One Friday night in October every year, Georgetown students fill McDonough Gymnasium to celebrate the beginning of the basketball season. They wait in line to see the players, the musical performance, and this year, the debut of head coach of the men’s team, Patrick Ewing. Hoya Madness requires organization by many different groups, including the cheerleading team, which prepares for the event many weeks in advance.
For this year’s performance, cheer practiced every day leading up to Hoya Madness, going over the routine and tweaking it every time a member of their team was injured, which happened often.
Cheer, a constant presence in Hoya sports culture, is not considered a sport by the athletics department. Members of the team are not considered student athletes and receive scant media coverage.
“I’ve never experienced [being interviewed] while being on the team, or even heard about other girls being interviewed,” said Kaela Jackson (COL ’18), this year’s team captain.
Since the cheer team doesn’t compete, the athletic department does not classify them as a sport. While the athletic department covers their uniforms and travel expenses, the members of the team aren’t allowed access to the benefits granted to varsity athletes. Cheerleaders cannot use the Thompson center and do not have access to athletic tutoring and medical trainers.
“The only reason cheer isn’t considered a sport is because we don’t compete with other people,” said Trea-ell Davis (COL ’19). “It doesn’t take away with what we do and how we perform. We’re still very athletic. It’s not easy at all.”
Though the International Olympic Committee ruled that cheerleading is a sport in Dec. 2016, cheerleading is still not considered a “championship sport” by the NCAA. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that cheerleading is not considered a varsity sport when it comes to Title IX implementation. The ruling hinged on cheer’s lack of “post-season structure or standardized rules,” according to an Associated Press report.
“We are a sport in my eyes,” Jackson said. “I definitely feel that we are athletes.”
Jackson, who used to be on a competitive team at her North Carolina high school, noted the difference between her previous cheer experience and cheering for Georgetown as part of a “volunteer student organization.”
“Small barriers arise because we’re not athletes and not considered an official sports team,” Jackson said. “I didn’t understand the distinction until I got to Georgetown … since we don’t compete and we’re not recognized as athletes by the athletic department, we’re more so a reflection of the sports teams that we cheer for.”
According to the athletic department, cheer is given certain benefits that match those at other schools within Georgetown’s conference.
“The cheerleaders play an important role supporting the athletic department, as well as its teams and student-athletes, and their encouragement and dedication are greatly appreciated,” a Georgetown athletic department spokesperson wrote in an email to the Voice. “As with other volunteer student organizations that support various athletic teams, some benefits are provided to the cheerleaders. This is in alignment with other universities in the BIG EAST Conference.”
St. John’s University’s cheerleading coach, Amanda Power, confirmed in an email that their team is also not provided the same benefits as their school’s varsity athletes, such as access to tutoring, excused absences, or their varsity weight room, though their uniforms and practice gear are sponsored by Under Armour. Though the St. John’s team does compete, each member of the team has to fundraise about $1,000 for their trip to nationals.
The Georgetown cheer team performs at every home game of the varsity men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as for the football team, and occasionally at other varsity sports games. They practice twice a week, three times or more if there’s a major performance like Hoya Madness coming up, and from August through April, they perform almost every weekend.
The team is composed of 23 undergraduate women, and for most of them, balancing cheer and academics, along with clubs, jobs, internships, and other extracurriculars, is challenging.
“It can get really stressful during midterms or when you have finals coming up,” Davis said. “At the end of the day we all did make this commitment to cheer, but we also made this commitment to academics. It’s mostly just about prioritizing your time.”
But the school-life-cheer balance can be difficult. Balancing school and a sport is difficult for any athlete. For that reason, Georgetown provides free tutoring for varsity athletes, but since cheer isn’t considered a sport, they aren’t privy to that benefit.
“My freshman and sophomore years I was really struggling academically, and I assumed those resources would be available to me, but basically I had to find tutoring, to find help,” Jackson said. “For a lot of people a lot of times it has to come out of pocket to pay for that. So that was pretty frustrating.”
For varsity athletes, professors are required to excuse absences for games, but for cheerleaders, excused absences are a privilege.
“The only potential time cheerleaders travel during classes is for postseason men’s or women’s basketball,” explained the athletic department spokesperson. “In that situation, cheer members can choose to travel or stay on campus. If they travel, a letter is provided for the students to issue to professors. Individual professors make the decision regarding an excused or unexcused absence.”
According to Jackson, who was on the 2014-15 team that performed through the NCAA basketball tournament, many members of the team faced difficulties in getting their professors to excuse their absences.
“The basketball team was really good my freshman year, so we traveled a lot for March Madness, and it was pretty difficult to get professors to allow us to actually travel,” Jackson said. “There were some cheerleaders who had issues with their professors, but athletes don’t have that issue. They can just give them a piece of paper. Some members of the team couldn’t get out of it whether it be a bad time in the semester or the professor didn’t care about the basketball team as much or, the professor, just personal preference, didn’t think we were athletes.”
The team’s coach, Samantha Brewton, did not wish to provide a comment for the article, but the team members highlighted her skills as a coach, as well as her background in sports fitness. Brewton has been coaching at Georgetown since 2000, and is a former cheerleader herself.
Despite the challenges of not being considered an official sport at Georgetown, the team is tight-knit, talented, and dedicated.
“The team is super talented in terms of their ability to dance really well and pick it up quickly, always do it with a smile on their face, which I’m still trying to do, and being able to chuck people in the air with no questions asked,” Colleen Garcia (SFS ’21) said. “I give everyone on the team a lot of credit because it really is a talented group of people.”
The team members who were interviewed all mentioned how friendly and kind the team is toward others and to each other, focusing on the bonding they do in and out of practice.
“I would definitely say, especially this year, the team is really close,” Davis said. “They’re all my sisters.”
Davis went on to explain that the team frequently has study sessions together, went to the Hoya Madness after-party together, and that even before their practice that night, the group went to a yoga class.
This fall has been particularly difficult for the tight-knit group. Still, the group’s bond remains strong.
“This year was really challenging because we had a lot of injuries,” Jackson said. “Every time we lost someone, we had to change the routine but we all really got through it.”
Garcia, one of the newest members of the squad, said she is excited to get closer to her teammates over the coming years as they continue to push themselves as a team.
“The hardest part of cheerleading is stunting, which is literally throwing other people in the air and having to keep them there,” Garcia said. “Some sports throw balls, cheerleaders throw people; if that doesn’t constitute a sport, I don’t know what does.”
Image Credits: Claire Goldberg