Varsity Brands Owns Cheerleading and Fights to Keep it From Becoming an Official Sport
Photos by Leif Reigstad
A fast-paced bass thumps through the gym as a trio of girls grips a smaller teen and hoists her into the air, squatting and driving upward with such force that the spring-loaded floors bounce a bit beneath them. Alone, above it all, she pulls her left leg up until her knee nearly touches her cheek, holding it there while she smiles and waves. Suddenly the girls release their grip, leaving the smallest one to twist in mid-air like a ballerina performing a pirouette before falling through 15 feet of air toward the floor. Triumphantly, they catch her in a basket of outstretched arms before she hits the ground.
The music stops. She stands there for a moment, one foot slightly forward, head tilted a little to the left, hands placed calmly on her hips. The music restarts. And up she goes again.
“They’re coming down at us and we basically have to save their lives,” says 15-year-old Colby Swayzer, one of the girls below, one of the so-called bases. She is a member of the Woodlands Elite Generals, which as their name implies is one of the top competitive cheerleading squads in the country. Based in The Woodlands, the Generals won a national championship last year (their third straight) and a world championship (the team’s first ever). Each year, the 20 Generals are handpicked from about 1,000 cheerleaders in the privately run Woodlands Elite program, which has gyms in Katy, Magnolia, Tomball, Humble and here in Oak Ridge, and has teams for cheerleaders from three years old to 19; the Generals range in age from 13 to 19.
Muscular and toned, these girls are built like sprinters or pole-vaulters or volleyball hitters. They dress in compression shorts and sports bras; there are as many ankle braces as bows. Colby’s father claims she has a 27-inch vertical jump. Colby started as a flyer but a growth spurt made her too tall to toss, so she transitioned into becoming a base. There’s a lot of muscle involved — like a heavy-lifting warehouse worker, Colby says her power comes from her quadriceps, hamstrings and lower back.
One girl on the Generals is so strong that she earned the nickname “Linebacker.” Another is one of the best tumblers in the nation. Her flips and twists rival those of gymnasts at the summer Olympics. Colby, an accomplished track athlete and volleyball player, said she gave up both sports for cheer.
“We don’t do pom-poms or any of that BS,” says Tara Kirby, one of the Generals’ coaches. In fact, the only actual “cheering” the Generals do is the required eight-second “spirit yell,” a sort of catchphrase edited into the Generals’ routine music that comes solely from the loudspeakers and never from the cheerleaders themselves.
Kirby was a gymnast through high school before cheering at the University of Kentucky, one of the top cheer programs in the country. While she’s coached at Woodlands Elite for the past eight years, she’s also led cheerleading clinics everywhere from Mexico City, Mexico, to Buffalo, New York, and Medellín, Colombia.
Cheerleading started in America and has spread to other countries, but its capital is still Texas. “It’s bigger here than anywhere else,” Generals head coach Kevin Tonner says in an interview at his Woodlands Elite office, the Generals’ world championship trophy placed just above his desk.
So it’s somewhat surprising that Texas is one of about 30 states that do not recognize cheerleading as an official sport. Neither the NCAA nor the National Federation of State High School Associations classifies cheerleading as a sport. Texas’s University Interscholastic League considers cheerleading an extracurricular activity, though there is a possibility that status may change as soon as next year. It is a topic of intense debate and dialogue in the University Interscholastic League’s Legislative Council.
This dispute is not new, but it has become more relevant over the past decade as high-flying acrobatics and competition crashed an activity traditionally stuck on the sidelines. Now, both competitive teams and sideline teams are practicing higher-level skills that require more athleticism — and more risk. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, cheerleading has accounted for 65 percent of all catastrophic injuries among high school girl athletes over the past 25 years.
Kirby maintains Woodlands Elite is much safer than high school cheerleading, with what she says are highly trained coaches. Woodlands Elite has cushiony spring floors, and partners with Memorial Hermann for concussion workshops. “We always err on the side of caution,” Kirby says. “We don’t want it to be the case where someone can’t remember their name just because we needed them to do another backflip.”
No one regulatory agency is in charge of cheerleading safety. Standards and enforcement are largely left up to each state, each school district, each gym and each coach.
Enter Varsity Brands, a for-profit business headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, with offices in Florida, California and Dallas, which saw an opportunity and now is firmly ensconced in Texas and about 30 other states where cheerleading is unregulated.
Varsity runs all the major cheer competitions and camps. It publishes a cheerleading magazine and has its own online television network. It is the largest corporate sponsor of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which writes the rules for high school sports. It provides insurance for private competitive gyms and for college cheerleading teams in the NCAA. It controls cheerleading’s self-proclaimed governing bodies for safety and rules and international competition — seemingly independent nonprofits that lack transparency, do not enforce their own written safety rules and are financially bound to Varsity. And it is expanding worldwide.
But where Varsity Brands really makes its money is apparel. It owns cheerleading from head to toe; everything from the sequined uniforms on cheerleaders’ backs to the big bows in their poofed-up hair.
For all Varsity has done to grow cheerleading and increase its own control in the industry, it has also fought harder than anyone else to keep cheerleading from becoming an official sport.
Heading up Varsity Brands is its CEO, Jeff Webb, the man who first infused cheerleading with competition and athleticism.
After completing his cheerleading career at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1960s, Webb went to work at the National Cheerleaders Association. Lawrence Herkimer, the father of modern cheerleading, founded the association in 1948. Herkimer patented the pom-pom and created the “Herkie jump,” one of the earliest athletic components added to cheer, while attending Southern Methodist University. Under Herkimer, the National Cheerleaders Association ran cheer camps and sold sweaters and skirts. There were no cheerleading competitions.
Webb quickly rose up the ranks, but he had a view of cheerleading’s future different from Herkimer’s. “Our people are teachers, not showoffs,’’ Herkimer told Sports Illustrated in 1991. “[Webb] hired hot dogs.’’ In 1974, Webb left and took some of Herkimer’s top employees with him to form his own cheerleading business, Universal Cheerleaders Association, which was similar to the National Cheerleaders Association but with Webb’s own added twists: more focus on gymnastics-like skills and new tournaments created solely for cheer squads.
Webb’s new business developed into Varsity, and soon outgrew its only rival, Herkimer’s group. In 2004, Varsity bought the National Cheerleaders Association’s parent company, National Spirit Group.
Varsity has sat alone at the top (and middle and bottom) of the cheerleading pyramid ever since, making more than $1.2 billion in sales according to a press release issued after private equity investment firm Charlesbank Capital Partners bought Varsity in 2014, and wielding unmatched influence over cheerleading at every level, from high school to college to competitive gyms — and, even, the courtroom.
In 2010, Webb was called to Connecticut to testify as an expert witness during Biediger v. Quinnipiac University, a landmark court case in the debate over whether cheerleading is a sport. He testified, definitively, that it is not a sport, which is exactly what the court ruled in the end.
That may be surprising to the hundreds of thousands of registered athletes participating in Varsity’s competitions, some of which are televised on CBS Sports Network and ESPN.
Webb was not made available for comment, but Varsity’s public relations director, Sheila Noone, responded to the Houston Press. “The legal definition of whether cheerleading is a sport in U.S. schools is up to the Department of Justice, but Varsity believes that cheerleading is more than a sport,” Noone wrote in an email.
Webb’s 2010 testimony, however, implies that Varsity actually views cheerleading as less than a sport. He testified that Varsity’s competitions were established only for “promotion of his cheerleading supply business.” In one competition, Webb admitted, teams received more points if they used more Varsity merchandise as props.
In one of Varsity’s 2003 filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (Varsity was briefly a public company), the company stated that recognition of cheerleading as an official sport and the ensuing increased regulation “would likely have a material adverse affect on Varsity’s business, financial condition and results of operations.”
Should cheerleading be more closely regulated, it could mean implementing participation restrictions on teams and athletes, threatening Varsity’s competitions and its off-season camps, one of the company’s most profitable components.
This year Varsity sent lobbyists to California and spent nearly $30,000 to fight a proposed bill that would designate high school cheerleading an official sport in the state and add stricter safety standards (the bill is making its way though the state legislature).
Noone wrote in the email that Varsity funded cheerleading’s supposed governing body for safety, the nonprofit American Association of Cheerleading Coaches & Administrators. Its executive director, Jim Lord, wrote in an email to the Press that the safety organization, which was created in 1988, is currently “self-funding and paying back the outstanding debt [to Varsity].” According to court records, Lord is a Varsity employee and developed Varsity’s flagship website, varsity.com.
Assumed to be an authority on cheerleading safety, Lord is often in the center of the sport-or-not-a-sport debate. The view he offers consistently parrots Varsity’s.
“Labeling something a sport isn’t an automatic safety improvement,” Lord wrote in an email. “Trying to fit something like cheerleading into a ‘sport’ box isn’t a simple solution.”
In 2002, Lord sent a letter to the National Coordinator for Title IX Athletics at the Office of Civil Rights (which does not recognize cheerleading as an official sport), reaffirming his organization’s position that cheerleading is meant primarily to provide “support” for sports teams. “Competition is an option,” Lord wrote, “but a secondary option at best.” The return address Lord listed for the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches & Administrators was 6745 Lenox Center Court, Suite 300, in Memphis — the same address as Varsity.
In 2013, Lord appeared before the UIL Medical Advisory Committee. The UIL was about to vote to decide if cheerleading would be a sanctioned sport in Texas, and how much of cheerleading would be covered under UIL oversight. Lord recommended against sanctioning cheerleading as a sport, but recommended the UIL make sure its coaches are following proper safety rules “to whatever extent you can do that.”
“Regardless of how cheerleading is labeled,” Lord wrote in an email, “the key for cheerleading safety is to require that cheerleading programs follow the safety rules, and that coaches are properly trained. That happens now in states where cheerleading is not a sanctioned sport, so that label isn’t a requirement for safety.”
But if cheerleading is unsanctioned by its state high school association, it is unclear where the responsibility of oversight falls, if anywhere at all.
In a phone interview, Lord said that his organization has no power or ability to enforce its rules. Lord also said its safety certification test, a requirement for coaches at most high schools and competitive gyms across the country, is a two-hour open-book online assessment focused on risk-minimization. There is no hands-on component to the certification test. The group also has no system in place for reporting injuries. And most of the standards in its rulebook are written as “recommendations” rather than requirements.
“There need to be stricter rules,” William J. Bryan, a doctor in sports medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital, said. He often sees cheerleaders with torn ligaments in their knees and ankles. “Some of it appears damn reckless,” he said. “Practices have to be well structured and supervised. There has to be better training, better certification for coaches. I am strongly in favor of making cheerleading an official sport.”
Although Lord said his organization apparently cannot enforce safety rules, Varsity can and does enforce bans throughout its competitions on what most people would consider insignificant things like bow sizes and the use of glitter, as well as the startling ban that appears to have more than a hint of homophobia to it on “exaggerated or theatrical movements” specifically among male cheerleaders.
There is also no required background check during the cheerleading association’s certification process. Despite court records and local news reports documenting more than a dozen cases of cheerleading coaches convicted of sexual abuse across the country since 2008, Varsity and the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches do not ban coaches for criminal misconduct or publish a list of coaches who are banned from the sport, unlike other national sports governing bodies such as U.S.A. Gymnastics.
If such a list existed for cheerleading, Rick DeSpain would be on it. DeSpain is a registered sex offender who owns an elite competitive cheerleading gym in Virginia. In 2008, DeSpain was convicted of sexual battery and assault after three girls he coached at the Virginia Wild gym came forward with allegations of inappropriate touching. According to the Virginia Wild website, DeSpain, who renewed his status as a sex offender in January, is still the gym’s owner, and is a certified coach through the U.S. All Star Federation, another nonprofit funded by Varsity that is the main governing body for competitive cheerleading among all-star gyms. Meanwhile, Varsity-run competitions continue to extend invitations to Virginia Wild teams.
For the high school level, the National Federation of State High School Associations recommends its cheerleading safety rulebook but is not involved with oversight, something it leaves up to individual states and school districts. Lord’s safety organization works with them to write that rulebook, and Varsity is their largest corporate partner. SEC records show Varsity paid the not-for-profit National Federation a total of more than $1.8 million dollars from 2003 to 2007.
National Federation officials said they could not reveal specifics of the current contract, which was recently extended through 2021.
But Director of Sports and Activities in Spirit Susan Knoblauch said that in return for its financial support, Varsity gets visibility and access to high schools as vendors through meetings and conferences, and direct access to the National Federation’s database of contact information for more than 18,000 schools. The National Federation also allows high schools to participate in Varsity competitions and includes information about them in its rulebook.
“Varsity Spirit is committed to the safety and well being of athletes we serve, and to growing cheerleading all over the world,” Noone wrote in an email. “As a leader in the cheerleading community, we feel it is our responsibility to provide support for nonprofit organizations so that they can pursue their missions. We are proud of what we have contributed, and believe strongly that cheerleading has developed as a safer and stronger activity because of this help.”
Jennifer and Marcus Swayzer’s home in Klein once held two cheerleaders — Colby and her older sister Chelsea, who cheered competitively at Woodlands Elite and now cheers on the sideline at Texas Christian University (there’s a purple TCU sign in the Swayzers’ front yard).
Since the Swayzer family’s elite competitive cheer output has declined from two to one, some things have slightly toned down. They no longer paint their car windows before traveling to competitions. The trampoline in the backyard is dusty and a bit worn down. The spotlights Marcus installed there years ago — when Colby bounced and jumped on that trampoline through the night so often that Marcus once found her there curled up and asleep — have not been turned on in a long time.
But the Swayzers are hardly around to use them. In fact, the Swayzers rarely even eat a home-cooked meal together because of Colby’s cheerleading schedule. Weekends are for traveling to competitions, some as far away as Washington, D.C., or Atlanta, and the Generals practice four or five days a week during competition season, which runs from October to April. Then there are tryouts later in April and practice over the summer, every Wednesday and Sunday, plus optional tumbling sessions on Monday and Thursday (which Colby always attends) and Colby’s own private training on Friday.
The Swayzers say they spend about $15,000 a year on cheerleading — uniforms are hundreds of dollars each, plus gym fees and travel costs. Cheer is all they talk about. All their friends are from cheer. Colby wears cheer T-shirts and leggings to school. She cheers in the house, practicing the arm motions of her routines in the kitchen corner. When she was younger, she cheered during trips to the grocery store, cartwheeling through the aisles. The Swayzer sisters have cheered through broken wrists and black eyes and 102-degree fevers.
“Colby loves cheerleading with her whole heart,” Jennifer said in an interview at the Swayzers’ home. “It’s helped her cope with disappointment, and it’s helped her get through some tough times.” Jennifer was recently diagnosed with cancer. After she had surgery, she woke up to Colby sitting by her side, chattering away about some cheer routine she saw on YouTube. “Everything is cheer,” Jennifer said. “It consumes you. It becomes your world.”
And that world has fans. Hundreds of thousands of young girls idolize the Generals and other teenagers cheering for top competitive teams across the country, obsessively watching their every move on social media — leading to the rise of “cheerlebrities.”
Colby said she gets autograph requests at competitions and at rest stops on the way back home, and people offer her small sums of money — $25 or so — to sign shoes and shirts she gets sent in the mail. She receives messages from strangers on Facebook and Instagram asking for her phone number. Colby has more than 9,000 followers on Instagram, even though her account is private. She even has her own Instagram fan page, “@colbyswayzerfanpage,” a somewhat obscure account with only five posts and 16 followers.
Meanwhile, Colby’s teammates Carly Wheeler and Karolyne Day have 15,300 and 57,300 Instagram followers, respectively. Day has an additional 36 Instagram fan pages devoted exclusively to her. She is 13 years old.
In June, Ashley Wilson, a member of Woodlands Elite’s top coed cheer team, posted a photo on Instagram in front of the gym with Swayzer, smiling and holding hands, their cheeks pressed up against each other. It was a pretty typical post for a teenage girl. It got 13,000 likes and 352 comments. That’s about average for Wilson, who has almost half a million followers on Instagram and more than 33,000 followers on Twitter. The photo caused so much controversy in the comment section for Wilson — who had recently switched over to Woodlands Elite from the competing Dallas-area gym Cheer Athletics — that she released a lengthy message on Instagram explaining her decision to her shell-shocked fans (she said she simply wanted to cheer closer to home).
A competitive cheerleader gains a following online for her performances at competitions. Blond hair, ripped abs, a blemish-free face and sparkling white teeth probably have more to do with “cheerlebrity” status than do skills, and companies in search of strengthening their presence in a key demographic (young girls from primarily wealthy families) capitalize on these cheerleaders’ ballooning social media following, offering them free goods or money to endorse their products.
Companies have easy access to “cheerlebrities” thanks to Varsity, which allows vendors to set up shop at its top competitions. Colby said she has seen representatives of clothing companies ambush athletes in the warm-up area, bombarding breathless and sometimes tearful cheerleaders following a physically taxing routine with requests to wear their sports bras or tag their handle on Instagram.
Varsity’s endorsement of a punch-less safety rulebook over actual regulation and strict standards may have more to do with protecting itself against liability claims than with protecting the well-being of cheerleaders.
Varsity offers insurance coverage to all-star gyms, and to college teams through the NCAA (which also uses the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches & Administrators safety rules). In Varsity’s 2003 SEC filing, there is a section on personal injury claims. “There can be no assurances that one or more meritorious claims against Varsity for serious personal injury would not have an adverse effect on the company’s business.”
No cheerleading injury claim has found Varsity or the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches responsible, and few have even bothered to name the sport’s self-appointed vanguards as defendants, according to Robert Bonsignore, a prominent class action trial lawyer based in Las Vegas and Massachusetts.
“Varsity and the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches can’t be found liable as long as there are no actual standards to breach,” Bonsignore said. “There needs to be some breach of duty for a claim to be successful. What duty do they have? What standards? It stops right when they don’t have the responsibility to ensure a cheerleader’s safety. And it’s absolutely insane.”
In 2006, Lord was called to testify for the defense in a personal injury lawsuit filed by Angela Crace, a cheerleader at Kent State who was partially paralyzed while practicing a risky stunt in 2001. He made it clear to the court that nearly every safety rule his organization recommends is left up to a cheerleading coach’s discretion. Lord also testified that Crace’s coaches and teammates were not in violation of his organization’s safety standards and that he believed cheerleaders assume the risk of injury simply by participating.
That is the “assumption of risk” defense. It is a get-out-of-jail-free card in liability court, though it is rarely accepted in cases outside of athletics. Essentially, it argues that athletes know the risks to the sport when they sign up, so it’s really nobody’s fault but their own when they are injured.
It is a popular defense in football concussion cases, and it is written right into the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches rulebook: “There is an inherent risk of injury involved with any athletic activity. The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches makes no warranties or representations, either expressed or implied, that these guidelines will prevent injuries to individual participants.” Crace lost the case. The judge ruled her claim was “barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.”
Lord wrote in an email that he has been called to provide expert testimony in personal injury claims for both the plaintiff and the defendant, though he wouldn’t say exactly how many times for each.
His status as an expert is questionable. Although his organization’s website claims it is the “defining source for all cheerleading safety education,” Lord, a Houston native, studied math and religion at Kentucky and Texas Christian University but never earned a college degree, and said he has no formal training in sports medicine.
“Cheerleading is run by a couple of imbeciles,” Bonsignore said, referring to Webb and Lord. “And they fight that it’s not a sport, that they don’t need regulation. It’s disgusting.”
Bonsignore tried to take on Varsity and the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches in a 2008 wrongful death lawsuit. He represented Ruth Burns, whose 14-year-old daughter Ashley died after she was injured attempting a complicated stunt at an all-star competitive cheer gym in Medford, Massachusetts in 2005. Burns’s coaches were certified by the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches, and Varsity and the safety organization were both named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Court records allege that after Ashley Burns forcefully hit her stomach on a cheerleader’s shoulder on the way down from a high stunt, her coach told her to lift her hands above her head and go splash water on her face. She died shortly after.
Bonsignore said he thought he had a strong case, but it was eventually dismissed, he said, because the judge believed cheerleading injury claims were generally frivolous, even though the cause of Ashley Burns’s death — a ruptured spleen — is easily treatable if basic emergency protocols are followed.
“Varsity has free rein,” Kimberly Archie, founder of the National Cheer Safety Foundation, said. Archie said she has tried to loosen Varsity’s grip on cheerleading by assisting plaintiff teams during personal injury claims and even attempting to bring antitrust lawsuits against Varsity. But she said she has been unable to get any current gym owners or cheerleaders to testify against Varsity because they fear possible retaliation.
“Varsity has control over cheerleading at every level in the U.S. and abroad,” she said. “There is no resistance.”
Serious injuries are common in cheerleading, but there is no one regulatory body in charge of enforcing the sport’s safety rules.
Varsity has cheerleading in America firmly under its thumb. But it wants more and has taken steps to make that happen, including the founding in 2007 of the nonprofit International Cheer Union, which acts as cheerleading’s international governing body.
“Varsity believed in the mission of the ICU and provided the initial support for the launch of the ICU,” Noone wrote in an email. “It also continues to cover the deficits of the still growing organization. We believe that this investment will enrich cheerleading globally and ensure that standards for training, competition and safety are in place.”
With 109 member nations, the International Cheer Union’s presence also allows Varsity to trumpet its international reach to investors, even though there is no evidence that cheerleading actually exists in many of its member nations.
The Press repeatedly asked the organization’s secretary general, Karl Olson, to reveal specific information, such as participation numbers and contact information for the leaders of the group’s recognized cheerleading program in 15 member nations listed on its website, including Burundi, Mongolia and Mali. Almost all international sports associations list specific information about each of their members, such as an address, phone number and the names of the national federation’s president. But for at least 15 of the Cheer Union’s member nations, there is no information about a cheerleading program anywhere on its website or elsewhere online.
Although Olson did not reveal the requested information, he assured the Press that cheerleading exists in all of the Cheer Union’s member nations. But the extent to which cheerleading is present in many of these nations remains unclear.
“There are two statuses for membership,” Olson wrote in an email. “Provisional, in which existence of cheerleading and some proof of a cheerleading organization assists an applicant’s chances for acceptance, [and] the existence of a coach or athlete alone can be proof of existence; and full membership, in which a fully operating and formal National Cheer Federation assists an applicant’s chances for acceptance.”
Olson would not say how many member nations are provisional, and would not say why his organization’s website does not clearly demarcate which members are provisional and which have full memberships.
In some member nations that do have a verifiable cheerleading presence, the sport lacks basic regulation and safety standards. In Nigeria, for example, the International Cheer Union recognized Cheer Nigeria association has photos on its website showing cheerleaders participating in dangerous stunts on harsh and barren dirt surfaces with no spotters. Young children in tattered shirts stand on each other’s shoulders and dangle from heights high enough that a fall could easily cause paralysis or a concussion.
Yet the two phone numbers listed on the Cheer Union’s website for Cheer Nigeria led to a coach and the president of the association who, in interviews, did not even know what a concussion was and couldn’t describe an existing protocol to assess and treat one.
A woman who said her name was Chuks Uche and that she coaches for Cheer Nigeria said she trains about 12 girls in a grass field in Lagos, and said they don’t do difficult stunts besides “pyramids,” which is the same stunt Crace was doing at Kent State when she was paralyzed. When asked about her training and expertise, Uche eventually bluntly revealed how little she knows about cheerleading and safety. “I don’t know anything,” she said. “I am not trained and have no experience in any injuries. Just Band-Aids and massaging.”
Maduechesi Chioma, who said she was the head of Cheer Nigeria, said there are about 40 teams and 70 coaches in the association. Only 20 of the coaches are trained, and they are trained at Level I, which is the lowest level of safety and rules training. All Chioma could say about a concussion was that it is an injury that occurs “mostly to the head” and causes “dizziness,” yet she asserted that no Nigerian cheerleader has ever had a concussion.
On Chioma’s Facebook page, there is a photo of her in front of an International Cheer Union banner at the organization’s annual general assembly in Orlando, with Jeff Webb standing to her right and Karl Olson on her left. Olson’s LinkedIn page lists him as “vice president at Varsity,” and does not mention the International Cheer Union. According to the organization’s 990 forms, Olson was compensated $100,000 in 2011, but worked only six hours a week that year (he didn’t respond to questions about that, either).
Tonner and the Generals have won three straight National Cheerleaders Association championships, and won their first-ever world title in April.
Nestled deep in an office park in The Woodlands and inside a big beige building that looks like an airplane hangar, a coach barks cryptic commands over the music blaring through loudspeakers as cheerleaders tumble and twist, sprint and spring up into the air on cue and in perfect sequence.
“Double up bump down float to the top one eight count flip on three. Warm up to twist 360-high. Five in the front double full back, arms in T?motion below your shoulders. Finish at three.” This is cheerleading’s version of baseball’s hand signals, a language foreign to outsiders but second nature to the Generals.
Woodlands Elite boasts one of the best and biggest programs in the world; clearly its resources far surpass those of cheerleading programs elsewhere, especially smaller gyms or schools servicing inner cities. Monthly tuition at Woodlands Elite is $175, and the Generals’ uniform fee alone is $450.
“There are some families who can barely afford to keep their kids in the program, and there are some who could build us another gym if they wanted to,” Tonner said, adding that Woodlands Elite does sometimes offer scholarships to athletes who need them.
That’s more than most colleges will do. Only a handful of Division-I schools offer full athletic scholarships for cheerleading.
“A lot of Generals will go off to college cheer,” Tonner said. “But they’re not looking to win anything after cheering here. They’ve already won every title they possibly can. They continue just because they like the sport.”
In Texas, some change may finally come to cheerleading. In January, the UIL announced the approval of a “pilot program” to create a “Spirit Championship” for cheerleading — a one-day high school cheerleading competition set to take place in 2016.
“Without a championship or official status as a UIL program it was difficult for education and safety regulations to be taken seriously,” UIL Executive Director Charles Breithaupt wrote in a memo to the UIL Legislative Council in January. “With a pilot state championship we can reward these students for their efforts and substantiate the need for safety and education as we move forward.”
Regardless of its potentially changing status, cheerleading in Texas will apparently still not be free of Varsity’s influence. According to a memo by UIL Assistant Athletic Director Traci Neely explaining the pilot Spirit Championship program, the UIL will “partner with Varsity Brands to provide and train judges for the contest.”
Colby said she hopes to continue cheering in college at her dream school, the University of Oklahoma. Although Oklahoma’s cheerleading squad does compete, it is primarily focused on supporting the school’s other sports teams and does not offer scholarships.
“I want to keep cheering until my body tells me I can’t anymore,” Colby said. “And if I have kids, they’re going to be cheerleaders.” She chose cheer over volleyball and track, forfeiting potential athletic scholarships because she loves being onstage before big crowds at cheer competitions. But most of all, she said, she loves to win. Her bedroom closet is filled with championship jackets. More than a dozen bronze, silver and gold medals hang along the wall beside her bed. She has so many trophies that her family stopped putting them on display, instead stowing them away in big rubbermaid bins.
Back at the Woodlands Elite gym, the Generals are practicing on a Wednesday night. It’s nearly 9 p.m., and practice is almost over. Tonner lines up the Generals at the edge of the spring floor to start a conditioning drill, directing the girls to do a series of standing jumps.
Colby and a few of the girls beg Tonner to have them do a Herkie jump in honor of founder and innovator Herkimer, who died days earlier. They do the jumps: a series of high-flying splits, one hand bracing the side of their hip while the other shoots straight up into the air.
It’s a small nod to the origins of a sport that currently isn’t, and may never be.