(video by Amy Rose).
The women and men that can be seen on the sidelines of the basketball games dressed in head to toe peppiness leading the crowd despite the outcome of the games receive little recognition for the accomplishments they achieve on and off the court.
Mason’s cheerleading team is comprised of two teams: the Green co-ed competitive team and the Gold all-girl sideline team. Both teams have around 50 girls and a few guys in total.
“Where ever the co-ed team can’t fill in, the all-girl team comes in as a backup,” said Kaitlyn Mason, of the gold team. “Sometimes it’s hard to cheer for all-girl, but if you have the right mindset as wanting to get better and progress to be on the all-girl team then it’s fun and I enjoy it.”
The teams come together for larger events like Homecoming and Mason Madness, but are separated at games with the co-ed team standing in front of the student section to help lead them and the all-girl team standing in front of the band.
The cheerleaders attend every game while balancing their own academic schedules, team-mandated appearances and cheerleading practice being the number one priority.
“The whole schedule you just write the word cheer and wherever you have the space between the letters is where you fit something,” said Barrie Monroe, of the green team.
Their schedules change from fall to spring leaving slightly more space between the letters of cheer, but the time commitment is still constant.
“In the fall semester, the co-ed team has practice Monday through Thursday from 6-9 and morning workouts on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6 a.m. just for an hour. We also have random events on campus for things that they would like to see our faces at,” said Emily Perry, of the green team. “We also host stunt clinics to raise money for our uniforms and for Nationals.”
Although the NCAA does not recognize cheerleading as a sport, the participants are still student-athletes who must balance their schedules around prior commitments except without the help of the athletic department.
“We are allowed to use study hall, but we are not provided with tutors,” said Lexi Lawrence, of the green team.
With hard classes for some working toward degrees in nursing, biology and government and international politics, some of the women reached out for additional scholastic help, but were turned in the same direction as general students.
“I recently emailed for a tutor and they just referred me to the general tutor for the session that all of the students are provided,” Perry said.
The cheerleading program does cost money even though it is not recognized as an NCAA sport, which adds to the relationship between the athletes and the athletic department.
“It’s hard for them because we do cost money and we’re not raising as much money as we should,” Perry said.
The time commitment that cheerleading requires is hard to balance alone, but the women are not provided with academic advisors specific for athletes to ease the stress of school and cheerleading.
Instead, the women are expected to balance all of the appearances the athletic department requires without the incentive of any recognition to at least be considered a sport.
“I always tell people when they say cheerleading is not a sport that when you have physical education, you had a basketball unit and football, but you don’t have people practicing flips because not everyone could do it,” Lawrence said. “I could put a ball in a hoop and I know it’s harder than that for them, but that’s how I feel when they talk about cheerleading isn’t a sport.”
Other women have been on both sides of the argument participating in other sports than just cheerleading and have a true appreciation for what it entails.
“Whenever I hear people say, ‘I should’ve been a cheerleader because it’s easy,’ my eyes just get really big,” Monroe said. “Because when I was in high school I was on the basketball team, I was captain of the volleyball team, I ran cross country and track, so, I’ve done a little bit of everything.”
“So me, being a college cheerleader now, all my friends in high school are like, ‘how did you end up cheering?’ And I’m like, I don’t know – it’s different, it’s great – and when I hear people say [it’s not a sport], I’m like, you don’t even know what we do. Because, we make it look so easy.”
The basketball games are a large platform for the teams to gain the respect lost from people thinking that cheerleading is not a sport.
“It’s hard for students on campus to recognize what both programs do. So we really press the importance of how we look at the basketball games, so we have a good representation of what Mason cheerleading is about. That’s what is going to help the school appreciate us more,” Perry said.
The image the teams want to portray takes practice to pull off even over winter break.
“We never had a break over winter break, because we were practicing two times a week,” Perry said.
“And by two times a week, she means two times daily, five days a week plus games on Saturdays,” Monroe said.
There are many aspects of cheerleading from stunting and tumbling to cheer and dance that the audience does not understand.
“What people don’t understand about cheerleading is that we can’t get upset and throw a temper tantrum if we don’t make a shot. We have to stay positive, peppy, perky, and pretty all the time. You can’t get down and dirty and grungy with cheerleading because that’s not how the sport was made,” Jourden Crockett LeSure, of the gold team.
“And then we practice six, seven, eight, or nine months out of the year for two and half minutes. It’s probably one of the most devastating sports out there even though people claim it’s not a sport. It can be one of the hardest things that you have to do, because if you don’t train right, you don’t work hard enough, your two minutes are over and you feel like you’ve wasted nine months of your life.”
The concept of family is stressed in the cheerleading dynamic with multiple people working toward one common goal. The first thing listed on the cheerleading interest form is family in regards to those at home, but also the formation of a new kind of family.
“Cheerleading is the true definition of a team sport. You work so hard, and whenever you get new people it’s really hard to get to know everyone and build that family,” Monroe said. “If I wanted to throw someone in the air, I would need help from other women or I’d just be standing by myself.”
Within the cheerleading family, they’ve grown to know each other’s time bombs and ticks to create the chemistry that is vital to the team.
“When fifty people are working towards one thing, not everyone can talk to each other and try to mend your problems. Deep, deep down inside you know that I have to pull myself together for your family,” Crockett LeSure said. “You have to step it up.”
Part of their job is to be at every basketball game whether it be Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years or spring break. That time has created a passion for the game even though the Mason men’s basketball team is not making it easy to support.
“It’s kind of sad, because if they lose then we lose. We feel like it’s our fault and maybe someone could have gotten really into it, because we don’t want the team to look up and see that no one is behind them,” Perry said.
The Washington Post reported that as far as women’s college athletics, cheerleading is one of the highest in head injuries. The women have been punched in the face, taken elbows and plenty of facial injuries.
“Heads to knees and face to the floor,” Mason said. “The hardest one is concussions with cheerleading.”
Often, the injuries can shake up the women and they have to dig deep to overcome fears.
“I was cheering at the tournament last year and was warming up my back-tuck. In the middle of it, someone working the event ran into me and it just knocked the wind out of me,” Perry said. “For weeks it really scared me. Over the summer, I just had to go to gym and say ‘Alright I’m doing 50 tucks no matter how many tears or how scared I am.’”
Some women need the tough love of another teammate to get them going again.
“Sometimes it just takes that one person that’s down your throat. Barrie is my person. She’ll be like, what are you doing? You did it yesterday? So what, you fell and broke your nose? I don’t care. Are you going to let down everyone on the team?” Crockett LeSure said.
The high percentage of injuries is not helped by the lack of consistent training in the cheerleading world. If the NCAA considered cheerleading a sport, they could provide the women with the proper training. Instead, many vague rules are being implemented to regulate the injury risks.
The randomness of professional experience in coaches creates discontinuity among cheerleaders where some women are learning the basics to build on while the others have only been taught the difficult skills.
This continuing problem in cheerleading discourages the chances of cheerleading ever being recognized as a sport. The women collectively agree that eventually, it will not be an attractive option for people to participate in.
“With NCAA they see what sports they want to pool and make sports what they are with the money,” Crockett LeSure said. “Not a lot of people want to watch thirty three teams compete back-to-back doing somewhat of the same things.”
Through academics, practice, appearances and everything else on their plates the cheerleaders still put on a smile to be positive, perky, preppy and pretty as they work behind closed doors to earn respect.
“Behind the smile it’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears,” Crockett LeSure said.
Online Sports Editor Kristi Anable helped contribute to this story.