7 min read

Cheerleaders Slip Through N.C.A.A Loophole


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ince the late 19th century, cheerleading has evolved into a sport of its own; a competitive mix of dance, aerobatics, and gymnastics, top cheerleaders now have the opportunity to reach the fame level of their football counterparts.

A three-year cheerleader for the University of Oklahoma, Jamie Andries, cheered at two big 12 championship football games, the 2016 Final Four, the Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl, and Orange Bowl.

During this time, she secured sponsorships from brands including Lokai, Crocs, L’Oréal, and American Eagle, while the star players such as Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield and the future N.B.A. guard Buddy Hield; were prohibited from profiting from their fame beyond the universities.

Known as a “cheerlebrity” in the cheerleading world, Andries was afforded opportunities because of her large social media following.

Andries posed in an Instagram post with her Lokai bracelets, writing: “Coming to OU for college was a big milestone for me but it has given me so many amazing opportunities like being able to cheer for the Sooners, this month I support @livelokai and the Alzheimer’s Association.”

Rules governing amateurism that apply to college athletes do not apply to cheerleaders, enabling them to sell autographs, wear their uniforms to promote products and appear in commercials.

In sports governed by the N.C.A.A, athletes risk their eligibility to compete, or punishment, should they attempt to profit from their fame past what was required for the university to cover their attendance.

A scandal was caused at Ohio State University in 2011 when several players sold memorabilia, awards, and other Buckeyes swag to a tattoo-parlor owner; forcing their coach to resign, and the team to skip a postseason and lose nine scholarships.

The leniency in regulation also causes some cheer stars to decide between college sports and commercial markets.

Olympic gymnastics champion, Simone Biles, renounced her scholarship offer from U.C.L.A, after she decided turning pro made competing in college sports seem like too big of a sacrifice.

The N.C.A.A is now considering allowing athletes to earn income from endorsements, including via social media platforms.

The reconsideration started when legislation in California and several other states, made that the N.C.A.A’s stance was not sustainable considering the growth of college sports.

According to the NY Times, the new rules will take effect at the beginning of the 2021/22 academic year.

Andries said in an interview: “I do think it’s a good way for players to benefit themselves and help other brands grow.”

At the beginning of the decade, she was among the first cheerleaders to reach social media fame, while she competed with a club team in high school, she now has 429,000 followers on her verified Instagram account.

Some of her first deals included small cheerleading gear companies, including one that sold hair bows designed and autographed by her.

She would soon secure deals with Urban Decay, Nissan, Amazon, Colgate, SmileDirectClub, and FabFitFun.

She stated that her college coaches were un-phased by her promoting products in her uniform, so long as she did not miss practice for outside appearances.

She said: “Their only concern was anything that would affect the team.”

While they were teammates at Texas junior college, Navarro College, cheerleaders Mackenzie Sherburn and Shannon Woolsey, now at Texas Tech, featured in the Netflix documentary series, “Cheer”.

The girls were able to make financial gain from the fame the series brought, unlike their college football counterparts who attracted the public’s attention after featuring in the Netflix documentary series, “Last Chance U”.

With 255,000 followers and a verified Instagram account, Woolsey has sponsorships with Reebok, study-aid website Course Hero, and Vanity Planet; earning over $5,000 per post through deals with larger companies, and occasionally $200 for promoting smaller businesses.

“A lot of companies like stories of me sitting and talking about the product and making it seem like it’s not an ad,” she said.

Sherburn said in addition to free apparel, the Texas Tech cheer squad enjoy benefits such as free nails or tanning from local salons, “we have to post about it and say, ‘thank you for taking care of me,’ in return,” she explained.

The Texas Tech coaches were not consulted about posting such content because there was no need to do so.

Woolsey said: “I don’t think they really care, because it’s such a big thing in the cheerleading world now.”

The N.C.A.A and federal regulators do not consider cheerleading to be a sport, partly due to the fact that some universities have tried to circumvent gender-equality rules by giving cheer teams varsity status at the expense of conventionally competitive opportunities for women.

Similar to in athletic sports some universities offer small scholarships, access to athlete housing, meal plans, tutoring, early class registration, and waivers of out-of-state fees.

Former cheerleader and current assistant coach at the University of Central Florida, Taryn Burke, said that their team gets “access to the same exact things as any other sport would have”; and awards scholarships to cheerleaders based on grades and skill level.

Former U.C.L.A cheerleader, Jessica Pak, says she received products including Vera Bradley bags and NARS makeup through sponsorships tied to the spirit squad.

Cheerleaders were expected to use gifted products during games and on social media.

Pak said: “I don’t really understand why that rule is a thing,” about the N.C.A.A’s regulations.

Co-Author of “The Art of Social Media: Power Tips for Power Users,” and social media marketing expert, Peg Fitzpatrick, believes that brands have capitalised on college cheerleaders because they reach the desired target demographic, and offer an opportunity to market college sports without N.C.A.A. interference.

Fitzpatrick said: “The image of a cheerleader is kind of like Chevrolet and hot dogs and apple pie.”

16-year-old high school cheerleader Ryan Cummings gained 437,000 Instagram followers after making a GIF of herself during a cheer routine in 2018 which went viral.

She now hired an agent and receives money from TikTok posts and sells autographed bows.

Her 15-year-old teammate, Kenley Pope, had also been paid up to $2000 for posts by companies including Casetify, Novashine, Ivory Ella, and Crocs; her mother and coach, Courtney Smith-Pope, assists her in deciding which products she will promote.

Smith-Pope owns a gym in Kernersville, N.C called Cheer Extreme Athletics, that has been responsible for launching numerous cheerlebrities over the years.

“These kids own their own talents and their own abilities,” she said.

Universities including Texas, Nebraska, and Louisiana State have begun to partner with marketing agencies to perhaps help set up deals for student-athletes once the rules change.

Andries said that she was able to reap “the best of both worlds” at Oklahoma.

“I was like, ‘Wow I get to cheer and I get to have this sort of side job that I get to focus on.”

“I get to make some money that I can save up for myself to use after college,” she said.

Both Andries and Woolsey also independently hired agents while in college, and Andries has hired a social media manager.

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