Two Sides

Two Sides: Too Many Nationals?

Two Sides: Too Many Nationals?

Should event producers be permitted to hire judges who are currently (or were once) affiliated with a gym competing at that event? CheerProfessional looks at both sides of the issue.

It’s a question of objectivity—can judges “turn it off” when they take the stand? Some gym owners and coaches say “no,” taking issue with event producers who allow judges that have some form of past or current affiliation with programs on the competition roster. Others say that because of the prevalence of cheer gyms, it’s almost impossible to find a whole panel of judges that don’t have some sort of knowledge or background with at least one of the gyms involved; they also argue that judges should be trusted to be professional and impartial. So who’s right? We spoke with Ron Swanson of Kansas Gymnastics & Cheer and Becky Woodson of Daytona Xtreme to explore the issue.

Editor’s Note: Please note that the views expressed in this article are expressly those of our sources and not those of CheerProfessional.

 Ron Swanson, Program Director, KGDC’s 360 Allstars

Swanson’s take:  I’ve seen some bias on the judges’ stand every year, but this season, I was able to find some pretty significant facts. At a regional competition, two of the judges were high school coaches in the area, and I’ve discovered that they have a strong affiliation with one of the local gyms. That gym won just about everything with their 12 teams—they’re a quality gym with a few really good teams, but they’ve never dominated a competition. At another competition, I found out two of the tabulators worked at a local gym that was competing there; also, one of the people working the competition was wearing a jacket from that gym, so it was obvious the gym had strong ties to that event. I’ve noticed this type of issue across the board with a few different brands.

Swanson on objectivity: Many judges may think they can be unbiased, but when you work in a gym, you become strongly passionate about that gym’s style and stunting techniques. Regardless of how professional anyone tries to be, they’ll always have a personal bias to that gym. I judged for about five years in Texas, and I understand the relationship on the judges’ stand. You spend the entire weekend with that group, and you’ll have casual conversations that could possibly sway opinion.

Swanson on where the line should be drawn: It’s not acceptable for anyone who is currently (or was once) affiliated with a competing gym to judge that event. I know a lot of judges who are very professional and pulled themselves out of events for that reason; they make it a point not to judge in the areas where those teams compete.

Swanson on possible solutions: I believe strongly that there needs to be a federation or association for judges—and that they all need to belong to it. There should be a system in place to rank judges, and their names should be attached to that. As judges become more qualified, they should be known not only to the event producers, but also to the gyms who are getting judged by them. Right now, judges are completely hidden from the process; no one knows who they are or what their level of experience is. If they make a bad call, their name and credentials should be on the line, just like an NFL ref.

Also, I see companies giving out too many trophies and banners—I don’t need a third place banner or sixth place trophy. That’s a few thousand they could be using to pay judges better or fly in impartial judges. I’d rather see that money invested in judging than unnecessary paraphernalia.

Becky Woodson, Program Director, Daytona Xtreme

Woodson’s take:  On most judging panels I’ve been on, there has been someone who has some sort of background or affiliation with one of the programs involved—whether through choreography, coaching or another capacity. I’ve actually been in that position myself multiple times at smaller competitions. For instance, I was the head coach of Bristol University for two years, and one year after I’d resigned from the position, I found myself judging their team (with athletes I’d coached) at the ICC University Nationals. I believe it is definitely possible to be objective when judging; the key is to look at things from an unbiased point of view and assume the mindset of someone who doesn’t know what that team is capable of doing.

Woodson on objectivity: I focus on how the routine plays to the scoresheet for that specific event producer. As a coach, I expect objectivity from the judges, so I conduct myself the same way when judging. I think most experienced people are able to do that. You have to stay strong and have strong morals to make it work.

Woodson on where the line should be drawn: Choreography or past affiliation may be one thing, but having someone judge who currently coaches in a competing gym is pushing the boundaries a little much. There are enough qualified judges out there where event producers shouldn’t have to pull from the same pool [of registrants]. Event producers should definitely make an effort not to hire judges who are involved with a program at that competition. If event producers want to grow their business, it makes a lot of sense to show that there is a sense of fairness and impartiality. Not everyone will always like the results, but if you provide the most professional experience for a client, they’ll keep returning to your event.

Woodson on possible solutions: Having a substitute judge for the division [where the team is competing] could be one idea—but if you’re going to hire a substitute judge anyway, you might as well just have that person judge the whole event [to ensure impartiality].

Looking at the big picture, judges need to be more qualified and a universal scoresheet should be implemented by USASF. At most of the competitions I’ve judged around the world as well as here in the U.S., the scoresheets have been completely different. This has caused some of the issues—coaches may blame their undesirable results on the fact that a judge used to work with a certain program, when that may not have been the case.

Two Sides: STUNT

Two Sides: STUNT

Will the growing popularity of STUNT have detrimental effects on all-star? CheerProfessional looks at both sides of the debate.

Has the quest to make cheerleading a sport finally hit its stride? With the formation of College STUNT Association and STUNT, USA Cheer’s answer is an emphatic “yes.” Designed to meet Title IX requirements, the sport of STUNT follows a four-quarter format focused strictly on athletic and technical skills including partner STUNTs, pyramids, basket tosses, group jumps and tumbling. All teams must perform the same choreography and technical sequences, and there is no crowd-leading element—differentiating STUNT from both school-based and all-star cheer.

Currently, USA Cheer is taking steps to secure STUNT as an NCAA emerging sport, but not everyone in the cheer industry believes that STUNT is a step forward. We spoke with Randy Dickey of ACX Cheer and Kim Gaskin, high school cheer coach and president of New Jersey State Coaches Association, to find out their perspectives.

Editor’s Note: Please note that the views expressed in this article are expressly those of our sources and not those of CheerProfessional.

Randy Dickey
Owner, ACX Cheer

Randy’s take on STUNT: I’m not a big fan. If this becomes an Olympic sport and/or NCAA starts riding the train, there will then be scholarship opportunities, as well as possible Olympic hopefuls—all of which outshines the benefits of all-star cheerleading. If STUNT is suddenly the way to get scholarships and cheerleading as we know it goes away at the college level, what’s the next step after a kid graduates high school? High school cheerleading will follow what the NCAA does. The minute that STUNT gets mainstream NCAA [status], high schools will segue over to [that format]. I really believe as soon as that happens, it will open the door for gym owners to take a backseat.

On dual participation: As a gym owner, I personally think that STUNT definitely could pull kids from all-star. Depending on when the STUNT season takes place and how it interlaces itself with the existing cheer season, it could greatly affect dual participation. If a child cheers on their school team, that’s an 11-month commitment in many cases. Many schools already have a stigma about letting kids do all-stars in the same season; this opens the door for more coaches who don’t understand the value of all-star cheer.

On its impact on all-star: I know a lot of choreographers are very concerned about the whole STUNT idea because it could become compulsory over time, and if the competitive aspect of the 2:30 routine goes away, then there is no longer a need for choreographers. I know there is also concern on the music mixer side because they could also give out compulsory music, which would negate the need for original music. I know there are people on different sides that are nervous about it. Whether or not those are legitimate concerns or just people being worried, I’m not sure, but I do know that there are people who are scared of those types of things going on.

About STUNT’s relationship to the Olympics: I believe that there is a push from somewhere trying to get cheerleading in the Olympics, and I believe that it’s a race to see who will the biggest and baddest. Gymnastics and cheer have been going head-to-head for many, many years. If cheer were to become an Olympic sport, there are powers that be [in the cheer industry] that want it to be in their control and not gymnastics’ control.

However, gymnastics has more clout than cheerleading, and they are only going to allow cheer in the Olympics if it doesn’t compete with its sports. Therefore [the Olympic version of cheer] has to look completely different than gymnastics—hence the motivation for STUNT.

To me, the tumbling [in all-star cheer] is already very diminished. There is a huge drive even in international competitions to dumb down the values for tumbling. There has been talk of eliminating the tumbling skills for safety reasons, but sometimes you wonder if it is to help fall in line with the demands of what would create a conflict for gymnastics.

99.9% of our income is off tumbling classes, and when you make rules that dumb down tumbling, you’re affecting my income. When you do that to high school, it’s not affecting their income. Your rules can greatly affect someone’s paycheck. I always look at things from a business aspect and make sure the future is bright enough to keep the lights on.

The bottom line: I don’t believe that the all-star/competitive cheer [industry] for high schools has finished evolving yet. I’m a big fan of it and I don’t want to see anything take away from that. All-star cheer is my life, it’s kept me in business for [xx] years and I don’t think it needs something to take away from it.

Just like gymnastics would be nervous about cheer overpowering it in the Olympics or taking away participation in the lower levels, I believe STUNT could take away from all-stars. We already have to share our kids with football, basketball, school cheerleading—now there is one more thing to pull them in a different direction.

I love all-star cheerleading the way it is, so these are my concerns. Anything that could change that in any way, shape or form would make any business owner nervous about the unknown.  However, I do support all types of cheer, and I will support STUNT—I’m just not excited about having sport to compete with the all-star world.

Kim Gaskin, President of New Jersey State Coaches Association and Head Coach for Burlington Township High School

Kim’s take on STUNT: The value of STUNT as it continues to grow will show that there are requirements that every great cheer team should know how to master. Those requirements are then benchmarked and put in a routine where each team has to do the same skills. In a normal [all-star] competition, every team has an opportunity to be as creative as they wish. [In contrast], STUNT allows teams to be matched up on the same skill; it does have a little creativity, but not as much complexity as a choreographed routine. It goes to the baseline of what makes great athleticism in cheerleading. I think judging our athletes on their tumbling skills, basket tosses, pyramids and partner stunts really is kind of fun for participants because they are measured on the same routine. STUNT is new, it’s evolving and it will find its place.

On dual participation: All coaches have an opportunity to determine whether they want to participate and make it part of their curriculum, as they would with any competition they choose to attend. I don’t see lines of division yet as opposed to an appreciation for the value of what STUNT can do both on college and high school level. Some of the elements of STUNT are basic skills that will get you to the more elite skills that will put you in national competition. The same cheerleaders who are on your cheer team can participate in a STUNT event. Coaches have to look at their program and decide what’s best as far as how STUNT fits into their overall competition [plan].

About STUNT’s impact on all-star: When you look at high school, all-star and college cheer, not only do you see the element of competition, but also a lot of creativity as well. STUNT was developed for a different purpose than to hurt any of those functions. Title IX is a positive way of recognizing athletes, and we need to find ways that we can align ourselves with any regulations that can benefit our athletes. This kind of venture doesn’t really take away [from other types of cheerleading], but continues to create value. Anyone who is a coach or cheerleader knows that our athletes are hard-working, dedicated and great leaders in the schools they represent; being able to allow them to get some of the financial benefits or recognition [that other sports enjoy] would be amazing progress.

About STUNT’s relationship to the Olympics: Right now, Worlds is really the hub of cheerleading around the world. The beautiful part of Worlds is that you see teams not only show great athleticism, but also bring a part of their country to the mat. Whether the team is from Mexico or Thailand or Jamaica, you see the diversity of the athlete. Because STUNT is so new, it could evolve to [that level], but you’re still talking about two different buckets—due to the technical aspects of what makes a great Worlds champion versus what makes a great STUNT champion. As cheer evolves, we have to be open to allowing these organizations and companies to get it right. Sometimes things aren’t perfect, but at the end of the day, the athletes are the ones who benefit. These are big platforms that allow cheerleaders to go out there and prove to the world that we are taking cheerleading to a whole new level.

The bottom line: I am an advocate of great cheerleading. Whether it’s high school, all-star or college, our job as an industry is to represent cheer in a way that’s positive and helpful for every athlete. The choice of which way an athlete decides to endure cheerleading is up to that person. There are so many kids out there—just look at the feeder and rec programs around the country trying to get kids interested in cheer and get them on that journey. For those that stick to it, we all need to encourage the kids filtering into our sport, rather than debating who is taking athletes away from whom. I’m not really one to take sides, but I’m all for anything we do as an industry that elevates our kids from both athletic and Title IX requirements, and I think everyone should think of it that way.

Two Sides: Athlete ID

Two Sides: Athlete ID

CheerProfessional explores both sides of the debate on the USASF’s Athlete ID verification and membership system.

With the USASF’s implementation of Athlete ID, this year marks the first season that gym owners can print and present a verified roster at USASF-sanctioned events rather than having to show birth certificates as proof of age. Along with the aim of deterring cheating and falsification of athletes’ ages, the new system is also geared at simplifying the registration process.

Yet not all gym owners are on board with Athlete ID—for reasons ranging from logistical issues to privacy concerns. We spoke with USASF’s Karen Wilson and Prime Tyme Athletics’ Sarah Smith to explore both sides of the issue.

Editor’s Note: Please note that the views expressed in this article are expressly those of our sources and not those of CheerProfessional.

Sarah Smith,
Prime Tyme Athletics,

On her initial reaction: I like the idea of athlete membership in theory much better than in practice, at least at this point. Many years ago, when the USASF was brand-new, they had a form of athlete membership which involved credentialing. We flew a USASF rep to the gym to watch our kids perform various skills and they would get these little Chevron patches. It took forever—we didn’t even get through half of our Worlds team that year. We didn’t get the Chevrons until halfway through the next season, and we had to harass people even for that.

Since we had a bad experience with the original version, I’m very wary [of Athlete ID]. We as a program have chosen not to register our athletes this year, even though it’s free and highly encouraged. (Only for Worlds, because it’s required.) Time is money, and I don’t want to spend my or others’ time entering all this information to register athletes when the people I’m going to compete against don’t have to do it either.

On privacy concerns: One of our biggest concerns is for the safety of the athletes. The parents are wary to give out birth certificates—it seems really extreme, especially without knowing who is privy to the information.

Also, I don’t believe that USASF is a separate, independent governing body, which spills over into the athlete membership issue. Since we are located near Nashville, most of our competitor gyms are owned by Varsity, so turning over our confidential client information adds another layer of personal concern. Who says they can’t use that information to turn around and directly market for the competitor gyms? I’m not saying they’re going to do that, but it’s a very valid concern. Varsity owns gyms in many other states, so there are gym owners around the country dealing with this exact problem. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Varsity owns 11 Premier Athletics locations in six states.] I’m pro-Varsity competitions, but I’m anti-conflict of interest.

Lots of youth sports use third-party organizations that are stored in a secure database that wouldn’t be accessible by vendors and direct competitors. It might also help the parents feel safer when sharing their athlete’s information. Overall, this is proprietary information that should be safeguarded. [EDITOR’S NOTE: USASF’s Lynn Singer says that the Athlete ID information is stored by a third party.]

On enforceability: Even if registering athletes was mandatory, who will enforce it? There isn’t a USASF rep at every competition checking IDs. What if a 3-year-old on Tiny doesn’t have her Athlete ID—will they tell her she can’t participate? The problem is that it spirals back to the fact that USASF is controlled by some of the people who profit off our industry. The event producers actually hold the power. If they were to choose to enforce the athlete membership, they would have to turn away some of their own customers.

On logistics: What happens if you’re at CheerSport nationals with your all-star teams and someone gets hurt in the warm-up room Friday night? If you need to replace and register a new athlete, will USASF be open 24/7 for you to be able to do so? How can we prove every athlete is registered? We don’t have a bench full of athletes waiting to hop in should someone get injured; we have to rearrange, and that sometimes means using one of your own athletes from a school team.

If we ever got to a system where a Level 5 athlete isn’t also allowed to be on Level 1 or 2 team, it would be great to track such things and athlete membership would be a way to do that. But does that cross the lines of what a governing body should do in a free market economy? It’s a lot to consider.

On cost: If they do decide to charge, it will be another barrier to entry in our sport. Before athletes even pay a month of tuition to me, they will have to pay $25 [or another set amount] to a governing body that’s not really doing anything other than stating standards? If athlete membership is truly the most pressing issue for USASF, all resources should be allocated to making sure it’s done effectively and affordably.

On whether it will deter cheating: I do believe it could deter cheating, but cheating is something that never goes away. If people cheat in the Olympics with all of their safeguards, people who are going to cheat [in all-star cheerleading] will find a way. But [Athlete ID] is another hoop to jump through, which could help prevent cheating on some level.

On the silver lining: I’ve heard many people say we need a way to track things like injuries, participation and cheating. I do believe some form of athlete membership could legitimize our sport in those aspects; most youth sports do have some sort of membership. It would be great to have actual numbers of participants in our sport, so that when someone comes up with injury reports and way underestimates the total amount of cheerleaders, we’d have our own document to counter some of those things for the positive PR of our sport. But in practice, I don’t think that we’re ready for that yet. I don’t think the system is ready to achieve the goals it is set up for.

The bottom line: I can see how some people would like to have rules in place that are tracked by athlete membership, but I’m not sure more governing power is what we really need. Until it is enforceable, affordable and an independent third party stores the membership information, I think there are lots of other ways to legitimize our sport other than athlete membership.

Karen Wilson,
USASF West Coast Regional Director

On the introduction of Athlete ID: The idea was brought forward through the NACCC as a way of bringing about legitimacy. We’ve done a great job of creating and implementing the rules at USASF events, but there was still quite a bit of uncertainty as to whether athletes were truly of age and matching up with the age grid. Every event producer had their own process, so it was very confusing to parents and athletes and gym owners. We obviously have had this system in place for Level 5 for Worlds; it’s just now been strengthened [for all athletes].

On the response: We have more than 70,000 athletes in the system, which is a testament to how much coaches want this. The one roadblock has been that, like anything new, it’s time-consuming. [Gym owners and coaches] have to gather the information and educate parents and athletes about the system. It’s a lot of work on behalf of the gym owners, and for them to be doing this much is again a testament to the demand.

On privacy and confidentiality: Storing information securely through our system is much safer than bringing birth certificates to events. For a long time, it has been required that every gym owner has proof of age at a USASF event. They were literally carrying them around at events, which was what drove coaches to say that we need a system [like Athlete ID]. Once the information is uploaded and verified by a small handful of USASF staff, it is digitally destroyed and shredded; these documents are not housed anywhere. Also, we don’t ask for social security numbers, and birth certificates are a matter of public record.

On whether it will deter cheating: As a Regional Director, I get more calls about age issues than anything else. When an athlete leaves a gym owner’s program and that owner sees them on another team, they have the birth certificate so they know if they’re not eligible. What is the process for verifying beyond that? Regardless of how many people are cheating, we have an obligation as the governing body to minimize [cheating] even further. We have to make sure it’s a level playing field and everyone is playing by the same rules.

On enforcement: Enforcement is not the objective this year; education and communication is. We’ve been working with event producers on getting the word out. When gyms and athletes go to a USASF-sanctioned event, they don’t necessarily have to be members. The problem is that if there is a violation they can’t be held accountable because they’re not members—that’s problematic. By having the Athlete ID required, it brings us back to a level playing field.

I can communicate to and educate my members, but I have no resources to educate those non-members. The only one who does is the event producer through registration; they have the opportunity to provide that education, and that’s what we’re encouraging event producers to do. That drives people to find out more about membership and join—they want to be part of doing things right. This year, the Regional Directors are working very closely with event producers to provide any resources or assistance that we can.

Enforcement is not on the agenda for event producers at this point; it’s not a case of people not enforcing Athlete ID. We’re finding that when the event producers do provide education beforehand, we have a huge rate of compliance. [Gym owners] are thrilled when they can print the roster and manage their program through the USASF profile. The ones who are doing it are loving it. It’s a collaborative effort between the Regional Directors and the event producers, and we’re seeing big successes.

On logistics: If there is a challenge, it would go through that event’s protocol; the event producer would look at it and see. Ultimately we’ll have cards with their photos and the matching ID and birth certificate—we’re just not there yet. It’s got a long timeline. In the meantime, I think we’ll be able to minimize a huge majority of issues.

On cost:  Currently there is no cost for Athlete ID. Our research shows almost every youth organization has an entry fee. We are a not for profit organization, and Athlete ID is not a profit-making endeavor at this point. Our objective is to ensure that the kids are safe and that we can provide a level playing field for our members. If and when there is a cost, it won’t be exorbitant.

The bottom line: This is the springboard for many great things to come. We want accountability measures. We want sportsmanship. We want trust and legitimacy in our system. We’re putting lots of checks and balances in place, and two years from now, I believe it’s going to be standard operating procedure. It won’t be as time-consuming. Athletes’ numbers will follow them in their cheer or dance career regardless of what gym they are associated with, so they’ll never have to prove it again.

People want to know they can go to competition and that it will be fair across the board. I’m encouraged by the voice of the coaches; having them do this without seeing a tangible benefit is a clear indicator of its importance. We’re working day and night to make sure this is successful because we believe it is the right thing to do.