Sweat, `Soffies' and scholarships

Cheer: After decades of trying, cheerleaders at the University of Maryland are now varsity athletes, the first of their kind in NCAA Division I.

March 25, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - It is 7:30 on a cold, rainy morning, and in an auxiliary gym at Comcast Center, the University of Maryland's competitive cheerleading squad is already sweating.

Dressed in white "Soffies" (short shorts) and black, cap-sleeved tops each with the word "Terps" glittering in red across the front, the team is counting out the timing on a new routine, moving around the padded floor mat with energy and purpose.

In the middle of this mosaic, Lauren Spates, 19 and a sophomore communications major from New York, is climbing foot-over-hand, up and up, 15 feet into the air. She springs above the two women at the base, then moves above a third supporter, who holds her there in midair. Spates - whose position is known as a flyer - settles into her perch at the top, flashes a brilliant, confident smile and then purposefully falls backward into the arms of three waiting teammates.

"You really have to trust your teammates to take care of you," Spates said a few minutes later, laughing.

It's just part of the everyday routine for the 24 competitive cheerleaders, whose team is the first in NCAA Division I to be given collegiate varsity status. This is not the group of cheerleaders fans see on the sideline at Maryland basketball and football games - known as the spirit squad - but a separate, more athletic team, whose performance combines dance with more gymnastics and strength moves. Competitive teams hold matches in which judges score their routines much like in a gymnastics meet.

Facing critics

Though competitive cheerleading backers praise Maryland's shift to varsity status, the university has also drawn criticism from those who believe athletic director Debbie Yow is trying to skirt federal Title IX rules by counting the sport's newly allotted 12 scholarships as part of the NCAA requirement for women's athletics.

Title IX, which was put in place in 1972, requires equal opportunity for women in all federally funded education programs, meaning scholarship dollars, participation numbers and funding must be equal based on the proportion of men and women in the student body.

Because Maryland has been in compliance, it can add one men's scholarship for every women's scholarship. Some critics, including Title IX supporters, believe strengthening the men's programs is the only reason Maryland added cheerleading and women's water polo (eight scholarships) last spring.

Such remarks cause Yow, 53, more than a little angst. She was a junior high school cheerleader and points out that she preceded the Title IX legislation and has no doubt about what it means to women's athletics.

"I identify so strongly with the law that when I hear anyone suggest I'm undermining it, it flies all over me," Yow said. "It gets under my skin very quickly. ... Title IX is very serious to me.

"Give me a little credit. I'm smarter than that. If my intent was to add scholarships for the men, I would have added rowing. They have 125 participants. That would have meant an additional 20 scholarships right there. But these women have earned their way."

The university said it hasn't added any men's scholarships yet, but plans to do so for non-revenue men's teams. The athletic department has added a program called Fear the Turtle to raise scholarship revenues.

A long history

Last year, when Maryland began considering the addition of two women's sports, Yow said the university's athletic council could not ignore the cheerleaders' history at the school.

Maryland has been awarding varsity letters to cheerleaders for 50 years, and the cheerleaders have been applying for varsity status every year for decades.

"When we did our research and sat down with all those ladies from the 1940s and 1950s who had been cheerleaders here and heard their stories, it became obvious that we had an opportunity," Yow said. "They'd been so talented for so long, we decided that as long as they understood that they would be a competitive group and not the spirit group that cheers for our other varsity teams, that they had earned varsity status."

This season, the team has four scholarships, which have been divided among most of the 24 students. By 2006, Maryland will give 12 scholarships and have a competitive cheer budget of about $400,000.

Competitive squad coach Lura Fleece, who was a Maryland cheerleader before becoming the spirit squad's coach 12 years ago, was among those pushing for varsity status.

"Honestly, I didn't think it would happen," said Fleece, who has also captained and coached the Ravens' cheerleaders. "But Debbie Yow is a strong supporter of Title IX and cheerleading. ... Cheerleading has always been athletic in nature. Now, the only real change is that it is competitive.

"Initially, we wanted to compete and cheer for the teams. But now, I'm so glad we're not. My girls' skills have improved so much because we're able to focus on ourselves and not on other teams' games, fund-raising and charity events."

`It requires a lot'

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