Wednesday was National Girls and Women in Sports Day, and colleges across the country honored women athletes in sports like softball, soccer, and volleyball. However, as the day went on and tributes were posted to social media, an unexpected trend quickly arose: Many collegiate dancers and cheerleaders, as well as various alumni, felt that their sports were not recognized on the day of celebration.
At East Tennessee State University, the athletics department excluded the dance and cheer team from their National Girls and Women in Sports Instagram post, leading several alumni to express their frustration over the exclusion in the comments.
Maci Giles, a 21-year-old alumnae of the cheer program at East Tennessee State University, told BuzzFeed News that it was “shocking” that the cheer and dance teams were left out.
One member of the ETSU dance team wrote on her Instagram stories that being excluded from the athletic department’s National Girls and Women in Sports Day post was not only “sad” but also “embarrassing.”
“It is extremely sad that we are not recognized as athletes here at ETSU even though we practice at least three times a week, attend every football and basketball game, compete at nationals and are ranked nationally, and are held to the same standard as every other athletic team,” an ETSU dancer wrote on her Instagram stories.
ETSU also didn’t recognize its dance and cheer team during a ceremony honoring athletes for achieving a 3.0 GPA or higher. However, a spokesperson for ETSU told BuzzFeed News that this was because dance and cheer aren’t part of the NCAA. Instead, the school scheduled a standalone ceremony for Feb. 22 “to accommodate the cheerleading and dance coach’s schedule.”
“The ceremony in question was to recognize students who qualified for the SoCon Academic Honor Roll, a recognition of outstanding student-athletes participating in a varsity sport at a member institution in the Southern Conference. Cheerleading and dance are not sports recognized by the Southern Conference or the NCAA. As such, these students are not included in the SoCon Honor Roll,” the statement read.
Cheerleaders at St. John’s University in New York were also excluded from an Instagram post from the university celebrating their female athletes. Cheerleaders protested by not cheering at a men’s basketball game and wearing shirts that read “We are women in sports.” A TikTok showing the women protesting has nearly 1 million views and comments filled with support from others acknowledging that cheerleading is a sport and cheerleaders are athletes that work just as hard as others.
“I’m glad they did this honestly bc cheerleading requires so much athleticism & it’s tiring having to constantly fight to be recognized,” one comment reads. “I literally paid 20k to repair my ‘non’ athlete’s MCL after 4 years of cheer,” another one reads.
Several cheerleaders from St. John’s posted about the exclusion on their Instagram. One cheerleader posted a reel wishing her teammates a happy National Women in Sports day. In the caption, she wrote, “Even through constant neglect, this team does not remain silent. I could not be more proud of this group of athletes for standing up for what we believe is right.”
“Seeing this sport swept under the rug on a day where we should be honored is heartbreaking,” the caption reads. “This sport is so much more than what everyone thinks.”
A spokesperson for St. John’s University said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that there was an “inadvertent photo omission” of the school’s dance and cheerleading teams.
“St. John’s University and the Department of Athletics value the dedicated contributions to the University made by all students and are committed to celebrating their achievements,” the statement read.
Carolyn Renda, the cheer team’s head coach, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that the athletics department apologized for its omission of the cheer and dance teams. A St. John's spokesperson said the athletic department met with the cheer team to apologize on Wednesday before the basketball game when the cheer team protested.
The exclusions on Wednesday aren’t an isolated occurrence. Cheerleaders and dancers across all levels continue to have a hard time being taken as seriously as male athletes. In the NFL, professional cheerleaders are fighting for better wages. In the past, when cheerleaders have spoken up about unfair pay or practices, teams have been known to shutter the team altogether instead of fixing any issue.
The conversation has changed since 2020, when Netflix premiered the widely successful docu-series Cheer, which followed Navarro College’s cheer team in Corsicana, Texas. The show notably highlighted the physicality of cheerleading, as have other shows like Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team.
Giles said she is proud of the cheer and dance teams speaking up.
“It’s truly disgusting and I have the [utmost] respect for the seniors on both teams for speaking up and leading their teams through this,” Giles said.