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The POM-POM Chronicles
Sonja Steptoe
December 30, 1991
Cheerleading has become a big and serious business, which isn't anything to cheer about
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December 30, 1991

The Pom-pom Chronicles

Cheerleading has become a big and serious business, which isn't anything to cheer about

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Rah rah rah!
Sku-u-mah, hoo-rah!
Hoo-rah!
Varsity! Varsity!
Minn-e-so-tah!

Johnny Campbell's lusty little cheer may not have been a poetic breakthrough, but when Campbell, a University of Minnesota student, leaped to his feet and bellowed those words before a crowd of football fans on a blustery November afternoon in Minneapolis in 1898, it changed the American sporting scene. Cheerleading was born.

A century later, it's booming. At last count, nearly one million elementary, junior high, high school and college students were leading cheers on sidelines across America. But it is hardly the innocent, spontaneous activity it was in Campbell's day. Cheerleading in the 1990s is a capitalist tool. Some companies have taken the concept of school spirit and turned it into a cash cow. Last year, the two biggest firms, National Spirit Group, Ltd., parent company of the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA), and Universal Sports Camps, parent company of the Universal Cheerleading Association (UCA), had combined revenues of $75 million derived from fees paid by attendees at summer instructional camps and from sales of uniforms, pom-poms, megaphones, shoes, hair ribbons and jewelry. Athletic-shoe makers have also gotten into the act, designing footwear specifically for cheerleading and competing for exclusive contracts with the cheerleading companies. There are even some 85 colleges that offer—are you ready for this?—cheerleading scholarships, ranging from $100 stipends to full-tuition grants at schools like the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky.

Cheerleading is big, serious business, right down to the network of state, regional and national cheerleading competitions the two big companies hold each year. With $1,000 savings bonds, trophies, trips to Japan and cable-television airtime up for grabs, cheerleading squads invest 10 or more hours a week practicing for these contests. Many of these squads pay private coaches between $500 and $700 a month to choreograph their routines for competitions. And a lot of parents, in the dubious tradition of stage mothers and Little League dads, take cheerleading very seriously, too. Last January, Wanda Holloway of Channelview, Texas, tried to hire a hit man to murder the mother of her daughter's junior high cheerleading rival. Had Campbell known that his yelling would lead to all of this, he might have kept his mouth shut.

"Cheerleading is no different from Little League baseball or college athletics," says Joe Paul. Who, as dean of student development and cheerleader administrator at the University of Southern Mississippi, has seen the changes up close. "It's a great performance opportunity for students. But then adults get involved, and they squeeze the spontaneity out of it, so that it doesn't seem extracurricular anymore."

These grown-up offenders include overbearing coaches and so-called spirit merchants from cheerleading companies. But heading the list are pom-pom moms, a species dedicated to advancing the cheerleading careers of its offspring, no matter what the cost. Based on their past performance, Wanda Holloway and Verna Heath qualify as pom-pom moms nonpareil. For years Holloway's daughter, Shanna, and Heath's daughter, Amber, were friendly rivals who cheered together in elementary school. But that all changed when the girls prepared to move to junior high and the two mothers started lobbing shots on their children's behalf. First, Wanda transferred Shanna, then a sixth-grader, out of the private Channelview Christian School and into the Viola Cobb Elementary School so that Shanna would be eligible to try out for the Alice Johnson Junior High cheerleading squad in the spring of 1989. Advantage Wanda. Then, before the tryouts, Verna, a former national high school strutting champion, persuaded Channelview public school officials to let Amber audition for a spot on the school's squad. Deuce. That spring Amber was named to the Alice Johnson squad, but Shanna was not. Advantage Verna. In 1990, Shanna and Wanda improperly campaigned to get Shanna on the squad by passing out pencils and rulers bearing the message: VOTE FOR SHANNA HARPER. As a result, Shanna was disqualified from the competition for violating the campaign rules. Game, set, match to Verna. But Wanda wouldn't concede. The following winter she uttered the now infamous words, "I want her gone," and planned the contract murder of Verna.

Wanda was convicted in an eight-day trial, fined $10,000 and given a 15-year prison sentence for soliciting capital murder. She is currently out on bond pending appeal. Meanwhile, life is more or less back to normal in Channelview. The football season has come and gone, the basketball season has begun, Shanna was voted Miss Spirit by her classmates at homecoming, Amber is a member of the Channelview High cheerleading squad, and Verna is weighing offers for the film rights to her and her daughter's sad story. "They say the only difference between a pit bull and a cheerleader's mother is lipstick, and I think they have a point," says Walter Rambo, who heads the complaints division at the Texas Education Agency and gets calls and letters from dozens of irate pom-pom moms every spring after tryouts.

Bev Cassity of San Diego may be a pom-pom mom, but she's quick to point out that she's no Wanda Holloway. Her daughter Dusty not only made the Madison High squad this year, but she was also elected captain. "I absolutely love it," says Bev, who gushes over cheerleading the way that Dusty might swoon over teen-idol Luke Perry. "I get my warm fuzzies from it."

Bev thinks cheerleading is a sport, and she can't understand why it took until this fall for Madison High coaches to welcome cheerleading into the athletic department fold. "We're California state champions," says Bev. "Cheerleading is the only activity that has brought positive recognition to the school." J.M. Tarvin, principal of nearby La Jolla High School, doesn't mind calling it a sport but says, "I object to cheerleading competitions because they're not sponsored by the school system and because the companies that run them are private, for-profit businesses."

Five percent of all cheerleading squads in the U.S. enter regional or national competitions with dreams of winning prize money, trophies and glory. If there is a magic formula for winning national titles, Christian Brothers High School, an all-boy school in Memphis, seems to have found it. Six years ago the basketball coach, tired of doubling as cheerleading sponsor, enlisted the help of Christian Brothers alumnus Gordon Kelly and a CBHS mother to work with the indifferent cheerleaders selected for the squad from two Memphis all-girl Catholic schools, St. Agnes Academy and Immaculate Conception High. Since then, Christian Brothers has finished first in the UCA national high school competition four times and third twice.

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