The Accidental Fan: Sports Film for NARPS — Spirit Fingers
On April 2018, the Los Angeles Rams added two men to their cheerleading squad, becoming the first National Football League team to have male dancers on the field.
This article will commence a new, ongoing and semi-random series in my column: “Sports Films for NARPs.” Columns for this series will address sports films that are potentially accessible to non-sports fans.
In my last three columns, I tackled the controversial sport of professional wrestling. This week, I would like to continue that trend and talk about another sport that often has its validity questioned: cheerleading. Cheerleading had its start with collegiate football in the late 1800s and is now a staple of high school, college and professional sporting events. Ironically enough, men were actually the first “cheerleaders” in history, though now the sport is commonly associated with women. Women were only allowed to cheer in small numbers beginning in the 1920s and at a large scale starting during World War II with the sudden absence of college-age men (and you can read more about that in my new column, “The Accidental Historian,” that I am apparently now writing).
Cheerleading is competitive in its modern iteration, with cheer competitions happening at many different levels. This competitive aspect has been realized in various popular media, most notably through the 2000 movie “Bring it On,” starring Jesse Bradford, Kristin Dunst, Eliza Dushku and Gabrielle Union. (If you’ve seen the film, the title of this column will make sense.) In fact, the “Bring it On” franchise was so popular that it spawned multiple sequels, the sixth of which was released in August 2017 direct-to-video (you can imagine how good it must have been). The original film was directed by Peyton Reed, who went on to direct “Ant-Man” in 2015 and “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” which came out this year and was reviewed a few weeks ago in The Dartmouth. Give it a read!
So, why am I bringing up “Bring it On”? Well, like “GLOW,” I think the movie is a great opportunity for fans to test the waters on sports for multiple reasons. Cheerleaders are a prominent part of basketball and football games. When I have been to Celtics games in the past, I have always enjoyed watching the Celtics Dancers, even if basketball is not my favorite sport. Cheerleaders can not only bolster the team and fans but also break up the action for the more inexperienced fan.
That being said, I also just loved the movie “Bring it On” when I was little. I loved the outfits, the peppy songs and the fun routines. I was never very into sports when I was younger, as I’m sure you can imagine just from the name of this column, and cheerleading was the perfect mix between dance and sport. Now, we could probably debate endlessly what counts as a sport, but for competitive cheer groups, I would argue it requires just as much strength, stamina and precision as any other typical sport. The Toros, one of the two major cheer teams in the film, prove that their merits do not come from cheering on their high school’s football team, which rarely wins a game, even when supported by their cheerleaders. The Toros are winning athletes in their own right, having won five consecutive national titles and training for their sixth.
This is why “Bring it On” has the appeal that it does. The cheering is allowed to stand on its own rather than in relation to basketball or football. In the film, it is presented as its own sport. Given its prevalence in professional basketball and football, I think people sometimes forget that cheerleading can stand on its own. This is why it is excellent for the “accidental fan,” someone looking for an entry point into something other than mainstream sports.
The second “Bring it On” film, “Bring it On Again,” treats cheering in a similar way, though this time at a collegiate level. Though I must say, I was never even sure that the first “Bring it On” was a high school film given that, let’s face it, those actors are not high school age — but okay! Regardless, cheerleading is highly valued at the fictional California State College, enough so that two squads enter into a competition to gain the rights to be the official college squad. Perhaps in both films, the merits of these cheer squads are slightly larger than life, but this treatment does the service of promoting the athleticism and entertainment of cheerleading.
Although I haven’t seen all of the other films in the franchise, I have the feeling that they don’t necessarily get better as they go. Regardless, watching movies like “Bring it On” is fun and a valid and unexpected way to engage with sports. It might even inspire a trip to a cheer competition, or if you are a football or basketball fan already, maybe a second look at your team’s cheerleaders. They are very talented and have worked hard to get where they are.
The sports is also becoming more inclusive on the professional football stage. Male cheerleaders will be joining the ranks of the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams this season. Although men have previously participated in stunts, the new recruits will be dancing alongside their female teammates. So, cheerleading history is coming full circle. Although “Bring it On” does feature male cheerleaders, I guess the NFL needed a little time to catch up!