A Brief History
On November 2, 1898, the day recognized as the “birth of cheerleading,” University of Minnesota (UM) student Johnny Campbell became the first cheerleader in history, directing fans in cheering on the Golden Gophers football team. UM proudly calls itself the “Birthplace of Cheerleading,” and apparently deserves that title.
During the 1800’s crowds at sporting events began to cheer on their teams, increasingly in unison. The 1890’s saw the first use of the word “cheerleader” referring to fans in the stands that would start cheers. Not surprisingly, Minnesota saw this trend evolve with Thomas Peebles, an alumnus, organizing cheers by the fans. Students were invited to cheer on players at practice, and organized groups of student fans in the stands would cheer on the football team. Then Campbell took it to a new and familiar level by directing the cheers of the fans from outside the stands.
By 1903 the first cheerleading fraternity was established (Gamma Sigma), and of course the first cheerleader squad at Minnesota consisted of 6 male students. Obviously, that state of affairs had to change! Not until 1923 were females permitted to participate in cheerleading at UM, and other schools slowly caught on to this popular idea. World War II and the military draft greatly accelerated the number of female cheerleading units as college men were drafted for war. By 1975 it was estimated 95% of American school cheerleaders were female. As of 2005, the estimate in America is 97% female dominated cheerleading, although at the college level about half are still male.
The 1950’s saw professional sports team jump on the cheerleading bandwagon, with the Baltimore Colts football team becoming the first NFL franchise with cheerleaders. By the 1970’s and 1980’s the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders became probably the most famous cheerleading squad on the planet. In a curious twist, the Cleveland Browns persist in denying their fans cheerleaders. Could this decision have something to do with the troubles the team has experienced on the field? I am just saying…
Over the years, cheerleaders have evolved into celebrities at their schools along with the top athletes. Often the prettiest and most popular girls led the yells and waved the pom-poms. Female cheerleader uniforms became sexy and attractive, more so at the professional level. At the same time, cheerleading became a demanding athletic endeavor, with gymnastics and dance integral parts of the cheerleading routine. Modern cheerleading competitions resemble high level gymnastics contests.
Unfortunately, this increased athleticism has also resulted in many injuries to cheerleaders, inevitable considering the difficult and dangerous stunts they perform. This trend has drawn the attention of parents and school officials, and cheerleading coaches became better trained and regulated along the model of sports team coaches. Safety regulations were also imposed. (Note: Despite only 3% of female school athletes being cheerleaders, they account for 65% of catastrophic injuries! Cheerleading is dangerous.)
Many sports had developed a love of cheerleaders, and in 2003 the Florida Marlins became the first Major League Baseball team to feature cheerleaders. Cheerleaders have also become ambassadors representing their schools in various functions, often fundraisers and the like. Pro teams use their cheerleader squads in promotional events as well, and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have their own television show!
Not only has the cheerleader phenomena spread across the US, it has also spread across the border to become an international craze. All sorts of levels of sports teams have cheerleader squads supporting them, from the youngest pee-wee leagues to the top level professional teams and every level in between. Organized competitions are common at many levels as well, and students can earn scholarships similar to other athletes. Various types of related activities such as dance groups and the like have evolved from cheerleading.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think of cheerleading? Is it a part of sports you enjoy? Is it a distraction? Should the Cleveland Browns organize a squad? Let us know your opinions in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Hanson, Mary Ellen. Go! Fight! Win!: Cheerleading in American Culture. University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Valliant, Doris. History of Cheerleading (Let’s Go Team–Cheer, Dance, March). Mason Crest, 2003.