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Cheerleading Infographic Opens an Important Discussion About Sexism and Sports

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A poorly-conceived infographic containing "tips and tricks" for would be cheerleaders has the UW Athletic Department right in the middle of an important discussion.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Ok. We've got to talk about this. I promise not to get overly preachy as we do so.

Well, at least I'll try.

Last week, the UW Athletic Department posted an infographic outlining the "do's and do not's" for students interested in cheer and dance tryouts. Here is that infographic:

Cheerleader Guide

As one might expect from a campus like UW's, where the typical female student is just as likely to be a tree-hugger as she is an excessive-hugger, there was a swift and significant backlash. UW immediately withdrew the piece and issued the following statement to the Seattle Times:

"(the UW has) determined that some of the details and descriptions provided were inconsistent with the values of the UW spirit program and department of athletics."

Well-to-dos will feign righteous indignation at the mere whiff of evidence demonstrating institutionalized objectification of women. I don't necessarily blame them as there is a certain amount of creep-factor in this thing that cannot be denied. But, context is important.

The rise of the Oregon Ducks cheer squad as a nationally recognized brand that now competes with traditional "powers" such as the USC Song Girls and the University of Texas Spirit Squad (to name a few) has sparked a whole new level of interest in the niche of collegiate cheer and dance. Young people, in particular females, are seeking opportunities to take advantage of the airtime afforded to college athletics in this new era of sports media.  In short, this is a phenomenon that is playing out all over the country.

Don't believe me?  Look at a similar infographic posted by our friends over in Pullman:

Wsu cheer

Look familiar?

Over at GoDucks.com, the official athletic department site for the University of Oregon, they don't post an infographic. However, they do post "advice" for would-be prospects:

...you must earn a minimum 2.25 GPA ...

...women stunters should weigh approximately 120 pounds or less ...

WHAT TO WEAR:

  • Crop top or sports bra (T-shirt over for interview, if desired) Short shorts (no lycra or spandex except under shorts for stunting)
  • No black-soled shoes allowed. Stunters wear cheer shoes.
  • Always have your hair and makeup game ready.  Ponytails are not necessary.  Fix up.  It does matter how you present yourself!
  • Cover any visible tattoos and take out body piercings. (earrings okay)

One need to look no further than the highly-accomplished Amanda Pflugrad, perhaps the most famous of all Oregon cheerleaders, to get a sense of what kind of success might be possible. Pflugrad, the daughter of well-known football coach Robin Pflugrad, graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in communications and started her career as a sports reporter for Fox Sports Arizona. Since then, she has had the opportunity to try out a few different jobs including a role as the team reporter for the New York Jets and, currently, as the team reporter covering former Husky Isaiah Thomas, among others, for the Boston Celtics.

Under any definition, Ms. Pflugrad has been a shining success. It is impossible to separate that success from the exposure and celebrity that her time as an Oregon cheer captain provided.

So, let's dispense with the proselytizing from the high-and-mighty class on this issue. There is something material to discuss here, but it doesn't have much to do with how the UW - or any collegiate institution for that matter - is somehow contributing to a culture of misogyny across our nation's campuses.

I'm sensitive to the feelings of women (by the way, don't men also try out for cheer? Where is the infographic for them?) who might be offended by this piece.  I'm the father to two daughters, one of whom was born with a congenital condition that will forever expose her to criticism and judgement by shallow people who put the image before the substance of a person. I worry about both of them and often wonder how they will manage through some of the inherent biases and challenges that women in our society face. I think I get it.

On the other hand, I'm as guilty as any other red-blooded male who has ever taken in a sports event. I've found myself, on a rare occasion or two, distracted from the action on the field by the eye-candy that some sports organizations put on their sideline. Sports marketers know my demographic and have exploited it well over the years.

As I consider the implications of this quandary and my role in helping to straighten it out, I suppose I could spew outrage and condemn the shortsighted actions of whomever thought that that particular infographic was consistent with the principles of the university. There is no doubt that we live in a world where body-shaming and cyber-bullying trends have created a crisis of self-confidence and anxiety among many of our young women. I'm a father. I see it in front of me as plain as day.

I can also see the good intentions behind the effort to create a level playing field for women to explore the rapidly evolving area of cheer in collegiate sports. Intellectually, I know that there are sexist and exploitative motivations underpinning the entire concept of sports cheer. But, I also know that real opportunity can be born from it. Amanda Pflugrad proves that this game can be played just as well by the participants in the interest of advancing their own objectives.

It ultimately comes back to me and what I do about building the confidence and sense of self-reliance in my daughters. I'm embarrassed by the graphic that UW put out. However, I'm also appreciative that the university "caught on" to the bigger picture issue that they brought to light. I applaud their responsiveness in bringing it down and I am hopeful that it sparks a conversation - probably overdue - in the athletic department that is less about how we ought to compete with the Oregons and USCs of the world and more about how we create an environment that encourages participation and opportunity for all who have a passion for the world of cheer and dance.

More importantly, this is a reminder to me that my work as a parent is not done. All of our children - whether male or female - will continue to be challenged by both overt and subtle biases as they continue through the institutions of their maturation. To instill in them their own moral compass and to provide for them a safety net that they can fall back upon when they get overwhelmed has been and continues to be my job. I can't control how society may on purpose or by accident negatively affect them. But I can control, to an extent, how they respond to it.

I know I said that I wouldn't get preachy, and I had intended to write this piece in a more lighthearted way. The UWDP staff and I enjoyed poking some fun at UW over this thing in an offline chat that we had the other day. But this is an important topic and relevant to many people. Just like it is to UW, it is important that we here at the UWDP get it right.