Go! Fight! Win? Is Cheerleading actually a Sport?

Amy Rich Oct. 18, 2015

There are a lot of people out in the world who think that cheerleading is not a sport, but on the other hand there are a lot who think it is. But people tend to have an opinion on just about anything and typically don’t have any evidence to back their opinions up. Growing up, my sister and I played almost every sport there is and when it came time to decide which sports to play competitively in high school I choose soccer and track and she choose cheerleading. My initial reaction was to laugh at her and tell her she should pick something else because cheerleading is definitely not a sport; they wear makeup and dance around with pom-poms for goodness sake!

It's more than just hair and makeup
It’s more than just hair and makeup

But let’s just say my opinion changed quickly when my incredibly strong and tough cheerleader of a sister physically taught me otherwise. So my goal in this post is to delve in and see if I can find philosophical evidence to support my opinion that cheerleading is in fact a sport.

I think a great place to start is by looking at Heather Reid’s definition of sport. In her chapter on Sports and Games, she includes Bernard Suits’ commentary that “performance sports” like gymnastics and diving are judged rather than refereed and therefore more similar to competitions like “beauty contests than to rule-governed games.” Yet Suits qualifies them to be sports because of the emphasis on physical skill and in his article “Tricky Triad” (1988) he redefines sports as “competitive events involving a variety of physical human skills, where the superior participant is judges to have exhibited those skills in a superior way.” Cheerleading can be constituted as a performance sport since it is judged but going alongside Suits’ definition it would be a sport because of its’ variety of physical skill and the outcome of a competition is dependent on a superior demonstration of that physical skill.

This takes some serious skill!
This takes some serious skill!

Alongside Suits’ definition of sport is popular opinion that a sport must be “a human activity involving physical skill and exertion, governed by a set of rules or customs, and undertaken competitively and capable of achieving a result.” According to these definitions, it should be clear that cheerleading is in fact a sport; so why do so many people still try to refute this.

Shifting the viewpoint to the rules of sports it is clear that cheerleading has a long list of rules and regulations that are developed by certain institutions such as the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches & Administrators. The focus now should not be on the governing body that establishes the rules but the rules themselves. Are the rules of cheerleading “constitutive rules”?  According to Suits, this is a crucial part of being a sport and many performance sports lack the necessary constitutive rules.  Reid defines constitutive rules as “rules thought to define a game and distinguish it from other games.” This is where things get a little tricky for cheerleading; yes there are rules that help to regulate the competition and ensure that each competitor is adhering to a universal set of rules so that each can be fairly judged. If we were to ask Suits about the rules of cheerleading, it can be inferred that he would designate these rules as “pre-event” rules that are a part of performance sports but are different from the constitutive rules that distinguish game sports. So the question now arises; is cheerleading only a performance sport or can it be deemed a game sport? To answer this, we need to jump back a step to see if cheerleading satisfies the definition of a game.

In her essay on sports and games, Reid includes commentary from Klaus Meier about the difference between performance sports and games. According to Meier in his article “Triad Trickery” (1988) he says that performance sports do have constitutive rules and they also satisfy the criteria Suits gives for games. Cheerleading does have the elements of Suits’ definition of a game: a goal to be superior in competition and execute a perfect routine, means such as tumbling and stunting that help achieve the goal, rules that regulate the means, and a lusory attitude which is adopted by the cheerleaders each time they enter into competition. Therefore I believe that it is safe to claim that cheerleading can be described as a game, and that is one step closer to being a sport, and the rules of cheerleading are in fact constitutive rules that the very existence of the game is reasonably reliant on.

With the evidence presented I feel confident to define cheerleading as a sport. I’m not alone in this opinion, in fact the California Interscholastic Federation just declared cheerleading a sport in the state of California. I feel sorry for those that will still try to denounce cheerleading as a sport because you really don’t want to upset a cheerleader, most of them are stronger and tougher than any football player or wrestler around; trust me I know from personal experience.

My sister's college cheer team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
My sister’s college cheer team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
My sister and I in our Varsity Letterman jackets from our respective SPORTS
My sister and I in our Varsity Letterman jackets from our respective SPORTS

Sources

Suits, B. (1988). Tricky Triad: Games, Play, and Sport. Journal Of The Philosophy Of Sport, 15(1), 1-9

Meier, K. V. (1988). Triad Trickery: Playing With Sport and Games. Journal Of The Philosophy Of Sport, 15(1), 11-30

Reid, Heather L. “Sport and Games.” Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. 47-49. Print.