When former Auburn long-snapper Jeremy Wells decided to get serious about cheerleading, he got the usual reaction from an unusual source.
My mom told me I was a (homosexual)," Wells said.
And to think they say cheerleading has an image problem. Mom probably didn't know the first cheerleader was a man. A first-year medical student named
Jack Campbell at Minnesota became the first documented cheerleader in 1898.
Minnesota also introduced gymnastics and tumbling to routines in the 1920s. The megaphone started at the turn of the century. It wasn't until World
War II that women began dominating the, er, uh, sport. All able-bodied male cheerleaders were off to war.
The pompom was introduced in the 1950s. Do we really need to know all this stuff? Yes, because football was once played with leather helmets, and
players killed each other.
That was silly, too. Just as silly you might think of cheerleading being well on its way to becoming a sanctioned NCAA "sport." Maryland broke the
seal last year, getting a favorable ruling from the Office of Civil Rights allowing it to count cheer scholarships to be in compliance with Title IX.
Since then, Maryland administrators have been deluged with calls from all over the country about how other schools could add cheerleading
Title IX is the federal law that mandates equal opportunities for an under-represented sex in public institutions accepting federal funds. As
Maryland's enrollment shifted to a female majority, AD Debbie Yow was either being creative or just silly attempting an end run around the law.
Silly? Roughly half the country's state high school associations now sanction competitive cheer. "Competitive spirit squad" was No. 9 nationally in
high school girls' sports participation in 2002-2003, almost doubling the numbers of golf. An estimated 225 junior and four-year colleges award some
kind of cheerleading scholarships.
Those cheerleading competitions you see on ESPN when there isn't baseball, hockey, basketball, football or bowling to show? That's cheerleading's
There are the Sideline Johnnies (and Janes) like Wells, who will cheer his former teammates on in the fall. They are serious about cheerleading, but
they're just for window dressing. Then there are the hard-core competitors who go for the gold or the stunt or the gusto and the scholarship.
Look for more and more schools to do what Maryland is doing: Having one squad for spirit and another competitive squad that are separate from each
"The collegiate level is behind the times when it comes to competitive cheer," said Maryland senior associate athletic director Dave Haglund. "It
takes someone like us to take that first step."
Silly? Not really when you consider that there are NCAA schools that offer sailing, pistol and bowling. It's not even a question of whether
cheerleading is a sport. It fits into the OCR's definition:
It is primarily based on athletic ability.
It's limited to a defined season.
Participants prepare for and engage in competition.
It's administered by the athletic department.
"I've actually changed my mind about it," said Jeff Orleans, the executive director of the Ivy League who is the principal author of Title IX. "It
seems to look like an athletic activity, it's physically demanding, it's competitive ... (but) it suffers from its origins in girls cheering for boys.
"It looks enough like a sport that we ought to let them experiment with it being a sport."
The National Cheerleading Association sanctions annual championships is several divisions. Think of figure skating without the ice: Mandatory moves,
judging, no loose jewelry and, to quote from the rulebook, "appropriate for family viewing."
In that respect, it's morally miles ahead of the average weekend recruiting visit to Colorado.
"I really have a lot of respect for people that are competitive cheerleaders," said Wells, a 24-year-old from Mobile, Ala., already in grad school
with an undergrad marketing degree.
He also has a Corvette, his own website and a cavalier attitude toward life. How many Division I football players do you know exhausted five years of
eligibility as a walk-on without either quitting out of frustration or getting a scholarship?
Wells, 6-feet-1 and 242 pounds, persevered through football purgatory and earned admiration if not a scholly.
"Nobody is making fun of me because I walked on, I earned a position (in football)," he said. "Every bit of respect I earned, I earned through working
hard. Nobody had room to criticize me (for cheerleading)."
When football ended last fall, Wells couldn't let go emotionally. He literally had the Auburn spirit in him. He expects to cry this fall when Auburn
scores its first touchdown knowing that while football is over, he is still giving to the school.
"It started off as a joke, really," Wells said of his cheerleading tryout. "I went out there and stunted and sort of messed around. I started to enjoy
it ... I couldn't really believe I made it. When I did I realized that, 'Whoa, I might have taken this too far.'"
Now he's hooked. Just like football, cheerleading has its Heisman Trophy. Last month, Louisville's Rhonda Austin was named national cheerleader of the
year by American Cheerleader magazine.
Cheerleading has its recruiting hotbeds. The South is huge, as is New Jersey, which, again, sounds a lot like football.
"It's just a lack of education," said Maryland coach Lura Fleece. "Even the media plays a part in that. We see cheerleaders portrayed as the dumb,
pretty girls or the mean girls or the popular girls. That may have been the case 50 years ago.
"What it is now is a combination of gymnastics, dance and partner stunts."
Those facts don't eliminate the image even from those who participate. Auburn's cheerleading sponsor preferred that Wells not comment for this story.
That's unfortunate considering cheerleading is probably somewhere behind water polo in terms of being accepted by the public as a legit activity.
Anyway, all it took was a quick call to Wells' cell phone, and he couldn't stop from commenting on his newfound love.
"I've always liked cheerleading outfits," Wells said. "I'm not going to lie about that. ... My brother actually made fun of me at first then he saw
the picture of all the cheerleaders and then he started commending me."
On his website there is a picture of Wells surrounded by all 10 of Auburn's female cheerleaders. It is similar to the Gold Diggers crowding around
Dean Martin each week on his old variety show. Hey, membership has its privileges.
"I know I offend a lot of people by going out and having fun, running around like an idiot," he said, "but it's great."
Yeah, it sounds foolish, but Wells' story is no more outrageous than some women's activists who are against adding cheerleading as sport.
"It seems like they're looking for the easiest way out, that their intent is to conform to the letter of the law, but not necessarily the spirit,"
Donna Lopiano, the powerful chief executive of the Women's Sports Foundation, said when Maryland added cheerleading.
This from an organization that apparently agrees there is a crying need for equestrian at Cornell and the 12 other Division I schools that sponsor the
Maybe it has something to do with a school like UCLA having a "makeup consultant," but it shouldn't. Title IX wasn't written to define what is and
isn't a sport. It's a federal law to ensure there is equity in every public institution that accepts those federal funds. Cheerleading, at least, has
paid its dues legally and athletically.
Before gymnastics started filtering down to the toddler level, Fleece looked only for men who had played football or wrestled. Their conditioning and
training was similar to what she needed. Now a majority of prospects come to her already properly trained.
"The gymnastics involved has completely changed," Fleece said. "I don't even want a kid who is not a former gymnast. I can teach a gymnast to be a
cheerleader. I can't teach a cheerleader to be a gymnast."
There is and will be lingering image problems. There are those who will wonder if there is really a difference between competitive cheer and amateur
flirting. The male cheerleader will have a position in society akin to a male Vogue reader.
"If someone could create a name tomorrow that was not 'cheerleading,'" Orleans said, "that would be a big piece of it."
Chris Bailey cheered for both Auburn and Alabama. After transferring from Auburn, Bailey was dropped from the 'Bama squad last fall after uttering
"War Eagle" as a Crimson Tide cheerleader on national television.
"If I screwed up in football, I'm getting chewed out," Wells said. "In cheerleading, if I screw up, everybody pats me on the back and says, 'It's OK,
it's OK. You're going to get it next time.'"
But in cheerleading knees are wrecked, egos are bruised and -- at least in the Wells family -- names are called. Once again, it sounds a lot like
"I'm so glad he's doing that," said Derrick Graves, an Auburn linebacker and former teammate. "It's a big deal. It shows you how much he loves
Graves was his high school's mascot, wearing black spandex tights and carrying a sword. His wife has worked with cheerleaders in the past.
"They work hard like every other sport does," Graves said. "I think it should be a sport. He's going to be a good cheerleader."
And maybe remove some stereotypes.
"Now my mom tells everybody at work about it," Wells said, "I think my dad was really disappointed at first. Then when an article came out in the
paper, and all his friends found out, he jumped on the bandwagon."
Sis, boom, pa?
Dennis Dodd, CBS