El Toro cheerleaders cheer and perform acrobatic stunts during a game at Tesoro on Friday. A state assembly bill recently passed to make competitive cheerleading a CIF sport.

Some coaches wary about cheer becoming a sport


It’s an old question: Is cheerleading a sport?

Gov. Jerry Brown effectively answered that last week when he signed a new law classifying competition cheer as a California Interscholastic Federation sport starting in the 2017-18 school year.

But while they appreciate the recognition, some cheer coaches in Orange County – where cheerleading is a wildly popular sport that touches on everything from business and culture to family life – are wary.

“There should be a lot more concern than optimism,” said Katie Bowers, varsity cheer coach at El Dorado High School in Placentia. “Unfortunately, a lot of cheerleading coaches aren’t educated (on official high school athletic policies) and don’t understand the hindrances that puts on us.”

Cheerleaders and cheerleading teams will be required to adhere to rules and regulations that govern, among other things, who can participate and how long participants can practice and play.

For other big sports, such as basketball and football, transfer rules have a big impact, theoretically limiting public schools from recruiting athletes.

But cheer coaches say their sport could be hit harder by rules that limit the number of hours a student-athlete can play and practice in any given week.

As structured, most cheerleading teams – like El Dorado’s nationally prominent troupe – put in about 14 hours a week of practice, a figure that doesn’t include performing at school events such as football games and pep rallies. Many also compete in regional and national tournaments that often fall on Sundays.

Under CIF rules, athletes are limited to 18 hours of practice and play a week, and they can’t participate at all on Sundays.

Because specific guidelines for cheerleading have yet to be produced, cheer coaches don’t know if, or how, such conflicts might affect their sport.

“I’m definitely not excited about it and am more worried than anything,” Bowers said.

“For football games, we’re there from 5:30 to 9:30. Is that going to constitute ... practice time? As a competitive cheer coach, I wouldn’t waste those hours if it did. And then what happens to sideline cheer itself?

“My biggest concern is that we really need a year-round season to do what we do,” Bowers said.

Bowers has built a dynasty at El Dorado, which earlier this year became California’s first repeat champion at the Universal Cheer Association National Championships in Orlando, Fla. The Golden Hawks have won three national titles since 2011 and have stockpiled dozens of trophies from other regional competitions during Bowers’ 10-year run at the school.

But if you go to El Dorado’s gym you won’t see those trophies recognizing the school’s cheerleading success. The school hasn’t put them on display because cheer hasn’t been an official sport.

Recognition, in fact, is a big reason why Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, proposed AB949, turning cheer into a sport. She also wanted to make cheerleading – notorious for a high injury rate – safer.

“Cheerleaders are some of California’s best competitive student-athletes, yet they’re performing without the very basic respect and safety standards that other student-athletes enjoy,” Gonzalez said in a news release.

“With the C.H.E.E.R.S. Act, California high schools will help student-athletes overcome old stereotypes that are risking their health and safety and provide them the respect that all students who compete in sports deserve.”

Cheerleading accounts for nearly two-thirds of all catastrophic sport-related injuries involving female high school athletes, resulting in nearly 37,000 emergency rooms visits a year, according to data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Several cheer instructors indicated coaches already do everything they can to make the sport safe. Many school districts also already require cheer coaches to be certified like every other coach on campus.

“We follow all the CIF guidelines,” said Hannah Geddy, cheer adviser at Edison High School in Huntington Beach.

“All my coaches are first-aid certified; they’re AACAA (American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrator) certified. We follow concussion protocol. We use our athletic trainers. These girls are going to be treated just like a football player if they get injured.”

Turning cheer into an official sport also raises questions about coaches’ pay.

When it wasn’t classified as a sport, cheerleading was a year-round activity, meaning some coaches could be paid monthly. But as a sanctioned sport, cheer coaches will be paid like other high school coaches, a one-time stipend, and they’ll only be able to coach at a single school when in season.

“This is my only job,” said Cris Stuart, a 30-year coaching vet who coaches cheer at Tesoro High School but who has also spent time at Capistrano Valley, Trabuco Hills and Mission Viejo. “I’ve coached at three high schools at the same time. A lot of coaches will do that and coach all-star gyms.”

The new rules for competitive cheer aren’t expected to kick in for more than a year, so CIF has time to develop standards that might help answer some of the questions raised.

For now, the debate locally figures to be about whether the new law is or isn’t good for cheerleading.

“My biggest point is, why do we need to be considered a sport?” Bowers said. “You earn respect. It doesn’t come just because they say you’re a sport.”

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