Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Ren's Book Club: CHEER! The Interview

When the HHR staff was sent a copy of Kate Torgovnick's Cheer!: Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading's Ultimate Prize, my first inclination was to pass it off to HHR's resident female contributer, Ariel. Once I looked at the book's jacket, which compared the piece to personal favorites Word Freak and Friday Night Lights, however, I decided to take a crack at it.

I am glad I did. Much like the two books mentioned, CHEER! is as much about a little-known subculture of society as it is about the sport itself. (Yes, I called it a sport). Cheerleading consists of rabid participants whose views on their own health and well-being are over-shadowed by their desire and dedication to do what they love.

Torgovnick follows three different and prominent Cheer programs from tryouts through nationals - Stephen F. Austin (The "Yale" of cheerleading), the University of Memphis All-Girl squad (often in the shadow of their Coed squad, despite their own successes), and the underfunded, HBC Southern Jags.

The squads and their members' acceptance of Torgovnick allow for candid and honest accounts of their social and competitive lives. You can't help but respect the dedication of many of them, and in some cases become bewildered with their mentalities.

If scratching the surface of a unknown obsessive culture living in your own back yard isn't enough to pique your interest, try these phrases on for size...

Cocaine, steroids, eating disorders.

Thought so.

I was lucky to be able to exchange a few emails with the book's author, who was both friendly and accessible. My questions and observations, based on my naievity of the subject (I haven't even seen Bring It On!) , I am certain reflect the interests and curiosity of you, the faithful HHR reader.


Ren McCormack:
You make no secret of your pre-conceived stereotypes of cheerleaders in the Author's Note and Intro. How have your images of cheerleaders changed?

Kate Torgovnick: It’s true, I used to think cheerleading was ridiculous and that anyone who did it must be prissy/shallow/in desperate need of male attention. But after spending a year following college cheerleading teams, I’ve come to see that cheerleading has a lot in common with extreme sports like skateboarding or motocross—the activity pushes the body to the limit and the level of risk is high. So now I think of cheerleaders as, well, kind of badass.

Also, I’ve seen that all kinds of people are drawn to cheerleading. Sure, in CHEER! you’ll find the pretty blondes you’d expect. But you’ll also find guys who played college football, gymnasts who once dreamed of the Olympics, and TK. Some of the cheerleaders really surprised me—like Marly, who takes ROTC conditioning classes for fun and Casi, who dreams of opening up a tattoo parlor after college.

RM: Was the decision to write the book based on a personal enlightenment of the culture via the magazine articles, or did you find it to be more a journalistic opportunity to shed light on the culture the way the aforementioned books did?

KT: Have you ever been inexplicably drawn to something? That’s how I felt about cheerleading—I was sent to cover a competition for Jane Magazine and I just felt myself pulled into this world that was so much more intense than anything I had ever experienced. So it was about personal enlightenment. That said, I of course realized it was a great journalistic opportunity to cover a subculture that hadn’t been closely examined and that people were naturally interested in.

RM: Male coaches – while you noted that most high school cheer squads are All-Girl, why do competitive teams such as those you covered tend to employ male head coaches?

KT: I was actually very surprised to find that so many college cheerleading coaches are male—I would estimate around 60 percent. I don’t have a solid answer for why this is, but here’s my instinct. On both of the coed teams I followed, I’d notice that in practice that the guys often took on a coaching role. So if they’re working on a stunt with their partner that wasn’t quite working, they’d assess what was happening and say, “Lock out your hip,” or “Turn a little more aggressively.” There’s a pragmatic reason for this—the guys are standing on the ground with a clear view of what their partner is doing, while meanwhile, the women are flipping/spinning/twisting through the air. But second, I think it’s a gender thing. This is one of very few sports where men and women compete on the same teams, and I think the guys often instinctually want to take command. Once you’re in the position of analyzing why moves are or aren’t working and helping your teammates get it right, it’s a natural progression to coaching.

RM: How do you find their rapport with the female squad members?

KT: You know, I don’t think there was a huge difference in how the cheerleaders related to male coaches versus female coaches. All of the coaches on the teams I followed could be authoritarians when they needed to be, but could also joke around with their squad members and treat them as friends. There was one cheerleader in the book, Sierra, who’d had a bad experience with a male coach—he’d had the women on his team weigh-in on a regular basis and was generally insensitive to the huge amount of body pressure women feel. But I never witnessed anything like that.

RM: Male cheerleaders are often stereotyped as much as their female counterparts. How are they viewed on campuses compared to how their female counterparts are?

KT: Oh yeah, male cheerleaders deal with a whole slew of stereotypes, the biggest one being that they must be gay. I’ve interviewed over a 100 guy cheerleaders at this point, maybe 4 or 5 of whom are out of the closet, and a handful more who set off my gaydar. The grand majority of male cheerleaders are straight and many of them give the exact same explanation for how they found their way into cheerleading: “For a girl.” Another stereotype that the guys have to deal with is constant stabs about how they aren’t real athletes. A huge number of guy cheerleaders actually come from other sports—they were football players, wrestlers, or even baseball or rugby players who at some point along the line gave cheerleading a try and found themselves quickly addicted to it.

RM: Can you describe regional differences regarding the culture of college cheerleading? (As a North Easterner this is a whole new world to me).

KT: Here are some of the places where cheerleading is huge: Texas, Kentucky, the South in general, the Midwest in general, and the Pacific Northwest. And it’s interesting—there are subtle regional differences, both in how teams put routines together and in the team aesthetic. For example, in Kentucky, the focus is on power partner stunting and the uniforms tends to be very old-school—covered midriff, floppy hair ribbons, and thick white athletic socks with their cheerleading shoes. In Texas, cheerleading is more flashy—so you’ll see tons of showy tumbling, the uniforms will be slightly more risqué, and the makeup will be sparkly. These are, of course, generalizations, but are true in general.

RM: One thing that struck me was teams hosting tryouts prior to enrollment in the school. While this would never fly with NCAA sports, it seems common practice at the schools you looked at. Is this ever a point of contention with the institutions?

TK: Because cheerleading is technically considered an “activity” rather than a “sport,” it doesn’t have to abide by a lot of the rules sports are held to by the NCAA. To my knowledge, I haven’t heard of any schools having a problem with cheerleading tryouts being held in the spring. There is actually a reason for it—cheerleading camps. Cheer camp has been a tradition in the cheerleading world since the 1950s—every summer thousands of these camps are held across the country. They’re sort of like cheerleading think tanks where teams learn moves that others are working on, everyone is drilled on safety preparation, and where new team members get used to working together. So the idea is that you want to have your team together before camp.

RM: Can you give your personal thoughts on the practice?

KT: I haven’t thought too much about this—it doesn’t really bother me. Though I do think it would be a bummer for someone to make the squad of their dreams and then not get into the college.

RM: How do you feel about the video tryouts?

KT: I like the idea of video tryouts, since not everyone has the time and money to travel to tryouts if they live outside of the immediate area. Video tryouts are especially helpful for people who are thinking about multiple schools in different parts of the country.

RM: Much ado has been made of late with prospective college athletes' relationships with recruiters and agents, yet competitive cheer blatantly pursues and grooms big-time high school (and junior high) cheerleaders - who sometime go on to full rides. Do you see a parallel with this cheerleading practice and those frowned upon in NCAA-sanctioned sports? Do you see it ever becoming a debated issue?

TK: It’s true that coaches go to competitions to scout talent—many of the cheerleaders in my book, who are some of the best in the nation, had interacted with their coaches in the years before making a college decision. But, for example, I’ve never heard of money changing hands or anyone being given a bigger scholarship as a way to lure them away from another school. It’s more about a coach building a relationship with a great high school cheerleader rather than giving them a flat-out incentive to come to a school. Another thing college teams often do—they hold “open gyms” where high school cheerleaders in the area are invited to practice with members of the team. Again, it would be hard to imagine this becoming a debated issue because the idea is for the cheerleader to meet the team members, and even learn from them, moreso than it is hardcore recruiting.

Every now and then, someone brings up the idea of cheerleading becoming an emerging sport in the NCAA comes up. That would no doubt help cheerleading gain a bit more respect. But the grand majority of people in the cheer world do not want to see this happen—primarily because so much about how cheerleading operates would have to change. The biggest thing—NCAA rules say that a sport can only be played during a single season. Meanwhile, cheerleading is year round (football season, basketball season, competition season, and then camps). To comply with this, it would mean schools would need to essentially have a team that just does competition season and a team that just does cheering season. And that’s controversial.

RM: While some schools enforce academic requirements, it seems as if very many cheerleaders are in college solely to cheer (i.e. "majoring in cheerleading" and 8-year college cheerleaders). The NCAA recently cut back many school's scholarships for institutions with student-athletes under-performing in the classroom. With cheerleading's designation as a club, is there a bias against athletes in this regard? If so, does it cheerleaders want it both ways - to be respected as athletes, but free of athletic restrictions and scrutiny?

KT: It’s true. Some college cheerleaders do say that they’re “majoring in cheer.” It really depends on the person—some cheerleaders take school extremely seriously while others do what they have to to get by. All three of the teams I followed did have an academic requirement for their cheerleaders—if their GPA fell below a certain point, they’d have to leave the squad. But again, because it’s not under the NCAA umbrella, it’s up to the school whether to have a policy like this for cheerleaders. Ditto goes for drug testing—it’s standard for NCAA athletes, but in cheerleading, it’s up to the school whether they want to do it for cheerleaders. I think that is especially problematic, especially seeing how much college cheerleaders talk about steroids.

RM: From those you've associated with, what are many of the college cheerleaders' post-college expectations? Professionally?

KT: I think one of the strongest themes in CHEER! is this real ambivalence about leaving the cheer world. When a college cheerleader graduates, unless they decide to coach, that’s it for them and cheerleading. So while any senior in college feels anxious about graduating and heading into the “real world,” I think that’s even scarier for someone who defines themselves as being a cheerleader. Many of the cheerleaders I’ve met do want to go on to coach, choreograph, or open up a cheerleading gym. But beyond that they have pretty normal post-college plans—they want to be teachers, physical therapists, actors, musicians, business people, etc.

RM: A point you make in the book's intro and in the chapters is the regulating ("grounding") of cheerleading and how it may change the culture of cheer. We know how cheerleaders and coaches feel about this. As an impartial observer what are your thoughts?

KT: It’s tremendously scary and sad when a cheerleader is seriously injured—I witnessed this first hand while reporting CHEER!. But I do have to go on record saying that I think the reaction to cheerleading injuries is overblown—both in the media and in schools and school districts that decide to ground cheerleaders. Cheerleading is an activity where human being are tossed in the air—it involves a certain amount of risk. The unfortunate truth of any risky activity is that someone is, statistically speaking, going to get hurt. Every year, about 25,000 cheerleaders go to the emergency room for injuries ranging from minor to serious. That comes out to 6 out of every thousand cheerleaders being injured in a given year. In football, the number is 42 out of a thousand. Similarly, over the past 23 years, 58 women have been catastrophically injured (paralyzed or killed) cheerleading. In half that time, 264 football players have died just from heat stroke. So I do think there is a gender bias going on here because few people would ever say, “Let’s switch to flag football.” The response seems to come from the fact that the people being injured in cheerleading are female—and often young, pretty, and female. But cheerleaders are well aware of the risk—in fact, some of it say the rush is what makes them love cheerleading so much. So I think we have to let young women, and their parents, determine whether the risk is worth it to them.

All this said, I don’t think colleges or school systems should do nothing when they hear about injuries in cheerleading. But a much better solution would be to make sure that their coach has the highest level of safety training available, and that they have the proper equipment—like good mats—that all practices are done on. And beyond that, I’d like to see more schools give their cheerleading squads trainers to work with who can prevent injuries and who are trained to assess and react to them when they do happen. Because most of the injuries we’re talking about here are to hands, ACLs, backs, etc.

RM: Alumni and parent fanaticism reminds me of showbiz moms. Is this a fair assessment?

KT: It is, in a way. I actually just got back from a cheerleading conference where there was a session on, “Dealing with Difficult Parents.” At the college level, parents aren’t around nearly as much, so I didn’t witness too much over the top involvement by parents. When they were around, they seemed even-keeled and supportive.

I do think it’s so interesting that former cheerleaders on these squads are still very involved with the teams several years out. Southern University even had a term for former cheerleaders who still came to lots of practices—“oldheads.” They almost became like secondary coaches.

RM: Eating disorders and steroids seem the most obvious temptations cheerleaders face to maintain physical appearance and strength. Chapter 9 on the cocaine addicted former cheerleader was eye-opening. How prevalent are illicit drugs in the sport?

KT: Part of a cheerleaders’ job description is to look good in their uniform. The aesthetic is to have muscley guys and teeny tiny women—and at the same time, college is a time when most people put on weight. The majority of cheerleaders maintain their bodies the right way—they eat well and they work out. But for some college cheerleaders it is very, very tempting to take the easy way out. It’s no secret that female cheerleaders battle with eating disorders—most coaches are well trained in the signs to look for and in ways to get their cheerleaders help if they need it. As for steroid use, as you’ll see in the book, it’s something that cheerleaders talk about all the time. While I was on the road, I asked cheerleaders to estimate what percentage of guys they think are using steroids—people would say 25, 30, up to 50 percent. Still, it’s flying under the radar. I think there’s a reluctance for cheer organizations to confront this—so coaches and parents and teammates aren’t as well attuned to look for it.

In chapter nine, a cheerleader named Mary talks about how she stayed skinny for cheerleading—cocaine. For a little while, she thought she’d stumbled on a miracle—she lost a lot of weight and her coach reacted very positively. Then she started to get out of control, missing class and feeling too wired for practice. And she’s extremely candid in her description of hitting rock bottom. This story is definitely the exception rather than the norm—there are cheerleaders using illicit drugs, but I think it’s a small percentage. A lot of people have asked me why I decided to include that chapter in the book—it’s to show the lengths that some people are willing to go to for cheerleading. And ultimately, it’s a redemption story. That’s why I wanted to include it.

RM: You not only follow the full teams but specific cheerleaders as well. Does anyone stand out as your favorite to cover and be with?

KT: To me, CHEER! is all about the people. So many of them were awesome to hang out with. Sierra was definitely one of my favorite’s—she’s a star flyer on the Stephen F. Austin squad who had never lost in all her years competing with school teams. I liked her because she’s so insanely outgoing. I walk into a bar and I sit down. Sierra walks into a bar, and within five minutes knows everyone’s name and has an inside joke with each of them. I also loved hanging out with Kali—she’s the cool girl on SFA’s team who has an eyebrow ring and was once a top gymnast. On the Memphis squad, I didn’t think I was going to like Monica Moody because she looks like a prettier version of a Barbie doll. But she quickly won me over because she’s very sincere and caring. I’m sure you could tell from reading, but Casi was one of my favorites—she’s so sarcastic and brutally honest that it would have been a very different book without her. Who else, when a journalist asks them how they’re feeling before a competition says, “I’m shit my pants nervous.” On the Southern University squad, I loved Jasmine—who’s the beauty queen of the team—for being extremely laid back. And James Turner—who moonlights as a stripper—because he’s just hilarious.

RM: What is your favorite story or experience from your research?

KT: There’s one night that really stands out. After Stephen F. Austin’s Homecoming game, one of the team members had everyone over to his house for a big lasagna dinner. When I first got there, it was just me and the guys—the women took a lot longer to shower and change out of their uniforms and into normal clothes. It’s not often that I’m just, “one of the guys,” so it was cool to be privy to the guy talk. And there was one moment, after we’d pigged out on lasagna, where they all hopped up to go weigh themselves. It kind of cracked me up.

The party was extremely fun—I felt like I was back in college again. At about 1am I found myself in the living room with Kali and Tyrone, playing Dance Dance Revolution. Tyrone was pretty good, but Kali and I just couldn’t get it. We were all cracking up—it felt like I was at home hanging out with my own friends.

RM: Has there been any backlash, ala Friday Night Lights, from how you portrayed the athletes, teams or culture from any of your subjects in the book?

KT: I haven’t experienced what I would call a backlash. I’ve spoken to or emailed with probably about two-thirds of the squad members since the book came out, and their reactions have run the gamut. One person will tell me, “this book is the greatest gift anyone has ever given me,” and the next will say, “You made me look so bad. How could you do that?” For each and every person in the book, I give them huge props for being so incredibly open. It’s not always easy to look in a mirror, and it’s hard to have your dirty laundry broadcast to an audience. There were many moments when they said something in the heat of the moment, or acted foolishly, or where someone’s talking about them behind their backs—I know that’s hard to read, and I knew every person was not going to love every moment of the book. I just hope that as a whole, they feel good about it, because I told their stories as honestly as I could.

As for the towns, the coverage I’ve seen in Nacogdoches, Memphis, and Baton Rouge has been hugely positive. I think that’s because, while these cheerleading teams are huge in their respective cities, the city’s identity isn’t intertwined with these teams they way Odessa, Texas’ is with the Permian Panthers.

Ditto for the culture—most cheerleaders I talk to seem to be really excited about CHEER!. They are used to being made fun of and belittled. So they’re just happy that an outsider took their sport seriously enough to write about it in a sincere way. That was one of my motivations—nearly every sport has had it’s story told. Football has Friday Night Lights, basketball has Season on the Brink, soccer has Fever Pitch, etc, etc. I wanted to write a book to show just how intense cheerleading is. Because it’s very misunderstood.


Again, I highly recommend picking the book up. Great eye-opening and entertaining stuff. To learn more or to pick up a copy, check out cheerthebook.com.


Docksquad said...

Nice post. I never thought I would read about cheerleading, but this was definitely a great post. Keep up the great work.


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