For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.  Cross-posted at Jezebel, the Huffington Post, and Pacific Standard.

You might be surprised to learn that at its inception in the mid-1800s cheerleading was an all-male sport.  Characterized by gymnastics, stunts, and crowd leadership, cheerleading was considered equivalent in prestige to an American flagship of masculinity, football.  As the editors of Nation saw it in 1911:

…the reputation of having been a valiant “cheer-leader” is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college.  As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.*

Indeed, cheerleading helped launch the political careers of three U.S. Presidents.  Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan were cheerleaders. Actor Jimmy Stewart was head cheerleader at Princeton. Republican leader Tom DeLay was a noted cheerleader at the University of Mississippi.

Women were mostly excluded from cheerleading until the 1930s. An early opportunity to join squads appeared when large numbers of men were deployed to fight World War I, leaving open spots that women were happy to fill.

When the men returned from war there was an effort to push women back out of cheerleading (some schools even banned female cheerleaders).  The battle over whether women should be cheerleaders would go on for several decades.  Argued one opponent in 1938:

[Women cheerleaders] frequently became too masculine for their own good… we find the development of loud, raucous voices… and the consequent development of slang and profanity by their necessary association with [male] squad members…**

Cheerleading was too masculine for women!  Ultimately the effort to preserve cheer as an man-only activity was unsuccessful.  With a second mass deployment of men during World War II, women cheerleaders were here to stay.

The presence of women changed how people thought about cheering.  Because women were stereotyped as cute instead of “valiant,” the reputation of cheerleaders changed.  Instead of a pursuit that “ranks hardly second” to quarterbacking, cheerleading’s association with women led to its trivialization.  By the 1950s, the ideal cheerleader was no longer a strong athlete with leadership skills, it was someone with “manners, cheerfulness, and good disposition.”  In response, boys pretty much bowed out of cheerleading altogether. By the 1960s, men and megaphones had been mostly replaced by perky co-eds and pom-poms:

Cheerleading in the sixties consisted of cutesy chants, big smiles and revealing uniforms.  There were no gymnastic tumbling runs.  No complicated stunting.  Never any injuries.  About the most athletic thing sixties cheerleaders did was a cartwheel followed by the splits.***

Cheerleading was transformed.

Of course, it’s not this way anymore.  Cultural changes in gender norms continued to affect cheerleading. Now cheerleaders, still mostly women, pride themselves in being both athletic and spirited, a blending of masculine and feminine traits that is now considered ideal for women.

See also race and the changing shape of cheerleading and the amazing disappearing cheerleading outfit.

Citations after the jump:


Recently, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shocked many American football fans with an act that might not seem particularly controversial: they continued playing until the game officially ended.

In the final seconds of their game against the New York Giants, the Bucs were behind and almost certain to lose, but not absolutely and inevitably defeated. With the score at 41-34, if the Bucs could get the ball before the clock ran out and manage a touchdown and a successful conversion, they could tie the game or even win outright, depending on the type of conversion.

When the Giants snapped the ball, Tampa’s players rushed forward.

The Bucs broke a taken-for-granted norm in football: they rushed a quarterback who was taking a knee. When a team has possession of the ball in the last moments of a game, the quarterback can run out the clock by holding onto the ball and touching a knee to the ground. When it’s obvious a quarterback is going to do so, the opposing team is expected to acknowledge that the game is effectively over and let the quarterback quickly take a knee without interference.

The Bucs didn’t. They continued playing serious defense. Giants quarterback Eli Manning was knocked backward by his teammates as they tried to protect him from the unexpected rush.

Tampa’s players, and in particular coach Greg Schiano, were widely accused of poor sportsmanship. The Giants’ coach yelled at Schiano on the field and Manning called it a “cheap shot”. Giants’ player Justin Tuck said the Bucs should have refused their coach’s order to carry out what he called a “classless” play.

But NFL officials confirmed that what they did was entirely within the rules of the game. Teams generally take a hands-off approach to a quarterback who is clearly planning to take a knee, but they aren’t actually required to stand around and let him do it unopposed.

And as NPR reported, if we look back a few decades, taking a knee was itself seen as a bit classless. In the 1978 “Miracle at the Meadowlands” game between the Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles, the Giants lost when they fumbled the ball at the last minute. Taking a knee would have ensured a win, but their coach ordered another play because he, like many coaches at the time, saw taking a knee as unsporting, an unworthy way to guarantee victory.

That loss changed the status of taking a knee. No one could believe a team had all but given away a victory. Giants fans were enraged. The coach was summarily fired and never worked in football again.

For coaches, the take-away message was clear. Running a play carried the risk of a last-minute interception and humiliating defeat, possibly followed by the abrupt end of your career. Taking a knee was a sure thing. It quickly became standard procedure. Teams developed formations for use specifically when they plan to take a knee (thus also signaling their intent to the other team). The stigma that remained around taking a knee disappeared; it has been redefined as an acceptable and even expected move. But for it to work — that is, for it to allow a quick end to the game while minimizing the possibility of risk to players (and especially the quarterback) — the opposing team has to play their role in the script and acquiesce to running out the clock.

Tampa’s coach challenged current norms by treating taking a knee as an outcome for the other team to successfully accomplish, not an opposition-less move that requires only a signal of intent. The Bucs’ violation of this norm has been widely condemned. Football fans viewed it as putting players in danger of injury from the unexpected defensive move with very little chance of actually changing the outcome of the game — a likelihood of success low enough that fans I spoke to questioned Schiano’s motives, suggesting he knew he couldn’t win and was actively intending to hurt the other team.

What counts as a “classy” play or a “cheap shot”? Schiano defended his choice by saying he asks his team to play hard for every second of the game, an attitude that might normally be praised. We romanticize the idea of never giving up, of playing as hard as you can against all odds. But because taking a knee has been accepted as reasonable, expected behavior, failure to follow its taken-for-granted script is widely perceived not as a daring move by the defense, but as an unsporting disregard for the spirit of the game.

In a related story, see footage of a middle school football team tricking their opponent into thinking they weren’t playing when they were.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

The NFL referees have been on strike.  In their place the league has hired replacements in order to keep the season underway.  Word on the street is that the replacements are doing a distinctly terrible job. Writes Ed at Gin and Tacos:

Since professional and amateur football have different rules — in some cases very different — the results have been predictably disastrous. From their failure to do basic things like spot the ball and operate the game clock to major rules of which they appear to be totally ignorant, they have proven thus far that there is nothing they can’t botch.

Others, too, are finding humor in their ineptitude.

Ed wonders if NFL fans are internalizing the economic lesson in this debacle:

In a surplus labor market you can always find someone willing to do a job for less, but they’re probably not going to do it well. Even the type of person who blames the work stoppage on the union… can’t deny that the end result is the replacement of trained, experienced professionals with a clown car load of knuckleheads who act like they’ve never seen a football before.

He concludes, suggestively: “maybe all human capital is not interchangeable …and maybe there are some noticeable downsides to a market in which whoever will work for the least gets the job.”

The NFL, being entertainment and all, isn’t the best example, but when we apply the same logic to occupations like school teachers and air traffic controllers, we should sit up and notice.  Maybe at this moment, when something so beloved is at stake, it’ll raise America’s consciousness just a little bit.  Ed, for what it’s worth, isn’t optimistic.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Racialicious.

Race as biology has largely been discredited, yet beliefs about one race being biologically superior to another still seem to pervade one social arena: sports.  Claims that different races have genetic advantages to play particular sports persists both because individual athletic ability obviously has some basis in biology (even though that does not mean it is racial biology at play) and athletics appears to be one social arena where racial minorities succeed over whites in certain sports.

For example, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports’ 2011 Racial and Gender Report Card on The National Football League (, over 2/3rds of players in the NFL are African American — far higher than the proportion of Blacks in the general population of the United States.  This report also shows that all other racial groups are under-represented in the NFL relative to their proportion in the general population, including Asians who make up only 2% of the players in the league.

These statistics compel many to assume that racial biology plays a large part in athletic success.  However, the 60 Minutes investigation Football Island debunks this assumption during a trip to the place where most of the Asian players in the NFL come from: American Samoa.   This small island is a U.S. Territory in the Pacific and has a population small enough to seat comfortably in most professional football stadiums.  Yet the average Samoan child “is 56 times more likely to get into the NFL than any other kid in America.”

60 Minutes finds Samoans succeed at football only in small part because of their size and strength.  Rather, their success grows mostly out of a “warrior culture” that instills a strong work ethic in young men.  Also, on the island the daily chores that are a necessary part of survival provide a lifetime of athletic conditioning.  In short, many of the Asian players in the NFL are successful because of their nurturing, and not their nature.


Samoans are also driven to succeed at football because they come from a place plagued by poverty and often their only chance at a better life is through athletics (that, or follow another Samoan tradition and join the Armed Forces).  In the video, the most famous Samoan player, Troy Palamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, explains “football is a ‘meal ticket.’  Just like any marginalized ethnic group, you know, if you don’t make it to the NFL, what do you have to go back to?”


Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Earlier this month, Lisa posted about the objectification of female beach volleyball players at the Olympics, discussing the types of photos and poses that are used when reporting on different types of sports, including gendered differences.

Autumn B. sent in another over-the-top example of the objectification of female athletes. The commercial is for RoadID, a company that sells “identification gear.” Autumn saw it while watching the Tour de France; she found this shortened version online, which she says actually features less objectification than the original did.

The main focus of the ad is a slow investigation of various aspects of cyclist Jenny Fletcher’s body. The camera travels slowly up her leg, then shows her full profile before zooming in on her breasts as she zips up her shirt:

Jenny Fletcher has no dialogue. She exists as a body to be broken down into eroticized parts for the consumption of the viewer. As Autumn put it, it’s frustrating that, a fan of the “the male-centric Tour de France,” that “when they do FINALLY feature a female cyclist, it is as a sexual object.”

For other posts on this topic, see Serena Williams’ patriarchal bargain, Sports Illustrated covers, feminizing female athletes, Serena Williams in ESPN magazine, and media portrayals of female athletes.

I’ve heard critiques about both the uniforms of the beach volleyball players at this year’s Olympics in London (i.e., bikinis) and the photographic coverage of the athletes (i.e., “butt shots”).  Then yesterday eight readers — Tom Megginson, Cheryl S., Cerberus Xt, Richard D., Anna G., @sphericalfruit, @bfwriter, and @HaphazardSoc — sent us a link to a story that asked the question: “What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?”  More on that later.

First, I wanted to see if the rumors were true, so I googled beach vollyball and three other sports: track, diving, and gymnastics.  All involve relatively skimpy uniforms, but beach volleyball certainly stood out.  The top results included five photographs of just butts in bikini bottoms and four “cheesecake” pictures in which women are posed to look like pin-ups and volleyball is not part of the picture (all images can be clicked to get a closer view).

That may not seem like a lot but, in contrast, none of the top photos for the other three sports included butt shots or pin-up poses (with the exception of one butt shot for track, but it was of a fully-clothed man and used as a photographic device, not a source of titillation).

There’s an interesting lesson here that goes beyond the sexual objectification of women and asks “which women? and why? (because the sport is associated with the beach?) and in response to whose rules? (who is in charge of uniforms?) and to whose benefit? (the photographers, the Olympics, their corporate and media sponsors?).”





Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Many people around the world are eagerly awaiting the start of the Olympics next week.  A lucky few will compete and a small group of others will be there, in person, to watch.  Athletes and spectators, however, are just two of the groups that the games mobilize.  The Daily Mail reports on the large numbers of people hired to be temporary janitors, groundskeepers, maids, and other types of cleaners.  Many of these workers are migrants who have come to London hoping to work for a few weeks and return to their families having earned a little more than they otherwise could.

The story, sent in by Dolores R., focuses on the living conditions of these workers.  Most are paying rent to live in temporary trailers.  Packed together like sardines, the compound has been described as a “slum.” Pictures are available at the site.

Complaints include:

  • Crowded living spaces.  “Any accommodation where more than two adults have to share a room is considered ‘overcrowded’ under housing laws.”
  • Insufficient toilet and shower facilities that were “filthy” from overuse.
  • Leaking trailers that the workers are told to live with or fix themselves; stagnant ground water around some of the trailers has forced them to put together make-shift stepping stones.
  • Women are being placed in trailers with men they don’t know; at least two women have quit when they were told they had to stay with male strangers.

The Daily Mail says that the employees have signed gag orders that prevent them from talking to the press and that family and friends are barred from the camp for “security reasons.”

Via The Sociologist.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

In May of this year the baseball team at Our Lady of Sorrows, a high school charter in Arizona, was scheduled to play a championship game against Mesa Preparatory Academy.  Claiming a religious tenet forbidding co-ed sports, they forfeited the final game of the season.  Mesa’s second baseman, you see, was a 15-year-old named Paige Sultzbach.

This was not an isolated incident.  In 2011 a high school threatened to forfeit a junior varsity football game unless a girl on the opposing team, Mina Johnson, sat out.  Johnson, a five-foot-two-inch 172-pound linebacker on the opposing team, had “gain[ed] a reputation in the league as a standout junior varsity player”; she sacked a six-foot quarterback in her very first game. Nevertheless, not wanting to be the cause of a lost opportunity for her team to play, Johnson sat out.  The opposing team still lost to hers 60 to zero, but apparently that was less humiliating than losing to a girl.

In my sociology of gender textbook I discuss the practice of segregating sports by gender.  Both those on the political left and political right tend to think this is a good idea.  Conservatives tend to think that women are more fragile than men, while liberals want women to have the same opportunities.

Ensuring that men never compete alongside or with women, however, also ensures that the belief that men would always win goes unchallenged.  In other words, because we already assume that men would win any competition with women, it is men, not women, who have the most to lose from de-segregating sports.  If women lose, the status quo — believing women are physically inferior to men — simply remains in place.  But if men lose, the assumption of male superiority is undermined.

Women’s participation in non-team sports, of course, potentially challenges these assumptions in a different way.  While some of these sports try to write rules that ensure that women never measure up to men (e.g., body building has a cap on how muscular women can be), others lay these comparisons bare, which brings us to Sarah Robles.  Robles, a weightlifter, out-lifted all Americans of both sexes at last year’s world championships.  “On her best day,” writes Buzzfeed, “she can lift more than 568 pounds — that’s roughly five IKEA couches, 65 gallons of milk, or one large adult male lion.” Here she is lifting 278 pounds.

The Buzzfeed article focuses on how a main source of revenue — corporate sponsorship — is likely out of reach for Robles.  Companies don’t like to support athletes who challenge our beliefs about men and women.  And Robles certainly does.  She’s proof that women can compete with men, at their own games even, and win.

Thanks to Kari for the tip!

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.