These grand-scale competitions provide underpinnings for the bulk of Varsity’s revenue – a whopping $300,000,000 in 2010. Varsity runs its storm of “Nationals” to keep its market alive: Why buy uniforms ($300 to $400) without somewhere to wear them to? Why join All-Star teams without covetable trophies? Why pay for tumbling lessons ($20/mo)? Why pay gym dues ($150)? Why pay competition fees ($70 to $150)? And for Varsity, why add the cost of ideal safety standards when there is no one regulating them but their own cupidity? If Title IX embraced cheer, these 66 money-factories/nationals would be undercut by sanctioned state competitions. State competitions replete with real safety standards unfettered by profit motivation – something Varsity Brands’ safety-certifying subsidiary, the United States All Star Federation (USASF), fails to provide. To become a USASF certified coach, one must pass a 3-hour open book test. OSAA coaches, even in “activities” are required to pass through a battery of classes and tests on return to play standards, sexual harassment prevention, first aid, CPR, etc. Outside of OSAA sanction, it takes only three hours and literacy to be certified to care for participants in unaffiliated cheer; in a sport that was responsible for more than half of the 104 catastrophic spinal injuries suffered in women’s sports from 1982 to 2005. That’s reprehensible. So, Varsity Brands is making ugly money by exploiting a sordid little gap in legislature, a gap where anachronism rules. Where cheerleading is still imagined as nothing more than prim girls gesticulating and chanting, where the thought that cheer is anything less than a sport can even turn into conviction. This gap has to close, if not out of some sense of better business, certainly out of concern for the brave young girls that face gravity’s worst day in and day out, often without the precautions a football parent would take for granted.