Jul 30, 2014

Jeff Ward: We Still Have Cheerleaders?

With girls high school sports what it is today, it's time to retire the pom pons!

Jeff Ward: We Still Have Cheerleaders? Jeff Ward: We Still Have Cheerleaders? Jeff Ward: We Still Have Cheerleaders? Jeff Ward: We Still Have Cheerleaders?

Oh, man! Am I gonna get it for this one! But when you add the story of fools and angels to an uncanny capacity to speak my mind, we may as well just let the chips fall where they may!

I can’t remember in which of the five newspapers arriving daily on my doorstep I saw it, but one of ‘em ran a photo of local cheerleaders participating in a state competition. The question that immediately popped into mind without any premeditation whatsoever was, “We still have cheerleaders?!”

There was no disrespect intended. It was just the kind of thing you might whisper to yourself when walking into a store still selling cassette tapes, PDAs or bell-bottom blue jeans. You can’t help but think, “I thought we were past that.”

Before Title IX, cheerleading was the scrap that high school administrators threw young women desperate to participate in some sort of athletic endeavor. Throwing any notion of political correctness into our winter wind, there have been any number of movies that demonstrate the kind of connotations that come along with being a cheerleader.

Of course, the irony is, even those stereotypes are obsolete. As Glen Ellyn Patch Editor Samantha Liss so aptly pointed out, most male high school sports spectators look right past the cheerleaders to see what the young women on the drill and dance teams aren’t wearing.

Our magnficent bottom line is, the days of girls being relegated to the sidelines have been relegated to history’s dust bin. Short of football, almost every Patchland high school offers young women a vast array of officially-sanctioned athletic options.

Newspaper coverage of coed high school sports is now virtually equal to that of the boys, the crowds at their games are growing, and we’re celebrating exceptional female athletes right alongside the best of their male counterparts.

To this day, my all-time favorite interview is the one with the 2008 Geneva High School girls cross country state championship team. Those young woman exemplified the traits we want our children to absorb from participating in high school sports: confidence, camaraderie, perseverance and a sense of something greater than themselves.

In fact, I was so inspired by those young women that, since that column, my 5K time plummeted from 28:10 to 24:01. And I’m old!

The good news is, they’re not nearly the only superb Patchland girls high school team.

The York and Lyons girls finished fifth and sixth in the Trib’s 2011 top 10 soccer team poll. The Downers Grove North girls swim team, lead by Gabby Sims, had a pretty good year themselves. Let’s not forget the Glendbard West cross country girls and the Benet Academy girls basketball Redwings, currently ranked No. 9 by the Sun-Times.

So I find myself asking this. Considering how far high school girls have come, with this plethora of options, why would any young woman want to be a cheerleader?

Before you hit the send button, I understand that cheerleading, via the previously mentioned competitions, has turned into something quite a bit more competitive and athletic than it was in my day. But if that’s the case, then let’s change the uniforms and call it something else.

That said, Downer Grove Patch Editor Rob Bykowski's less-than-enthusiastic response about my “Team Gymnastics with Vocals” suggestion was something along the lines of, “Who the heck would want to sign up for that?"

But whatever we call it, it isn’t that important as long as it isn’t “cheerleading.”  Because, no matter how you spin it, in the end, these are the girls end up on the sideline cheering for the boys. And that, my friends, is an anachronism.

If I ever see a line of perky uniformed young men loudly cheering in unison for the Hinsdale Central Red Devils’ girls at the far end of the basketball court, I might just change my mind. Again, I understand that male high school cheerleaders do exist, but there aren't nearly enough of them to undermine my point.

When I look at the Luvabulls, a group of grown women cheering for underperforming and overpaid athletes in little more than their underwear, it’s just sad. And don’t try to tell me it’s a stepping stone to something greater because the only adult cheerleader that’s ever risen above those ranks is former Laker Girl Paula Abdul, and she’s nuts!

So right along with silly Native American mascots, ridiculous hazing rituals, and ignorance of concussion symptoms, it’s finally time to retire the traditional notion of the high school cheerleader. No longer consigned to second class sports status, our high school daughters have far greater things to which to aspire.

Before she went off to college, my former business assistant was also a standout Geneva High School volleyball player. And her wise mother offered her what I consider to be some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: “Don’t cheer for someone else; be the one they cheer for.”

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