Pom-poms prove powerless

by Matt Case / Beacon Staff • April 14, 2016

From November to March, men’s and women’s basketball games fill the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym in Piano Row’s basement.

In addition to layups, 3-pointers, and the occasional dunk, a third team populates the court’s northern bleachers. The squad makes its appearances during timeouts and halftimes with synchronized routines and chants aimed at energizing the crowd.  

But you won’t catch them building a human pyramid or performing a series of backflips, like at traditional basketball games. Instead, you might see a split, but you’ll mostly get cheering—a lot of it.

The Emerson Lions Spirit Squad, a student-run cheer team, attends most of the men’s and women’s home games, a handful of away games, and occasionally appears at some of the college’s other sporting events.  

The squad, however, is not allowed to perform flips, stunts, or other traditional cheerleading exercises deemed too “dangerous,” according to senior associate athletic director Stanford Nance.

Athletic director Patricia Nicol directed the Beacon to Nance for comments.  

Nance said these restrictions are implemented and upheld by Emerson’s athletic department, despite the Spirit Squad’s status as an independent organization.

“We’re more affiliated with athletics, yet we’re not part of athletics,” captain Zoe Lyrintzis said. “We’re part of this weird limbo where we don’t fit into either category.”

In 2007, it was the department’s decision to eliminate club sports, and either make them official varsity programs, or drop affiliation with them.

Volleyball got the nod. Cheerleading did not.

“It was just something we got away from at the time, for whatever reason,” Nance said. “Back then we only had a couple full-time coaches, so as we were looking to build a program we were looking to put our energy into the varsity sports.”

Unable to become recognized by the Student Government Association, which disallowed sports from their jurisdiction, the squad remained intact, and continued as an independent club, much like ultimate frisbee or quidditch.

According to Lyrintzis, they performed traditional routines at Emerson Dance Company-sponsored shows, until Nicol was hired in 2014 and ended that involvement.

“She recognized that it was a danger to stunt without insurance,” Lyrintzis, a junior journalism major, said. “So we can no longer perform at EDC shows or stunt at games.”

Nance served as interim athletic director from 2012 to 2014, and has been an administrator in the department since 2003. He said that because the Spirit Squad isn’t a varsity program, they don’t need medical clearance to participate and don’t hold insurance, so risks for injury cannot be taken.

“Because of liability, they can’t do certain flips and everything, that’s why we say ‘Cheer Squad,’” Nance said. “You can’t do the stacks and flips because you’re on hardwood; you don’t have a mat.”

The danger is certainly present, but since the athletic department is not the team’s overseer, it technically doesn’t have authority over the squad. Despite stating that there is a culpability issue present with the cheer team, Nance said there isn’t with other non-recognized sports.

“They’re subject to their own coverage,” Nance said. “We have athletic trainers for our student-athletes and everything is documented so when something does happen, we have a point of reference, like concussion protocol.”

Lyrintzis said she believes her team is being singled out because unlike ultimate frisbee or quidditch, which takes place off campus, the Spirit Squad takes place within the college’s confines.

“What makes us different is we go to Emerson events like the basketball games,” Lyrintzis said. “The game is put on by Emerson athletics and we’re there, so we need to comply with their rules, basically, since we don’t have that kind of recognition.”

In 2013, the athletic department purchased uniforms for the squad. Lyrintzis said that while she is grateful for the attire, it didn’t come without a hidden agenda of obeying the “no flips” rule.

“It’s like a, ‘You scratch our backs, we’ll scratch yours,’ kind of thing,” Lyrintzis said.

According to Lyrintzis, the Spirit Squad has applied to the SGA as a result of the association’s new policy of allowing club sports to be recognized, and therefore receive a budget.

“We have to pay for everything,” Lyrintzis said. “Athletics has helped us out in getting uniforms, but it’s been hard otherwise.”

The captain said that the 12 members of the team have paid out-of-pocket for transportation to basketball away games, cheer gyms to practice routines, and apparel. She said the proper mats have proved the most difficult items to obtain.

“It’s just not safe without,” Lyrintzis said. “To cheer, you need certified cheer mats and that’s a really big expense for the school or for athletics.”

Lyrintzis said she believes that if they become SGA recognized, the Spirit Squad will be able to afford mats, and ultimately be allowed to perform what they currently cannot.

“I do think cheerleading is a sport, but we’re not technically a sport since we’re not stunting,” Lyrintzis said. “A lot of our cheerleaders have been competitive cheerleaders in the past, so that’s kind of our push to be recognized, so that maybe we could be able to do that again.”

Madison Laughlin, a sophomore visual and media arts major, said she’s considered joining the Spirit Squad in the past, but has held off because of its restrictions.

“I thought about doing it just as a fun activity, but I ultimately decided not to because I felt it wouldn’t be challenging enough,” Laughlin said. “My interests lay mostly in the tumbling and the stunting, and they don’t do that, so I’d much rather spend my time in another activity.”

Nance said that despite the department not wanting the squad to become a varsity sport, he still enjoys having them on game day.

“They’ve been good to have because anytime you get men’s and women’s basketball in the gym, it adds excitement,” Nance said. “It’s good to see.”

Lyrintzis said they’ve come to terms with their current status at Emerson, and while they hope to one day be able to return to traditional cheerleading, they still enjoy what they do.

“We’ve accepted that we can’t stunt,” Lyrintzis said. “A lot of the fun of cheerleading is sitting on the sidelines and cheering on the teams, so the stunting isn’t the make it or break it of cheerleading, but it would be nice if we could do it.”