THEY HAD NAMES LIKE KAYLEE AND HAILEY and Ashley and Brittany, and they all had long legs and glossy hair and tan summer skin. More than a thousand of them—1,345 cheerleaders from across Texas—had come to Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, on a sticky afternoon in June for the first day of cheer camp, and a clutch of mothers and squirming little sisters was taking in the view. On the lawn outside Dallas Hall, girls in starched cheerleading uniforms the bright colors of LifeSavers built pyramids and performed midair toe-touch jumps and a dizzying number of standing back handsprings; the nimblest ones were lifted ten feet off the ground, where they each wobbled on one leg, grinning, before dropping into the outstretched arms below. Clipboards in hand, an army of clean-cut instructors from the National Cheerleaders Association stood watch, taking notes and appraising them, as the girls offered encouragement to one another (“Awesome job, Bailey!”). At the end of the day, they dusted themselves off and walked arm in arm to their dorm rooms, smiling and clapping and, of course, cheering. As they made their way across campus— We’ve got spirit. Yes, we do!—a thousand ponytails swayed back and forth.
I had come to SMU in hope of understanding what it was about cheerleading, exactly, that had sparked such hostility just a few weeks earlier at the Texas Legislature. While pressing issues like balancing the budget and financing public education had been put on hold, the House had found the time to consider HB 1476, or “the booty bill”: legislation that prohibited cheerleading squads, marching bands, and dance and drill teams from performing at public schools “in a manner that is overtly sexually suggestive.” The bill, which inspired an intense, two-hour floor debate that included the spectacle of legislators shaking pom-poms and blasting KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty,” had been ridiculed in newspapers (“Bunch of Sis, Boom, Baloney!”) and on cable news and late-night talk shows. “You wouldn’t have the Texas Rangers out there busting the cheerleaders and putting them in cuffs, would you?” Bill O’Reilly asked the author of the legislation, Houston Democrat and lay preacher Al Edwards, on The O’Reilly Factor. The Daily Show piled on with a segment called “No Child’s Sweet Behind,” which featured correspondent Bob Wiltfong bumping and grinding during an interview with Edwards. “Is it any wonder Texas has become a national punch line?” marveled Austin American-Statesman columnist John Kelso, who suggested that the Legislature create a watchdog group to monitor cheerleading and call it the Bipartisan Observational Organization on Booty, or BOOB.
But a majority of lawmakers, who voted to pass the bill, failed to see the humor in it. During the floor debate in the House, Republican Carl Isett, of Lubbock, called for a return to “old-fashioned morality,” citing sexually suggestive cheerleading—along with out-of-wedlock births and throwaway marriages—as evidence of the moral decay of our time. “If I take my twelve-year-old son to a high school football game, I don’t want to have to cover his eyes when the cheerleaders are on the field,” he said. Linda Harper-Brown, a Republican from Irving, praised the bill as “a shot across the bow” for school districts, which would have lost funding under its provisions if they did not ensure that their cheerleaders’ routines were sufficiently wholesome. Representative Edwards went so far as to suggest a link between “overly sexy performances” on the sidelines and a host of social ills. “We see, as a result, more of our young girls getting pregnant in middle and high school, dropping out of school, having babies, contracting AIDS, herpes, and cutting off their youthful life at an early age,” he said. “And members, it’s part of our responsibility to do something about it.” While legislators who opposed the measure criticized it for being everything from a sexist bill (no one was regulating football players’ behavior) to a publicity stunt, the rhetoric from supporters—which included the local chapter of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum—seemed to suggest that cheerleaders posed a threat to the moral fiber of the children of Texas every time they walked onto a football field.
That cheerleading, of all things, found itself in the crosshairs of a culture war was unlikely enough; that it happened in Texas, which introduced the world to the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders 33 years ago, was stranger still. In the end, the booty bill failed to reach the governor’s desk; the Senate refused to consider HB 1476, and it died before the end of the regular legislative session. The House succeeded only in passing a resolution that called on the Texas Education Agency to monitor school performances for sexual content. No videotapes of raunchy cheerleading routines ever surfaced, and even Edwards was hard-pressed to name a school whose squad had crossed the line. But the stigma has lingered. Just before the start of the school year, Texas Education Agency commissioner Shirley J. Neeley sent a memo to every superintendent in the state, directing them to monitor their districts’ cheerleading squads, marching bands, and dance and drill teams for any “overly sexually suggestive” routines and cautioning that “inappropriate performances are unacceptable and should not be tolerated.” It was a strange imperative, given what I had seen that summer day at SMU, when girls had whiled away an afternoon reciting upbeat cheers. Then again, it has been a long journey from pleated skirts and saddle shoes to accusations of indecency. Why, when cheerleading is more popular than ever, have our feelings about it grown so complicated?
IF THERE WAS A MOMENT IN HISTORY when sex became forever associated with the sidelines, it happened on the hot, humid afternoon of September 17, 1972, when the brand-new Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—seven professional dancers who Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm had promised would add a “touch of class”—paraded onto the field at Texas Stadium in front of 55,850 spectators, wearing only hot pants, go-go boots, fringed vests, and satin blouses tied snugly above the midriff.