College Cheerleaders Deserve Our Attention. They’re Getting It for the Wrong Reasons.

The mostly-women athletes, who rarely get face time during televised events, are suddenly dominating March Madness discourse--but not for their talent.

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College Cheerleaders Deserve Our Attention. They’re Getting It for the Wrong Reasons.
Photo:Isaiah Vazquez/NCAA Photos via Getty Images (Getty Images)

Cassidy Cerny, a 20-year-old sophomore at Indiana University, didn’t think what happened last week during the Hoosiers’ March Madness men’s basketball game was all that remarkable.

After the game ball got stuck at the top of the backboard and was out of reach for even the teams’ tallest players, Cerny was hoisted atop her cheer teammate’s hands and carried over to the net. She easily plucked the ball out, and the arena burst into cheers. It wasn’t until Cerny got home and watched the gamecast that she realized the announcer had screamed on air, “THE CHEERLEADER SAVES THE DAY…WHAT A SHINING MOMENT!!!”

Since then, aside from going viral and landing an interview on The Today Show, Cerny has inked a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal with apparel company Breaking T, which designed a commemorative t-shirt in her honor. In a phone interview with Jezebel on Thursday, Cerny said that she and Paris are excited and “overwhelmed” to have received “nonstop” pitches from companies hoping to partner with them—something that simply does not happen for gameday college cheerleaders.

But Cerny is still wrapping her head around the fact that so many people, including an NCAA tournament broadcaster, had named her an unlikely hero over a relatively basic cheerleading skill in the first place. “Once I realized how big it had gotten, it definitely was like, ‘Wow, people are actually impressed by this?’” she said. “It’s crazy because that hands extension is something that we do every single day. It’s not a big deal to us, but seeing it out of context and actually having everyone pay attention to what we’re doing was insane.”

It should not be “insane” for an audience as large as March Madness’, which is reportedly averaging 9.1 million viewers per day, to notice the women-dominated cheer and dance teams who have loyally graced sidelines for decades. And yet, a mere glimmer of what these college athletes are really capable of has sent brands and viewers spiraling in a tizzy, seemingly shocked that the cheerleaders, often working entirely in support of their fellow university athletes, are actually talented…and useful, at that. The explosion of excitement now being extended to Cerny and her cheerleading teammates is, of course, heartwarming beyond belief. But it also lays bare the widespread invisibility of cheerleaders—some of the most under-resourced, under-utilized, and under-celebrated collegiate athletes in America—which can often manifest in ugly and dangerous ways.

When a cheerleader goes viral during March Madness, it’s usually not for their hard-earned talents, but for being trampled or accidentally assaulted on the sidelines. They’re almost always the butt of the joke. At the end of a play, an Oklahoma Sooners player once body-slammed a cheerleader and continued back to the field without helping her up. Bleacher Report has run relentless stories about cheerleaders getting “nearly trampled;” Bro Bible recently covered a Nebraska cheerleader who got “absolutely rocked by football to the head;” and NY Daily News ran with this lovely headline: “Cheerleader takes a hard fall for the team after getting run over by football team.” Cheerleaders are viewed as attractive but unnecessary accessories who sometimes get in the way of the real action, rather than accomplished athletes in their own right.

“It’s hard cheering games knowing that you’re not being watched by that many people, unless you mess up,” Cerny told me. Or unless, my personal favorite, you’re getting proposed to.

On Monday, during another March Madness game, star Arizona player Bennedict Mathurin appeared to graze the breast of a TCU cheerleader on the sidelines during a celebration directed towards fans in the arena. Although the video seems to show more of an accidental wingspan miscalculation than an intentional physical abuse, this incident, which was not only nationally televised but has now been widely shared and picked apart by social media sleuths, is mortifying for the young woman whose moment of infamy is now that she was inappropriately touched by a basketball player who maybe just didn’t see her… as if she wasn’t even there. Even amidst a public violation, she doesn’t get to react— she must remain stoic as ever, in perfect support of the man who touched her.

(TCU’s cheer team did not respond to a request for comment. Dave Heeke, Arizona’s Vice President and Director of Athletics, told Jezebel, “Shortly after returning to Tucson, I was notified that people on social media were claiming a video clip showed Bennedict Mathurin may have made physical contact with a TCU student while walking off the court. I have reached out to TCU’s Athletics Department and I spoke with Bennedict. While he does not recall any contact, he has attempted to reach out to the TCU student through their Athletic Department to apologize.”)

While many cheerleaders are celebrated for maintaining their composure, even as a 7-foot-tall basketball player hurls violently towards them, sometimes they really do deserve the dignity of being allowed to react. Earlier in this year’s tournament, Saint Louis forward Jordan Nesbitt allegedly looked a Bonaventure cheerleader dead in the eyes and said “shut the fuck up bitch,” according to a tweet the cheerleader later sent. She and her coach were seen storming off the court, and a verified March Madness account later tweeted that “Jordan Nesbitt had been chirping the Bonaventure cheerleaders all games [sic], calling them disgusting names.” Neither the cheerleader nor Nesbitt responded to our requests for comment.

When these sorts of player-cheerleader interactions become representative of the entire sport of collegiate gameday cheerleading, it’s no wonder that the public has such a limited understanding of the strength and star power of these women, who’ve been fighting for visibility and university support for far too long. But their lack of coverage is often less of a one-sport problem, and more of a systemic financial issue, in which universities typically do not prioritize the needs of cheer and dance teams, who are notably not covered by Title IX.

That structural lack of funding is precisely what landed the Saint Peters cheer and dance teams on an 11-hour bus ride from Jersey City to Indianapolis this past weekend. The private university, which has just over 2,000 undergraduate students, had been an underdog in the tournament, but when the Peacocks advanced far beyond expectations, NBC’s streaming service (also aptly named Peacock) stepped up to sponsor the cheer team, who had not received adequate funding from their own university to be able to attend the game. The streamer, who declined to comment, paid for the bus that shuttled the cheerleaders to their final destination. A Barstool video pointed out how ridiculous it was that NBC hadn’t shilled out more money to book flights for them, instead.

Collegiate cheerleaders, unfortunately, are used to 11-hour bus rides and being mowed over by players and having to practice on concrete, because there’s no suitable space for them on campus. They are used to being ignored, being in the background, and getting the shit-end of the stick in terms of sponsorships and brand deals, while watching football and basketball teams receive royal treatment. But a new generation of gameday cheerleaders, like Cerny, aren’t accepting the bare minimum any longer.

“We want to make people aware that we’re not just there to support, but that we’re also there as athletes,” she said. “We practice, and we get exhausted during the fourth quarter of a football game while we’re outside still doing baskets and pyramids. It’s exhausting, and it’s not easy, but we make it look easy, because we’re athletes.”

Cerny’s NIL deal is just a glimpse of what the future of cheerleading might hold: respect, opportunity, and long-overdue funding. And perhaps one day, cheerleaders will get to be the heroes at every game—not just for rescuing a ball.

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