Thursday, 29 July 2010

11: Is cheerleading a sport? Are saggy baggies just a fashion item?

The question of the day would appear to be: Is cheerleading a sport? This is such a difficult question that a federal judge had to brought in to resolve it. Yes, fellers, I did say Cheerleading. You know, that all-American thing that has never quite made it across the pond except for the odd American football game in Edinburgh or London: pom-pom girls, baton twirlers, touch-line and half-time entertainment, admittedly very energetic and colourful – synchronized swimming for non-swimmers, and they can shout and don’t have to wear those nose clips. In summer they probably do beach volleyball.

The question demanded some research. The search engine threw up an interesting title:

“UK Dance Team Finishes Fifth in National Pom Category.”

That can’t be relevant surely? It must be Australian sarcasm. No, the site address is On the same page is:

“UK Cheerleading Claims Unprecedented 18th National Championship”

Can it be that ...? No. UK turns out to be the University of Kentucky. [1] The Pom category or Pom-Pom category is indeed within “competitive cheerleading”. It seems quite organized in US colleges. They do things like the pyramid double-flip dismounts. That sounds more dangerous than beach volleyball.

The New York Times usually gives a serious analysis. I turn to ‘Letter from America’.[2] “... here in the United States of litigation, there’s a serious case under way on the matter, involving a Connecticut university, a federal district court, two lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the contradictory opinions of various experts — with laws governing gender equality in collegiate athletics at issue.” Serious stuff indeed.

It appears a small college, to save money, wanted to replace its women’s volleyball team with a cheerleading team. “But who will the cheerleaders cheer for, I hear you ask, if there is no volleyball team?” No, cheerleading is a competitive sport in its own right. “But do they have cheerleaders to cheer for them during competitions, or are they all too busy competing. Or perhaps the ex-volleyball players turn themselves into cheerleaders?” It poses so many questions. Let’s read on.

Ah, no, it is the volley-ball team and coach, or some of them, who seem to be taking the college to court under sexual discrimination legislation. So they have a men’s volleyball team then? Err, no. Hmm?

So what does the judge say? Well, it will have to be a summary - the ruling is 95 pages long. Basically, he is sitting on the fence. The law of 1972, in trying to gain equal treatment for women’s participation in sport and equal subsidies, left the judge in a quandary, since volleyball is a recognised sport in colleges, but cheerleading isn’t, yet. The Times says he granted a temporary injunction preventing the university from dismantling its women’s volleyball program, but also suggested that competitive cheerleading, although not presently an official nationally recognized college sport, has “all the necessary characteristics of a potentially valid competitive sport.” Potentially. Next stop the London Olympics? [3]

Another judge has made the news for having to make another unusual judgement. We have all heard the term fashion police, and we have all seen in Noo Yoik the fashion, common from my own observations among young men from certain ethnic groups, two of whom shared our bus the other night. They were code-switching between English and Spanish, while consuming pizza and diet coke – a curious combination, you might think, high cal and low cal, so not a choice made on dietary grounds, purely on taste, not entirely irrelevant as you will see. One of them was wearing his shorts down below his knees, nothing unusual in that, except they started only a few inches above his crotch, thus he was sitting not on his shorts, but on his underpants – boxers – we noticed. Well, in April of last year, some policeman in the Bronx took it upon himself to become literally the fashion police and clean up this town. He gave a guy, not our guy presumably, another guy, a Hispanic from his name, a ticket for disorderly conduct.

A year later the case comes to court and the New York Post headline sums up the decision succinctly enough: “Saggy pants are butt-ugly but legal: judge”. The basis of this judgement was the American Constitution itself. Now, I have Googled the Constitution adding words such as ‘pants’, ‘shorts’, even ‘trousers’, but found nothing specific, but anyway the judge reckons “the Constitution still leaves some opportunity for people to be foolish if they so desire. ... While most of us may consider it distasteful, and indeed foolish, to wear one’s pants so low as to expose the underwear ... people can dress as they please, wear anything, so long as they do not offend public order and decency”. So that thin and fluid line between bad taste and indecency is obviously lower than the policeman’s description of his offender as wearing “his pants down below his buttocks exposing underwear [and] potentially showing private parts.” ‘Potentially’ – there’s that word again. I reckon the Legal Aid defence lawyer probably didn’t let this pass without comment.

A mere one-off you might think, but apparently not. Other people have been expressing their distaste, from comedian Bill Cosby to President Obama, says the Post. There have been attempts to legislate on it. In a mid-term election year the issue is apparently a vote winner – or a vote loser. A Brooklyn Senator has even been putting up posters urging young men to “Stop the Sag” (See his Youtube video ) I was surprised, even shocked to find – and I have to point out – that his video contains historical images portraying ethnic and religious minorities in distasteful and offensive lights. The Senator – who is himself African-American – appears to be equating the wearing of saggy pants to these stereotypical racist images. You might think the video either bad judgment or bad taste. I don’t think it is a spoof. There is something I have not yet understood about American political culture.

I mentioned Cosby. I would have thought he should know better than to draw attention to a fashion in clothing by criticising it. I say that having watched last night an exceedingly funny compilation of clips of Cosby at his best, managing even, in a chat show, to make Jack Benny fall off his chair with uncontrollable laughter. Or was it that Benny did not like being so seriously upstaged? Anyway, it was a recording of the 2009 presentation to Cosby of the Mark Twain prize for humor (humour). [4] Among the guests was his friend Len Chandler, the protest-songwriter and prominent activist in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and later. Chandler is the creator of the delightful and simple song “Beans in my ears”, which he performed in its original version. It later became a chart hit for the white mainstream group The Serendipity Singers. Watch Chandler’s 1964 performance with Pete Seeger on Youtube here [5] .

I say a simple song, but deceptively so. It is in fact very clever. The message is apparently in the last verse: “I think that all grown-ups have beans in their ears”. The generation-gap metaphor should not be too difficult to unpick, and is from the same era and arguably from the same stand-point as Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin’”. There is another message though, in the first half of the song: The first lines of each verse follow each other thus:

My mommy said not to put beans in my ears
Now why would I want to put beans in my ears
You can't hear the teacher with beans in your ears
Maybe it’s fun to have beans in your ears.
Hey, Charley, let’s go and put beans in our ears ...

It is an old cliché, but carries a lot of truth. If you tell the younger generation not to do something, they are all the more likely to do it. And the irony is they might never have thought about doing it if you hadn’t warned them off it in the first place. Understood on a wider level the song has a message for repressive authority and attitudes in general. But irony, I have noticed, does not travel well.



2. Richard Bernstein ‘Sport or Not? A Question for the Courts’, NY Times, 14 July 2010.

3. Another piece worth reading is by Gregg Easterbrook of the ESPN network, the biggest sports TV network in the US. It has pics of cheerleaders performing. He argues the 1972 civil rights legislation is out of date in its application to sport in colleges and concludes that courts have no business sticking their noses into deciding what is and isn't sport. A federal court ruling that favors volleyball over cheerleading is just plain wrong, 27 July 2010

4. See Cosby and Mark Twain prize

5. For more on Len Chandler see HREF="
The Serendipity Singers’ version has amended lyrics and is thus less subversive. Ironically, Chandler’s song was banned in some places s when doctors protested that many children were actually putting beans in their ears! It was also covered by Lonnie Donegan in Britain.

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