February 04, 2012
The pompoms are back. Sort of.
Sideline spectators have another reason to tune into Super Bowl XLVI: After a drought last year with the cheerless Green Bay/Pittsburgh championship, cheerleaders will be returning to the sidelines. The burden, though, will rest on the New England Patriots: The New York Giants are one of six NFL teams that don't have pro cheer squads. (In addition to Packers, Steelers and Giants, the Chicago Bears,Cleveland Browns, and Detroit Lions also do not use cheerleading squads.)
The New York Giants are resolutely anti-pom. "Philosophically we have always had issues with sending scantily clad women out on the field to entertain our fans," Giants co-owner John Mara told the New York Times in back in 2010.
The Patriots ladies should be able to handle double-duty, given that at least one CNBC columnist has dubbed them the best squad of 2012. Might that mean the Patriots have an unfair advantage in Indianapolis?
Not according to Tracy Sormanti, serving her sixth Super Bowl tour of duty as director for the Patriots cheerleaders. For three of those six games, Sormanti points out in an email, "we've been a 'solo' squad." On those occasions when rival cheerleaders shared turf, there was bound to be more air kissing than smack talk: The ladies made co-promotional appearances, dined together, and shared rehearsal space on game days. "There isn't a competitiveness between the ladies of the sidelines like there is between the football players on the field," Sormanti explains. "There's a great deal of camaraderie and that is missed when there is only one squad."
One thing did get Sormanti politely riled: A Wall Street Journal article, hinting at a correlation, noted recently that teams without cheerleaders won four of the last Super Bowls.
"Seriously? We've got Belichick, Brady, Welker, Wilfork, Gronk, etc.," the director lists. "As much as I'd LOVE to say the cheerleaders have SUCH a pull in a Super Bowl win/loss, I'm going to say we'll just leave the stats up to the team. Oh… and P-A-T-S, Let's Go Pats!!"
Cheerless NFL teams and their wins
Cheerleaders of NFL past
There was a time when even today's squad-less teams had sideline company. The Packers, who still get their rah-rahs from nearby college squads, were among the first to have a team, named successively the Packerettes, the Golden Girls, and the Sideliners (1931-1988). The Chicago Bears reportedly nixed their Honey Bears (1977-1985) in a return to "blood-and-guts football" -- and reportedly because owner Virginia McCaskey wasn't a fan, although a 2011 petition has been clamoring for more honey.
While high schools and colleges have been direct feeders for these extant squads, the Steelerettes (1961-1970) claim to be the first NFL pro squad. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, they started off in "modest, knee-length skirts and hard hats" -- a nod to Pittburgh's steel-producing days -- and for a time were joined by the Ingots, male students who helped the ladies do formations. The Ingots lasted one season until the cannon episode worthy of a "Glee" episode. The Steelerettes reunited for their 50th anniversary in 2011.
The Cleveland Browns dabbled in cheer with girls from the local high school for one year. The wife of former owner Art Modell, Pat, dubbed the try-out "the biggest flop." Freezing cold temperatures contributed to their downslide: "It almost looked like they were wearing woolly pajamas," Modell recalled in a Cleveland Plain Dealer interview. It probably didn't help that one of the rules was "no cheering."
Then again, that might sound familiar to the modern-day Detroit Pride, persistent pepsters who support their team from the bleachers. The Detroit Lions, determined to remain cheer-free purists, recognize the Pride as groupies, but any displays of enthusiasm can't obstruct fan views or involve wearing the logo or cheering.
Cheering versus dancing
That scantily clad thing -- credit or blame the Dallas Cowgirls for shaping, literally, the way NFL cheerleaders look today. As traditionalists point out, pro ladies gyrate, while traditional cheerleaders lead.
"There's not a lot of crossover between professional cheerleading and sideline cheerleading," says Sheila Noone, vice president for public relations at Varsity, which provides cheerleading goods and services. While she credits the Patriots and the Ravens for collegiate-style cheering, she explains, "Most professional cheerleading tends to be dance team, because they're not really doing classic cheerleading. ... A professional team is for entertainment value and not as much for crowd leading."
The origin of the rah-rah-rah
And by the way, men, not the women, used to be cheerleaders. According to Varsity, all-male pep clubs led the first cheer in 1898, when medical student Johnny Campbell grabbed a megaphone, gathered some men, and whooped, ""Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!" That's right -- Minnesota. Who knows what the rhyme would've been if the first cheer had been in New Jersey.
Ladies didn't get to cheer until three years after they got the right to vote. They debuted in Minnesota, apparently the birthplace of cheer. (Given Minnesota's storied winters, the Cleveland squad should've picked up a few tips there.) The women took up the sideline spots when the men left to fight World War II and stayed put. The activity, Noone says, offeredone of the few reliable physical outlets for females until Title IX passed in 1972. In that same decade, cheerleading integrated even more athleticism to the routines rooted in tumbling and acrobatics.
Super Bowl ambassadors
In the case of the Patriots' squad, they're not just cheerleaders, they're ambassadors. They've visited China four times, and helped to train cheerleaders for the 2008 Beijing Olympic games.
For XLVI, Sormanti says to look for new routines. "This will be the first Super Bowl for each of the cheerleaders attending," she writes. "The enthusiasm and energy brought on by that freshness will lend to an exciting performance by our squad."
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