- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

They are the tape-wristed polyester warriors of the college sports world.

A dominating presence along the baseline or behind the bench, they take over timeouts with a daunting combination of megaphone-wielding zeal and compulsive hand clapping.

They are the men at the bottom of the on-court pyramid and the off-court machometer.

Meet the male cheerleader — easily abused, often misunderstood, always spirited.

“We’re that guy on the court doing that thing that’s a little bit out there that not everybody wants to do,” said Georgetown freshman cheerleader Eric Cusimano at last week’s Big East tournament. “I think the best kind of cheerleader would be a guy kind of like Will Farrell, somebody who’s not going to take himself too seriously and just wants to have fun with it.”

Fun? Let’s face it, to the average male undergrad, a demographic dominated by testosterone-addled sports addicts, the idea of cavorting about in dreadful duds in front of potential TV millions probably qualifies as about as much fun as joining the temperance movement.

“No way. I mean I’m cool with team spirit, but a dude cheerleading? Come on, where’s your male pride?” queried Paul, a 22-year-old Syracuse fan, when asked if he would ever consider cheerleading.

Paul, of course, was simply echoing the archetypal fraternal issue with the “sport” of cheerleading, an issue that questions the activity more than the actors. There are plenty of manly cheerleaders; six of the eight interviewed at the Big East tournament were former high school football players. Most performed obvious feats of strength and balance. And two looked like they were manufactured at GNC.

But is cheerleading a manly activity?

“When I told my dad I was trying out for the team, he thought I meant football,” said Notre Dame’s Tyler Elson, a high school jock turned cheerleader. “A few weeks later, I told him that I made the team, and he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’ And then as we’re talking, he figures out that it’s cheerleading, and he basically hangs up. The next day, he calls back and says, ‘You’re mom and I were talking about it, and … we’re proud of you.’ It was hysterical. It was such an effort for him to get that out.”

For those capable of crossing the masculinity bridge, there are some considerable perks. Among Big East schools, however, Louisville is the only program that offers full scholarships to its squad.

What makes Louisville special?

Marveling at the ignorance of the question, one toxically spunky brunette on the Cardinals’ squad explained, “We’re 27-time national champions, you know. Next month at the Cheer Dance Championships in Daytona Beach, we’ll be like, you know, going for our fifth consecutive title.”

Like, you know, a five-peat.

Actually, the Cardinals’ conference superiority is personified by Demorick Garrett, a tumbler who routinely brought Madison Square Garden to its feet with a baseline-to-baseline sequence of somersaults, backflips and twists that compared favorably to any feat mustered by Rick Pitino’s hoopsters.

“I’ve been doing it since I was seven,” said Garrett, a senior from Dallas. “I started in my back yard, my parents put me in gymnastics, and then I transitioned to cheerleading.”

For most male cheerleaders, however, both the motivation and the benefits are slightly less grandiose than financial aid or indisputable excellence. There seem to be three primary enticements in the male cheerleading world, the three Gs of games, gear and, of course, girls.

“I went to the recruiting meeting because it sounded like a good deal — watching sports and hanging out with girls all the time,” Elson said.

“Yeah, and once they get you to a recruiting meeting, they’ve probably got you hooked,” said Elson’s teammate Tony Cunningham, who looked as if he could easily play right guard for Charlie Weis’ Irish. “You walk into the meeting, and it’s all these girls in spandex telling you about all the free Adidas stuff you’re going to get and all the games you’re going to get to go to. I walked out totally sold and wondering what just hit me. Of course, it turned out to be kind of a terrible deal, because not only do your boys pretty much never stop riding you, it’s a lot of work.”

On average, squads practice twice a week for two to four hours, have mandatory weightlifting on two other days, and log plenty of time on the sidelines at games featuring sports where they outnumber the fans (see volleyball). Even cheering at a marquee event like a Notre Dame football game can turn into a maddening affair, because there’s a major difference between being at the big game and actually being able to watch it.

“We’re supposed to be real camera-friendly, always smiling and whatnot. But I can’t watch a game like that,” Elson said. “When the camera comes over, everybody else plays to the camera, and I’ll just totally turn my back on it to follow the game. That’s a no-no, but I can’t help it. Our coach is always yelling at me for being too serious. I keep telling her that I watch the sport and react accordingly. But she’s not buying it. It’s supposed to be all smiles all the time.”

And as Villanova’s Frank Bertini explained, duty isn’t the only potential distraction at a big game. Life on the road can be miserable for a male cheerleader. Nothing screams target to the malice-inclined like the clownishly clad pinata yowling for the visitors.

“Road games are interesting,” Bertini said. “Better us than them, but nobody really ever harasses the girls. The yelling you can block out. But with [projectiles], it’s a little tough. They throw toast at Penn. I don’t know why, but they throw toast. It’s usually food or ice cubes, but some people will throw anything they can get their hands on. Really, you just hope to avoid the condiments.”

Ah, so perhaps it was cheerleading at Ole Miss that prepared Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, for the slings and arrows of politics.

OK, so no amount of free gear makes up for the universally offensive uniforms. The job description and road fans can put a damper on the games. But what about the girls? Do male cheerleaders really have, as the old joke contends, the best view in the house?

Actually, intimate relationships between teammates are strongly discouraged by most programs. The Big East cheerleaders in the sample explained that they almost instantly began to view the girls on the squad as sisters. The notable exception was Bertini, who actually joined the program at the behest of his cheerleader girlfriend. Bertini was not particularly amused when one mentioned that this arrangement could lend new meaning to the phrase “dropping a girlfriend.”

“Actually, they fall all the time, but not like onto their heads,” responded Bertini. “That’s the first thing they teach them is how to fall, so they wipe out sort of nicely.”

Such inside knowledge is sort of reassuring.

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