Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I'll Pass on the Participation Trophy, Thanks Though

When I was in high school, I was a cheerleader, and I was also on dance team. I paid an athletic fee. I participated in countless fundraising efforts to pay for costumes, camps, competitions, and what I didn't earn in fundraisers, my parents had to foot the bill for - so we worked hard on fundraising. I went to grueling camps in the dead of summer. I had daily doubles in August, where our coach made us run laps, do duck walks across the football field, and weight train right alongside the football teams. I took tumbling classes, technique classes, and had practice every day. I suffered injuries that I worked through and didn't get to rest from. I performed in parades, on stages, on tracks, in the rain, in the mud, in the cold, outside, inside, early in the morning, and all day long. I literally bled, sweated, and cried.

I was, by definition, an athlete.

And yet, if you were to look in my student handbook, at both La Salle high school where I was a cheerleader, and later at Milwaukie high school where I was on dance team, I was not playing a sport; I was participating in an activity.

Say what??

Did I, or did I not, just warm up side by side with your football players twice my size? Did I, or did I not, pay an athletic fee of 300 and some odd bucks? Did I, or did I not, just win a competition after hours and hours of tireless practice? Yes, I did all of those things. With my team. Of other athletes.

By referring to cheer and dance as activities instead of sports, school administrators are diminishing these athletes. It is insulting to be an athlete referred to as a participant. It is insulting as a female athlete, specifically. Because the truth is, we are not respected on the same level as male athletes. We are seen as, and treated like, less (never mind that the state titles at both schools were won by the dance teams, the cheerleaders, and the girls' volleyball teams...just saying).

Female athletics are the underdog in both public and private high schools. We fight for gym time. We practice on the dirty cement floor of the cafeteria while the gyms are reserved for our male counterparts. In order to get an hour of time in the gym, all 30 of us arrived at school at 5:00 in the morning, because that was the only time we ever got to dance in the gym. Because none of the boys were there at that ungodly hour. There was a day at cheer practice my freshman year that I was tossed too high in an all-out stunt practice, and my face hit the beam in the cafeteria...that never would have happened in a gym. But we didn't get to practice in the gym; the gym was for the boys. We didn't get the luxury of practicing in the gym; hell, I learned to do a back handspring in the courtyard, in the rain, in November, in a swampy mud puddle. Female athletes are not prioritized, and by referring to these female-dominated sports as activities, that level of disrespect continues.

I read today that Oregon City high school is eliminating their cheerleading program and allowing their girls to participate solely in "pom-pom squad." What this means to the program is, no competitions, no exhibitions, no stunts, no challenging skills, no tumbling...just cheers. Well guess what else that means - no shot in hell at mastering any important skill to take these young women to the college level. No cheerleader who can't tumble or do stunts is making a cheer squad at OSU or UO; they're just not. No college cares about the way you can hold a pom-pom; they care about the way you tumble, the strength in your stunts, and your dance routine abilities. So now, not only are high school administrators eliminating half the fun, and not only are they pushing their archaic boys-are-better-than-girls mentality, but they are now also eliminating the chance of college scholarships for these female athletes.

Let me put it in perspective: taking the stunting & tumbling out of cheerleading, is the equivalent of taking the tackles out of football. Would you give a college scholarship to a defensive back who hadn't ever tackled an offensive player on the field? Nope.

This is 2014, for crying out loud. When are we going to be offered an equal playing field? How much harder do we have to fight to be respected, by administrators in our schools, by employers, by our peers? I have gotten involved in the "is dance team a real sport" debate tens of times, and to no avail. Because nobody shows any respect to the girls who get up at 5:00 in the morning, who split their practice time in half before and after school, who practice on the track in the winter because there is nowhere else. Because who would offer up an hour of gym time three nights a week to the activity participants, when there are athletes in line ahead of them?

This argument isn't about whether or not cheer and dance are real sports. Because they are real sports. The argument really delves so much further into the sexism that exists so blatantly in the structure of education. But for now, I'll leave you with this: The next time you think that cheerleaders and dancers don't work as hard as football players, go watch a competition. Watch what these girls do. Watch the power and strength in their performance. Watch them smile while they pick up someone else who weighs as much as they do.

And then shut up.