If the leaves are changing color, it means all things pigskin hog the spotlight, with the main focus on the football field as gridiron gladiators go to battle. But shift the attention to the sidelines to the cheerleading squad, and you’ll find similar athleticism and the same kinds of debates over safety concerns as those currently at the center of football. It’s a reminder of a question that would appear simple on the surface but is in fact bedeviling the world of athletics: Is cheerleading a sport?
The professional sports locker room can be a scary place, with unwritten rules and political rankings that include which players get lockers next to each other—or far, far away from one another. There are cliques, hazing, pranks, and outsize expectations of toughness. It’s the ultimate site where the stereotypes of what it means to be a man get played out, and the challenge is to fit in and not shake up the coveted “chemistry” teams strive to create. So it isn’t surprising that not a single active gay athlete has come out in American baseball, hockey, football, or basketball. But as the gay-rights movement makes strides in society at large—including the Obama administration backing marriage equality, more states voting to legalize gay marriage, and the military ending its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—the sports world is starting to change, too, with more and more athletes speaking out in support of the LGBT community.
In June 2011, the National Collegiate Athletic Association charged the football program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with violating multiple rules. An investigation had revealed that players like former defensive tackle Marvin Austin and former wide receiver Greg Little had received “improper benefits” like jewelry and money for travel. Other infractions involved a tutor giving too much help on players’ class papers and a former assistant coach accepting money from an agent in exchange for access to athletes.