Benefield: When it comes to cheerleading, participants are athletes all the way

Ruby Moreno, front, and other Rancho Cotate cheerleaders get in shape for cheerleading practices, Tuesday May 26, 2015 at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park. A bill in the California legislature would make cheerleading a CIF-sanctioned sport. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Ruby Moreno, front, and other Rancho Cotate cheerleaders get in shape for cheerleading practices, Tuesday May 26, 2015 at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park. A bill in the California legislature would make cheerleading a CIF-sanctioned sport. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)



One girl sat in the bleachers, hands above her head, a look of distress on her face. Another was bent at the waist, trying to fill her lungs. Throughout, coach Ashley Thurston urged them on — up the bleachers, down the bleachers, around the track.

Sounds like just about every sports practice I’ve ever been involved in or seen.

But this was Rancho Cotate High’s cheerleading practice, not a sport. Right?

Wrong, says Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego.

Gonzalez has authored AB94, which would classify competitive cheerleading as a California Interscholastic Federation-sanctioned sport.

The bill cleared the Assembly appropriations committee Wednesday on a 17-0 vote. In April, the education committee endorsed it 7-0.

Scoff if you must, but read on. And start with the dictionary.

In mine it reads: “Sport 1) any activity or experience that gives enjoyment or recreation … 2) such an activity, esp. when competitive, requiring more or less vigorous bodily exertion and carried on, sometimes as a profession, according to some traditional form or set of rules, whether outdoors, as in football , golf, etc., or indoors, as basketball, bowling, etc. 3) fun or play.”

And the fourth definition? “4) an object of ridicule; laughingstock b) a thing or person buffeted about, as though a plaything.”

Gonzalez, who cheered in high school and later at Stanford, and who coached cheerleading for years, said in her experience, cheerleading has been all of the above. But she has always considered it a sport.


Because competitive cheer teams practice — hard. They strength train to be able to perform stunting drills, they condition to be able to do jumping and tumbling routines. They practice year-round. Teams travel to intense competitions that, yes, are scored by subjective judges, but so, too, do divers, gymnasts and skiers. Extreme sports, our newest fascination, are loaded with events that are scored by judges.

What the truly competitive teams do is not your mama’s rah-rah-sis-boom-bah cheerleading.

“They are a team, they work together, they practice, they get scored in competition,” said Rancho Cotate High School athletic director Henri Sarlatte. “It takes athletic ability. You break down the athleticism of every sport, it’s different. You are using different muscles, different moves, but sport is sport any time there is competition.”

For Gonzalez and others, this is not about semantics. It’s about safety, respect and equity.

Gonzalez, who calls herself a “lipstick feminist,” takes umbrage at those who would say a girl who skins her knees and slides in the grass is any more of an athlete than one who launches a teammate 10 feet into the air and then catches her.

“Young women who choose to get their athletics from what would be considered a traditionally girly activity are somehow invalidated,” she said.

I’ll admit, as one who skinned her knees and slid in the grass and wouldn’t have been caught dead in a cheerleading outfit, I paused when I read the legislation. I’ll fess up to having a bit of skepticism.

But reason prevails. And reason tells me that cheerleading is a sport and should be governed and guided by uniform safety rules and regulated by standards of academic and civic behavior we (hopefully) expect of our other student athletes.

As it is now, it’s a bit of a free-for-all, and that’s frightening.

“If we do certain stunts, we have to have a mat,” said Tina Angel, Montgomery’s cheer coach. “Not all schools follow that. There are some safety guidelines that it would be nice to see everybody follow.”

A 2012 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found cheerleading “accounted for 65 percent of all direct catastrophic injuries to girl athletes at the high school level and 70.8 percent at the college level” between 1982 and 2009.

The AAP considers cheerleading a sport; so too does the American Medical Association.

We shouldn’t call something a sport just because it’s dangerous, but we should give serious thought to participants’ safety.

Gonzalez’s bill would mean cheerleaders could earn physical education credits for time spent working out and competing, just like the football players. It would also require coaches reach a minimum level of training, just like the soccer teams. And it would impose grade point average standards, attendance rules, just like the track team.

It would also impose rules on hours of training and season of competition. This might complicate things a bit. The idea is this: Spirit cheering could still occur for fall and winter sports, but spring would be the cheerleading’s official season, where teams would compete against other schools in dual and multi-sport competitions, something like what wrestling, swimming and track hold now.

But it is important to note that any new rules are as yet unwritten. Gonzalez’s bill calls for the CIF, in consultation with the state department of education, to “develop guidelines, procedures, and safety standards.”

That part gives pause to Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators and a clear supporter of cheerleading.

Many states across the country consider cheerleading a sport, but almost all vary in what exactly that means.

“You don’t know the unintended consequences are until you have them,” he said, adding that some schools have only spirit squads and not competitive “stunting units.”

“Right now, schools can choose if they even want to compete,” he said. “If you have something as a sport, if that then forces schools to compete when they don’t want to compete … ”

It is unknown whether final language would allow schools to have a squad that does spirit cheers, but not stunts.

“This is foreign to California,” said Gil Lemmon, North Coast Section athletics commissioner. “I think it’s great that we are moving in that direction. It’s a big change for our schools.”

It’s a big change both in rule and in spirit — literally. Some have long felt that competitive cheer is a sport. And some have looked at it as little more than time-out entertainment.

According to Gonzalez, the latter is rooted in sexism and loaded with disrespect.

“We as a society need to get over it,” she said.

I think it’s time I did too.

(Is making cheerleading an official sport the right move? Take our poll)

You can reach staff 
columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.bene​, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.