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Publish date: May 17, 2011

One in a series of profiles from the Spring 2011 issue of Champion magazine.

Taking flight

Advocates seek home for sport that leaves skirts and sidelines behind.

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
NCAA.org

The sandbag reaches the top of its arc and begins its heavy return to earth.

Oregon’s Tori Mayard, all 130 pounds of her, prepares for impact. The bag is about a third of her weight.

Safety first

Any version of cheerleading hoping to be an emerging sport will have to overcome the perception that it is dangerous. According to the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators annual sports-injury study, the number of college cheerleaders suffering catastrophic injury between 1982 and 2008 (31) is second only to college football players (140) during the same time

Safety is a concern for both USA Cheer and the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association. USA Cheer authorities said the perception that injury rates are higher for cheerleaders is inaccurate and based on studies that don’t include correct participation data when comparing cheerleading with other sports. 

The organization has partnered with the American Sports Medicine Institute and the Andrews Center based in Birmingham, Ala., to assemble a national safety council aimed at continuing to minimize the risk to student-athletes in the sport. John Blake, executive director of the NCATA, said its affiliation with USA Gymnastics as an official sanctioning body for its meets had a lot to do with its concern about the safety of student-athletes participating in the sport. Acrobatics and tumbling coaches are all certified in appropriate training methods, and skill progression is an emphasis. 

“As an organization, safety is a top priority for us,” Blake said. “If safety isn’t at the forefront of the discussion when we’re talking about the skill sets in acrobatics and tumbling, I believe we’ve done a disservice to the sport.” — Michelle Brutlag Hosick

As the bag approaches, Mayard’s knees flex and her body gently gives. The sand lands softly, its weight welcomed and not resisted.
The load disperses evenly through her body.

The moment repeats again and again, followed by intense skill instruction. Then comes weight training … lots of weight training.

Welcome to practice for acrobatics and tumbling, a new sport that combines skills from gymnastics and competitive cheerleading.

There’s the word. “Cheerleading.”

This is an activity with high youth participation, low expense and potential spectator appeal, but it isn’t classified as an emerging sport within the NCAA. Part of the problem is image – the lingering perception that anything involving the word “cheer” is not really a sport. But even for those who agree that the activity is a sport, the transition is complicated by squabbles about which influences – gymnastics or cheer – will drive the future.

The case against competitive cheer is familiar by now: Critics say it perpetuates subservient gender roles for women. Or that it may not pass legal muster to aid Title IX requirements. Or that young women should be competing for themselves and not cheering for others.

But whether the philosophy of cheer is right or wrong, there’s no getting around one especially significant fact: The activity is highly popular at the youth level. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association reports 3 million cheerleaders nationally, without distinguishing between sideline and competitive. High school participation for “competitive spirit” ranks ninth among girls sports at 123,644 – far ahead of No. 10 golf. Those young women are looking for opportunities to continue competition at the college level, and some programs are accommodating them.

However, the form of a college game is uncertain. The National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (tied with USA Gymnastics) pushes its acrobatics and tumbling program, while USA Cheer promotes a similar effort it calls STUNT.

Each organization wants its activity to earn NCAA emerging-sport status, and both are taking necessary steps to legitimize their versions with the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Education.

All the while, they are fighting an image battle, trying to differentiate the activity from the stereotype of the sideline cheerleading squad.

Competitions, whether in acrobatics and tumbling or STUNT, don’t feature young women in short skirts wearing lipstick, mascara and ribbons in their hair. The student-athletes wear shorts and jerseys – with numbers. They tape their wrists and ankles. They don’t entertain or lead the crowd in a traditional cheer sense.

“This fits with the competitive nature of student-athletes today, where they are willing to try more elaborate things,” said Melissa Hay, who coaches the STUNT team at Methodist University in North Carolina. “These are the same kids who have grown up watching the X Games. Seeing a girl being tossed 10 feet in the air and flipping and spinning is exciting.”

These are the same kids who have grown up watching the X Games. Seeing a girl being tossed 10 feet in the air and flipping and spinning is exciting.” – Melissa Hay, STUNT Team Coach at Methodist University.

Both the NCATA and USA Cheer have segmented their versions into separate “events.” In USA Cheer’s STUNT, meets are conducted in quarters: partner stunts, team tumbling/jumps, pyramids/basket tosses and a team performance. In NCATA’s acrobatics and tumbling, the competitions are split into six events with different heats: compulsories, stunts, pyramids, basket tosses, tumbling and a team routine. Both versions are conducted head-to-head, with individual competitions featuring between two and four teams.

Both versions also have developed objective scoring criteria. STUNT emphasizes technical execution and synchronization, with points awarded to the team that best performs a particular routine. The “team performance” allows teams to incorporate their entire team’s talents into a two-minute, 30-second routine, similar to competitive cheerleading. Acrobatics and tumbling scoring is based off predetermined start-difficulty values, similar to gymnastics evaluations. Officials monitor the execution, technique and skills performed.

Derivatives of cheer

Both acrobatics and tumbling and STUNT are new, developing sports, and both are experiencing some labor pains.

The NCATA and USA Cheer are working to distinguish their sports from competitive cheerleading (an activity also sponsored by USA Cheer). However, some schools that are affiliating with either acrobatics and tumbling or STUNT still call their sport “competitive cheerleading,” and some don’t classify the activity as a sport.

Nancy Post, associate athletics director at Baylor, explained that though Baylor is affiliating with the NCATA (which sponsors acrobatics and tumbling), the name is still evolving for sponsoring schools.

“At the current sponsoring institutions, we have a variety of names,” she said. “As we start defining how we move forward, a sport name will be one of the pieces that follow.”

STUNT is facing a similar issue. Many of the schools that officials list as “participants” in its inaugural year aren’t categorized as a sponsored sport by an institution’s athletics website (the teams are often listed as “spirit” groups and called “cheer”). In some cases, the same student-athletes participate in sideline cheer, as well.

Many of these issues regarding categorization and name will have to be resolved before some believe the sport can be taken seriously.

 — Michelle Brutlag Hosick

The NCATA and USA Cheer versions both feature immediate scoring, with overall standings displayed throughout the event. Neither has the traditional competitive-cheerleading format, which is simply a team going out and performing its best two-minute, 30-second routine for a set of judges. Another difference among the three is that competitive cheer can include male participants while the other two sports do not.

NCATA Executive Director John Blake said acrobatics and tumbling coaches look for student-athletes with skills similar to competitive cheerleaders and gymnasts but who want to try the new format in a head-to-head competition with another team. STUNT coaches look for the same.

“We’ve taken ideas from track and field and gymnastics as far as how we set things up in events with different heats,” Blake said. “We’ve tried to create something totally different. We’ve found that the spectators get it and really enjoy it. It’s unique from other sports because of the two different disciplines that are involved and the phenomenal athletes on these teams.”

Too competitive?

However true that may be, the sport has not reached NCAA emerging-sport status, let alone championship status, and part of the problem is the ground staked out between STUNT and acrobatics and tumbling. While a collective approach might seem more likely to bring about broader acceptance, NCATA and USA Cheer are unlikely to join forces because their roots are so different.

Hay said Methodist chose STUNT over acrobatics and tumbling because it was grounded in competitive cheer and affiliated with USA Cheer instead of USA Gymnastics.

“My sport is cheerleading. I am a cheerleader at heart, even though I’ve done gymnastics and been trained in the sport,” she said. “When you put in the requirements to do competitive stunts, competitive pyramids and a competitive routine, it’s cheerleading, not gymnastics. To me, STUNT is providing an opportunity for cheerleaders who are coming up through USA Cheer. There is a need to give these athletes somewhere to go.”

Bill Seely, executive director of USA Cheer, said STUNT belongs in the cheerleading world, not
with gymnastics.

“Our interest is in keeping this sport within the cheerleading community where it originated,” Seely said. “We have no interest in merging with gymnastics. We think they are both incredible sports and deserve their own identities.”

The NCATA aligned with USA Gymnastics, which sanctions all of its meets, to give the sport additional legitimacy.

“There’s no doubt when you say USA Gymnastics, respect comes along with that,” Blake said. “We see what a huge honor it is to have them sanction our events.”

USA Gymnastics Executive Director Steve Penny said his group affiliated with the NCATA because acrobatics and tumbling could provide new access for traditional gymnasts who may not specialize in all gymnastics events (for example, beam, bars and vault) but still love to tumble. Penny also said that USA Gymnastics sponsors a tumbling and trampoline division that was without college opportunities before acrobatics and tumbling was created.

“They are doing it the right way,” Penny said. “They are taking a sport-oriented approach and creating a discipline that in our mind closely mirrors the gymnastics style and disciplines. The other group is not structured to serve their sport; they are structured to serve their industry.”

While neither group completely ruled out combining their efforts, Blake acknowledged that “a lot of different pieces would have to fall into place” for that to happen.

Emerging sports?

Both organizations have submitted proposals for emerging-sport status to the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics, the NCAA group charged with identifying and managing the progress of emerging sports for women. Both groups will present their case at the NCAA Gender Equity Forum set for May 1-3 in Bethesda, Md.

By granting a sport “emerging” status, the NCAA helps provide more athletics opportunities for women, more sport sponsorship for institutions and possibly more NCAA championship opportunities. Institutions are allowed to use emerging sports to meet sport-sponsorship requirements and (in Divisions I and II) financial aid requirements.

For a sport to be declared “emerging,” organizations must demonstrate that at least 20 institutions sponsor the sport at a varsity or competitive club level and provide to the Committee on Women’s Athletics 10 letters from institutions that sponsor or intend to sponsor the sport. For the sport to attain championship status, it must be sponsored by 40 institutions.

"Don’t take anything away from these athletes who have trained since they were 5 years old and are finally getting the chance to compete at the college level and be treated like a true college athlete.”” – Felecia Mulkey, acrobatics and tumbling coach at Oregon

Both STUNT officials and those involved with acrobatics and tumbling believe achieving emerging-sport status not only would be good for their sports but also good for the millions  of young women in the U.S. who participate in competitive cheer and have few places to go in college but to traditional cheer squads.

Advocates also point to the large number of competitive female gymnasts participating on high school and club teams – and the relatively small number of college opportunities available to them. The latest NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report showed 1,417 student-athletes participating in NCAA women’s gymnastics in 2009-10. That contrasts sharply with almost 1.5 million young women (mostly pre-college) who regularly participated in gymnastics in 2009, as reported by the SGMA.

Penny believes granting emerging-sport status to acrobatics and tumbling could help women’s gymnastics in the U.S.

“This provides a whole new avenue of access for athletes who are coming out of the gymnastics community into the collegiate level,” Penny said. “To create a path for athletes who specialize in acrobatics and tumbling is helpful for the growth of our sport, as well. If you’re not great on the beam or the bars, you might be really good at some of the acrobatic or tumbling skills. This provides a place for those athletes.”

Renee Mack Baumgartner, senior associate athletics director at Oregon, said the sport will provide more opportunities for young women to go to college.

“When institutions are looking at adding a new sport, it should be about meeting the interests and abilities of the under-represented sex at their institution,” she said. “If you look across the nation, with the number of gymnastics and competitive cheer teams, there is a lot of interest. As an administrator, I see that it’s what these young women are crying out to do.”

USA Cheer’s Seely agrees, although from a different perspective, pointing to similar statistics among USA Cheer participants.

“By offering STUNT teams, colleges and universities will open a whole new range of participation opportunities that were otherwise closed for these young women and girls to continue participating in their sport at the collegiate level,” Seely said. “In fact, there are several state activities and athletics associations considering offering STUNT at the high school level in the very near future, which will explode the number of young people participating who can be recruited at the college level.”

When Oregon surveyed the interests and abilities of potential student-athletes on campus, Baumgartner said the choice to sponsor some form of competitive cheerleading was clear. Baylor, also a member of the NCATA, made a similar discovery.

Baumgartner said the Ducks compete in the same arena used for basketball and volleyball, with a large, non-spring mat for competition and two smaller mats for the bench areas. It is the third-most-popular Oregon women’s sport, and she says it has tremendous television potential.

“It is very entertaining,” Baumgartner said. “Not only do kids and young families love it, but so do grandparents and other athletes. Fans are coming to watch truly elite athletes.”

Federal case

Despite the reasons why competitive cheer (or its derivatives) might prosper, there is a question of how the courts regard the activity.

Last fall, a federal judge declared that Quinnipiac’s form of competitive cheerleading did not fit the Title IX requirements for a varsity sport. Quinnipiac had eliminated several sports, including women’s volleyball, and added competitive cheerleading to meet Title IX requirements. When the women’s volleyball team sued, a U.S. district court ruled that the way the school had added the sport and conducted it did not meet the requirements of the Department of Education.

According to U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill, the way Quinnipiac conducted the sport in 2009-10 was not consistent with other varsity sports on campus, including belonging to a national governing body that set a consistent scoring system and set of opponents.

But those inside the STUNT and acrobatics/tumbling community say that the impact on their sports wasn’t as bad as it appeared. If anything, those involved with the NCATA say the ruling gave them a challenge, mandating a blueprint for what needed to be done.

“I don’t think anyone wished (for the ruling), but the outcome was that for the first time we had a blueprint for the steps we needed to take to be considered a sport,” Blake said. “What was exciting to us was that we already had those things in the works. (The ruling) also raised awareness.”

Part of that awareness was the need to overcome the stereotype of traditional sideline cheerleading.

“The first thing I always say is come watch a meet and see for yourself before you make that evaluation,” said Nancy Post, an associate AD at Baylor, which also belongs to the NCATA.  “Let me educate you about what this sport truly is. These student-athletes are not cheerleaders. To even use that term in reference to them is detrimental. They are not on the sidelines. They are not wearing skirts. They are not cheering. We have our spirit squad at our meets, cheering on these athletes.”

Felecia Mulkey, the acrobatics and tumbling coach at Oregon, said she runs her team like any other sport at Oregon. Methodist’s Hay and Baylor’s Post said their student-acrobats receive the same academic support, uniforms, access to athletic training, strength and conditioning coaching, and other benefits that are afforded to student-athletes in other sports.

Mulkey, who coached Kennesaw State’s competitive cheer program before moving to Oregon, begs the skeptics to at least respect the sport, even if they don’t like it.

“You may not like baseball or tennis or golf, but you respect them as a sport,” she said. “Don’t take anything away from these athletes who have trained since they were 5 years old and are finally getting the chance to be treated like a true college athlete. Don’t take anything away from them. It’s not their fault that a particular person doesn’t like their sport.”

Mulkey wishes the skeptics could see the passion that her student-athletes possess, how hard they work and how grateful they are for the opportunity.

Mayard, who came to Oregon from a background in gymnastics and competitive cheerleading, said acrobatics and tumbling provides her with a place to compete in a longer format than the couple of minutes allowed in a traditional competitive cheer routine.

Mayard is almost overwhelmed by the support the Ducks fans give her team. When she is wearing her uniform, the fans (more than 1,300 strong at the first home meet this season) scream “O” at her and her teammates.

“It’s so awesome. They were very welcoming of our sport,” Mayard said. “And we are respected now by a lot of the other athletes because they see our work ethic and what we do in practice.”

Teammate Chelsea White also has a background in gymnastics and competitive cheerleading. At 5 feet, 8 inches, she knows she probably wouldn’t be able to compete in college gymnastics, which often requires a more compact frame for all of the different events.

But as a muscular “back spot” (a position Mayard calls the most important on the team), White is responsible for “counting off” stunts and ensuring the safety of the lighter “flyer.” And she can get out and turn cartwheels and back handsprings during the group portion.

“There really aren’t many opportunities to (do traditional) cheer at my height and my size,” White said. “You have to be a little girl to be a cheerleader in college. Plus, there’s not a lot of opportunities for scholarships. I think it’s cool that there’s now an opportunity where your athleticism can be recognized, and you’re getting all the benefits that go along with being a student-athlete.”

Methodist’s Hay likes to tell the story of the day she distributed uniforms to her student-athletes in advance of their first exhibition competition. The young women started giggling and laughing, which annoyed Hay at first. Then she realized that they weren’t being silly. They were genuinely excited and surprised to be treated like real athletes.

“I looked at their faces and realized it was giddiness at being treated like an athlete for the first time in their lives,” she said. “It’s a one-time-only experience for them. I let them embrace it. This will be a process, and people need to be understanding of that. We’ve never been viewed as athletes. There will be some growing pains, but they are excited about it. They want it.”

Mayard even wants to make a career of it. Already possessing her degree in psychology, Mayard is spending her final semester working on her strength and conditioning coaching certification, with the goal of someday becoming an acrobatics and tumbling coach.

“This sport is about to explode in the next couple of years, and there will be a coaching opportunity for me somewhere,” she said. “This sport has gotten me here, and I can’t even imagine where else it will take me.”

Indeed, the only thing that may be left to imagine is where the sport – in whatever form – takes other prospective student-athletes. 

 

 

Acrobatics and Tumbling

Stunt

Competitive Cheer

Format Six events (compulsory, stunts, pyramids, basket tosses, tumbling and team routine). Four “quarters” (partner stunts, team tumbling/jumps, pyramids/tosses, team performance).

 

Two-minute, 30-second team performance.

Scoring Difficulty values assigned specifically to the skills
performed; deductions
for each mistake.
In a two-team game, the winner gets two points and loser gets one point for each quarter. For four-team games, the winner gets four points, and so forth. The final score is cumulative of all four quarters. Scoring system with points assessed for various skills, such as crowd-leading and partner stunts. Points awarded for execution
and difficulty.
Scholarships offered 12 equivalencies. The sport is too new for
    scholarships, according to
    USA Cheer.
Can be as few as 12 or as many as 40 (male and female participants).
Roster Size 40 (female only). 20-40 (female only). Number of equivalencies offered varies by school.
Minimum number
of competitions
Six. Eight. No requirements.