Rah rah rah!
Johnny Campbell's lusty little cheer may not have been a poetic breakthrough, but when Campbell, a University of Minnesota student, leaped to his feet and bellowed those words before a crowd of football fans on a blustery November afternoon in Minneapolis in 1898, it changed the American sporting scene. Cheerleading was born.
A century later, it's booming. At last count, nearly one million elementary, junior high, high school and college students were leading cheers on sidelines across America. But it is hardly the innocent, spontaneous activity it was in Campbell's day. Cheerleading in the 1990s is a capitalist tool. Some companies have taken the concept of school spirit and turned it into a cash cow. Last year, the two biggest firms, National Spirit Group, Ltd., parent company of the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA), and Universal Sports Camps, parent company of the Universal Cheerleading Association (UCA), had combined revenues of $75 million derived from fees paid by attendees at summer instructional camps and from sales of uniforms, pom-poms, megaphones, shoes, hair ribbons and jewelry. Athletic-shoe makers have also gotten into the act, designing footwear specifically for cheerleading and competing for exclusive contracts with the cheerleading companies. There are even some 85 colleges that offer—are you ready for this?—cheerleading scholarships, ranging from $100 stipends to full-tuition grants at schools like the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky.
Cheerleading is big, serious business, right down to the network of state, regional and national cheerleading competitions the two big companies hold each year. With $1,000 savings bonds, trophies, trips to Japan and cable-television airtime up for grabs, cheerleading squads invest 10 or more hours a week practicing for these contests. Many of these squads pay private coaches between $500 and $700 a month to choreograph their routines for competitions. And a lot of parents, in the dubious tradition of stage mothers and Little League dads, take cheerleading very seriously, too. Last January, Wanda Holloway of Channelview, Texas, tried to hire a hit man to murder the mother of her daughter's junior high cheerleading rival. Had Campbell known that his yelling would lead to all of this, he might have kept his mouth shut.
December 30, 1991
"Cheerleading is no different from Little League baseball or college athletics," says Joe Paul. Who, as dean of student development and cheerleader administrator at the University of Southern Mississippi, has seen the changes up close. "It's a great performance opportunity for students. But then adults get involved, and they squeeze the spontaneity out of it, so that it doesn't seem extracurricular anymore."
These grown-up offenders include overbearing coaches and so-called spirit merchants from cheerleading companies. But heading the list are pom-pom moms, a species dedicated to advancing the cheerleading careers of its offspring, no matter what the cost. Based on their past performance, Wanda Holloway and Verna Heath qualify as pom-pom moms nonpareil. For years Holloway's daughter, Shanna, and Heath's daughter, Amber, were friendly rivals who cheered together in elementary school. But that all changed when the girls prepared to move to junior high and the two mothers started lobbing shots on their children's behalf. First, Wanda transferred Shanna, then a sixth-grader, out of the private Channelview Christian School and into the Viola Cobb Elementary School so that Shanna would be eligible to try out for the Alice Johnson Junior High cheerleading squad in the spring of 1989. Advantage Wanda. Then, before the tryouts, Verna, a former national high school strutting champion, persuaded Channelview public school officials to let Amber audition for a spot on the school's squad. Deuce. That spring Amber was named to the Alice Johnson squad, but Shanna was not. Advantage Verna. In 1990, Shanna and Wanda improperly campaigned to get Shanna on the squad by passing out pencils and rulers bearing the message: VOTE FOR SHANNA HARPER. As a result, Shanna was disqualified from the competition for violating the campaign rules. Game, set, match to Verna. But Wanda wouldn't concede. The following winter she uttered the now infamous words, "I want her gone," and planned the contract murder of Verna.
Wanda was convicted in an eight-day trial, fined $10,000 and given a 15-year prison sentence for soliciting capital murder. She is currently out on bond pending appeal. Meanwhile, life is more or less back to normal in Channelview. The football season has come and gone, the basketball season has begun, Shanna was voted Miss Spirit by her classmates at homecoming, Amber is a member of the Channelview High cheerleading squad, and Verna is weighing offers for the film rights to her and her daughter's sad story. "They say the only difference between a pit bull and a cheerleader's mother is lipstick, and I think they have a point," says Walter Rambo, who heads the complaints division at the Texas Education Agency and gets calls and letters from dozens of irate pom-pom moms every spring after tryouts.
Bev Cassity of San Diego may be a pom-pom mom, but she's quick to point out that she's no Wanda Holloway. Her daughter Dusty not only made the Madison High squad this year, but she was also elected captain. "I absolutely love it," says Bev, who gushes over cheerleading the way that Dusty might swoon over teen-idol Luke Perry. "I get my warm fuzzies from it."
Bev thinks cheerleading is a sport, and she can't understand why it took until this fall for Madison High coaches to welcome cheerleading into the athletic department fold. "We're California state champions," says Bev. "Cheerleading is the only activity that has brought positive recognition to the school." J.M. Tarvin, principal of nearby La Jolla High School, doesn't mind calling it a sport but says, "I object to cheerleading competitions because they're not sponsored by the school system and because the companies that run them are private, for-profit businesses."
Five percent of all cheerleading squads in the U.S. enter regional or national competitions with dreams of winning prize money, trophies and glory. If there is a magic formula for winning national titles, Christian Brothers High School, an all-boy school in Memphis, seems to have found it. Six years ago the basketball coach, tired of doubling as cheerleading sponsor, enlisted the help of Christian Brothers alumnus Gordon Kelly and a CBHS mother to work with the indifferent cheerleaders selected for the squad from two Memphis all-girl Catholic schools, St. Agnes Academy and Immaculate Conception High. Since then, Christian Brothers has finished first in the UCA national high school competition four times and third twice.
Christian Brothers High cheerleaders could outdazzle Ringling Brothers with their spectacular 2½-minute show. Their competition routine opens with two trios of girls tumbling across the front of the stage. Behind them, five boys toss up a girl who does a midair toe touch and lands in 10 outstretched arms—all to the beat of rap music. Just to remind you this is a cheerleading routine, the squad sandwiches a brief school cheer in the middle of the action, before closing with more briskly paced dances, tumbles and stunts, and a human pyramid.
At Christian Brothers High, cheerleading is more than an activity; it's a way of life for the 11 girls and five boys who sweat through three-hour practice sessions five times a week. The after-school practices can be a lot like detention hall—or boot camp. Kelly, who cheered at Memphis State for four years and now sells telephone equipment, runs the sessions and seems to relish his role as taskmaster. From a folding chair at one end of the musty gym, he directs the production by pointing at people and barking orders into a microphone. One muggy night in September he threatened to throw a female squad member out of practice, presumably on the grounds of insolence. She was attempting one of the most difficult stunts in high school cheerleading, a move known as the liberty heel stretch. She stood on her right leg, six feet above the ground, on the outstretched palms of her male partner. In this precarious perch she tried to grab her left foot with her left hand and pull her leg in toward her ear. On this occasion she failed to hold on to her foot without wobbling. She nearly fell a couple of times before bailing out of the stunt. Kelly grew more agitated with each wobble. "Come on, you're not thinking," he said, his voice echoing through the gym. "Your leg isn't straight enough; you're not doing it right."
In the midst of this dressing-down, the girl rolled her eyes and frowned in frustration, which angered Kelly. "If you make another face," he warned in a menacing tone, "you're out of here." She flopped to the floor, pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face. Was Kelly perhaps too harsh? "That's what it takes to win four championships," he says matter-of-factly.
Memo to sorority girls and football players' girlfriends: Even on squads that aren't obsessed with winning cheerleading competitions, coaches want more than good looks. They also expect cheerleaders to be proficient tumblers. An extreme example of this is Kristie Phillips, the 1987 U.S. women's national gymnastics champion, who now cheers for LSU. Phillips had wanted to compete on LSU's gymnastics team, but the NCAA declared her ineligible to participate in collegiate athletics in part because she had signed a contract with an agent and received money for a TV appearance. "I've always wanted to be a college cheerleader," says Phillips. "My favorite part is performing in front of the crowd. That is what I miss most about gymnastics."
Cheerleading's new emphasis on athleticism has certainly added zip to the old "Sis-boom-bah!" and made squads more visible, but where's the old school spirit? Today's routines are slick packages of choreographed dance routines, artificial smiles and robotic body movements. Even the cheers have changed. They no longer come from the hearts and minds of ardent boosters but from products called spirit books, published by cheerleading companies and distributed at their summer camps. The stapled booklets, filled with words to cheers and pictures of stunts and pyramids, are billed as the definitive cheerleading guides. Campbell's "Sku-u-mah"—whatever it means—and that old favorite, "Two bits," are not included in the booklets. Instead, the spirit merchants offer ditties such as: "Defense, defense, get it, get it." Rousing stuff.
Cortney Soroka is only a freshman at Calabasas (Calif.) High, but ahead) she's sick of high-tech cheering. While sitting on a bench in UCLA's Drake Stadium on the second day of a four-day NCA camp late last summer, she waves to her teammates on the track and flashes a braces-filled smile. "I never had a great view of camp, because my junior high squad was so competitive," she says. That would be the Crestview Junior High squad from Chesterfield, Mo., where Cortney lived before her family moved to Southern California earlier this year. "Cheerleading was a big deal there, and they thought they had to be the best," Cortney says of her former cheerleading adviser, who in 1990 pressured her into canceling a vacation she had planned so she could attend summer practices. "After a while you didn't want to be on the squad," she says, "because it was all work, work, work, and you got yelled at if you made a mistake." The Calabasas crew, she's delighted to report, is much more laid-back. "Our spirit is more natural," she says.
The two men who deserve the credit—or the blame, depending on your perspective—for the current state of cheerleading are Lawrence Herkimer and Jeff Webb, the industry's leading spirit merchants. Herkimer, 66, founded Dallas-based NCA 43 years ago. The 42-year-old Webb, once a Herkimer protègè, presides over UCA, a company he formed seven years ago in Memphis. There are a handful of other cheerleading organizations around the country, including the nonprofit International Cheerleading Foundation, but NCA and UCA are the Coke and Pepsi of the bunch, and like Coke and Pepsi, their camps have slightly different flavors. NCA instructors give demerits for not having straight arms and for not performing perfect jumps, while the UCA bunch frets over how a routine looks and whether it's entertaining.
Each company's glossy, four-color camp brochure is filled with testimonials from the high-profile cheerleading squads that attend their sleep-away camps held on hundreds of college campuses across the country every summer. Fees for the camps run between $130 and $175 per cheerleader for four to five days of room, board and instruction. Herkimer and Webb say their companies don't make money on the camps because the fees cover costs and not much more. They operate the camps because they are superb marketing vehicles for the companies' uniforms, which are the real money-makers of the cheerleading business. It costs a minimum of $200 to outfit a cheerleader with uniforms, pom-poms, shoes, socks, tights and hair ribbons. Cheerleading squads are loyal, hardworking groups. They wash a lot of cars and bake a lot of cookies to raise money for coaching, uniforms, travel to competitions and camp fees. And they want to do business with people they know and trust, so squads that attend NCA camps usually buy paraphernalia from the company's Cheerleader/Team Mates apparel affiliate. Squads from the UCA camps generally order supplies from the company's Varsity division. Thanks mainly to Cheerleader/Team Mates, National Spirit Group, Ltd., had estimated annual revenues of $45 million last year. Universal Sports Camps' revenues totaled about $30 million, largely on sales of Varsity clothing.
The booming cheerleader market has touched off a war among shoe companies. After years of wooing, Nike finally wrested the UCA account from Converse in January 1991. Now Nike is the official shoe supplier to the UCA staff and a sponsor of UCA's annual college competitions. Most important, Nike shoes, which cost $40 to $55 a pair, are the only ones offered by Varsity. Converse, still reeling from the loss of UCA's business, sent Doug Clark, a researcher in its biomechanics lab, to NCA's camp in Dallas last July to do market research. Clark polled the cheerleaders to find out how prototypes of the Converse shoes compared with Nike's.
Herkimer recognized cheerleading's profit potential while he was a cheerleader at SMU. By the time he graduated in 1948, he had created his own eponymous cheerleading maneuver (the Herkie jump) and had conducted his first camp. A year later, he founded Megaphone magazine, which ceased publication in the late 1970s. Herkimer also formed a for-profit cheerleading club that, by 1953, was known as NCA. The advent of color television in the early '50s gave him an even better idea. Herkimer recalls thinking there was a need for something more colorful on the football field than that chrome stick the girls were twirling. A wooden stick and a few crepe-paper streamers later, the cheerleading pompom was created. Herkimer taught a squad from Wichita Falls, Texas, to do a simple dance step with his invention to the music of Lollipop. Soon, every cheerleader in Texas wanted his creation. Herkimer patented and named his invention, and over the years he has sold more than 1½ million cheerleader pom-poms. Last year some 150,000 customers attended some 500 NCA cheerleading camps.
Visiting an NCA camp—particularly in Texas, where cheerleading is practically a religion—is like going to a revival meeting. On a warm sunny day in July, Carol Wagers, a 44-year-old senior vice-president at NCA and a cheerleader since the age of 12, stands behind a microphone in SMU's Moody Coliseum, preaching the tenets of cheering to 700 disciples. She is wearing the NCA red, white and blue cheerleading outfit, and she smiles as she calls out to the crowd: "Are you excited to be here?" In unison, the campers shout back: "N-C-A, all the way!" In addition to her job with NCA, Wagers also owns the Cheerobics Center, Inc., a suburban Dallas gym that teaches cheerleading and tumbling skills.
"I cannot imagine life without cheerleader camp," she says. "I don't know where they got their cheers from before camps came along." Haven't any of these people ever heard of Cole Porter ("Eli Yale, bull dog, bull dog, bow, wow, wow....")?
If Herkimer is the father of cheerleading, Webb is the wayward son. In 1971, Herkimer hired Webb, a former University of Oklahoma cheerleader who quickly became Herkimer's heir apparent. But Webb's penchant for flash soon collided with Herkimer's more conservative vision. "Our people are teachers, not show-offs," Herkimer says, in a pointed dig at Webb. "He hired hot dogs."
Webb left NCA in 1974 to form his own company with $80,000 borrowed from friends and family and $5,000 of his own money. He also took a dozen NCA instructors—the alleged hot dogs—with him. At first he operated his camps out of the back seat of his car and the spare bedroom in his Memphis apartment. Today he controls his corner of the cheerleading market from an industrial park just outside Memphis. A copy of the Harvard Business Review sits prominently on a table in Webb's office, where maroon and forest-green wallpaper and a Ralph Lauren motif dominate. "There was real resistance to bringing that organization into [modern times]," Webb says of NCA. "I was out there among the cheerleaders, and I knew that kids had changed and that we really weren't providing what they needed. So I decided to do it myself."
He found fertile ground on university campuses, where he taught difficult stunts and pyramid building to the cheerleading squads charged with entertaining the huge crowds at college games. With backing from such corporate heavyweights as Personal Products Company, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, Webb organized annual national championships for high school and college squads. In 1983 he persuaded ESPN to televise the high school competition and ran commercials for his Varsity product line on the telecast. A year later ESPN was covering the college competition. Squads came running at the prospect of television exposure and the prizes offered by Webb and his sponsors. Last year 100,000 cheerleaders attended Webb's 460 cheerleading camps.
A showbiz atmosphere prevails at UCA camps, where music is the preferred form of communication. Each college camp opens with a jazzy dance-and-tumbling number performed by the instructors to Broadway melodies and dance and rap tunes. Last August, 30 minutes before campers converged on the domed stadium at East Tennessee State in Johnson City, choreographer Bill Thallemer lectured the camp's instructors. Thallemer is a former Notre Dame cheerleader who has been on the UCA staff for nine years. "It's got to be hot, you guys," he said, referring to the temperature he wanted to feel from the routine. Thallemer later explains the UCA approach to cheerleading: "The crowd looks to cheerleaders for guidance on when to cheer, how to cheer and for entertainment. Cheerleaders are definitely entertainers."
Despite such upbeat efforts, cheerleading's image nose-dived in 1986 when two college cheerleaders who were attempting difficult and dangerous stunts were involved in serious accidents. A North Dakota State cheerleader suffered multiple skull fractures and massive brain injury, which proved fatal, when she attempted a dismount from the top of a three-person-high pyramid onto a bare field-house floor during practice. Later that week a University of Kentucky cheerleader, rehearsing for a halftime tumbling exhibition that wasn't part of his squad duties, was paralyzed when he attempted a forward roll off a minitrampoline and landed on the back of his neck.
Five years later cheerleading is still trying to shed the "dangerous" label. But statistics compiled by the federal government's Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) show that injuries related to cheerleading are rising at an alarming rate. They jumped 133% between 1979 and '89. A 1990 CPSC sampling of hospital emergency-room reports showed that 12,405 injuries were the result of elementary, high school and college cheerleading. Scattered throughout the UCA and NCA camp grounds are the walking wounded—wearing bandages, casts and leg braces. Crutches, ice packs and empty Advil wrappers litter the workout areas and the sidelines. Several times a day the wail of ambulances can be heard as they rush ailing cheerleaders to nearby hospitals. It's all part of camp life.
Miraculously, there are still a few places where cheerleading is simple and fun. "It will never be a sport here," says Sherry Kay Hall, a business and computer teacher who supervises the Jayton (Texas) High cheerleaders. The five girls on the Jayton High squad squeeze cheerleading in among band rehearsals, livestock shows and basketball practice. Jayton is a speck of a town on the sprawling west Texas landscape, 90 miles southeast of Lubbock. There are only 52 students enrolled in the school, and depending on whether you believe the sign on the way in or the one on the way out, the town has either 608 or 638 residents. Point being: Jayton's a tiny place. So tiny that, to swell the marching band's ranks at games this fall, the cheerleaders and three second-string football players picked up musical instruments and joined the 47 other junior high and high school band members on the field at halftime.
The Jayton cheerleaders usually bring home a few spirit sticks and blue ribbons from the NCA camp they attend every year in Abilene. At camp they watch in awe as other schools collect trophies for performing breathtaking stunts. But the Jayton sqaud hasn't changed its style. Says Jayton's Bambi Ferguson, a cheerleader and basketball player who knows more about backboards than back hand-springs, "I don't think you have to do a lot of tumbling to show your spirit."
And isn't spirit really what leading cheers is all about? "The key," says Joe Paul, the dean at Southern Mississippi, "is for everyone to keep in mind that cheerleading is ancillary to sport, which is, after all, ancillary to life."