Whether you love their dance moves or hate their outfits, cheerleaders are a staple at most top-level football games, and they'll surely make an appearance on TV broadcasts of Sunday's Super Bowl –- at least on the New England Patriots' sideline. (The New York Giants are one of just five professional teams that don’t have cheerleaders).
And while today's cheerleaders use far more hairspray and perform more acrobatics than their forebears, their pep and spirit evokes more than a century of cheerleading history.
PHOTO: Houston Texans cheerleaders perform during a game against the Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium on Jan. 1, 2012 in Houston, Texas.
Not long after Yale played Harvard in the nation's first official college football game in 1869, a group of male Princeton students formed a "pep club" to cheer at games in the 1880s, according to the International Cheer Union, the sport's governing organization.
Cheerleading was officially born at the University of Minnesota on November 2, 1898, when "yell leader" Johnny Campbell picked up a megaphone and led the crowd in a rousing rendition of an already popular school chant: "Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!"
Minnesota beat Northwestern that day.
Original caption for photo: Columbia University cheerleaders (left to right) Sullivan, Walker, Campbell and Winkoop, with their canine mascot Peter, at the Thanksgiving Day Game in New York, when Syracuse defeated Columbia, 9 to 6. Nov. 27, 1924.
After 25 years as a men's club, cheerleading first welcomed women at the University of Minnesota in 1923.
Still, men dominated sideline squads until the 1940s, when many male students left to fight in World War II. The gender balance never restored itself: Today, more than 90 percent of the world's cheerleaders are female.
At the college level, about 60 percent of cheerleaders are women. "Before Title IX in the 70s, cheerleading was a great athletic outlet for women and girls and a great self-esteem builder," said Sheila Noone, vice president of public relations for Varsity, an organization that produces cheerleading events and camps. "It takes a lot of guts to stand in front of 40,000 fans and tell them what to do."
Photo: A group of female cheerers ca. 1936
In the early days, cheerleading involved lots of yelling and jumping around. In the 1920s, tumbling and acrobatics entered the genre. By the 1970s, the sport had become more athletic, adopting sharper movements, music-enhanced routines, pyramids, and other entertaining tricks and stunts. The 80s saw the invention of All-Star cheerleading, in which unaffiliated teams began to compete against each other. People continue to debate whether cheerleading qualifies as a true sport, but ESPN has been broadcasting competitions for more than two decades and a new cheerleading-derived team sport called STUNT is vying to be considered as an NCAA Emerging Sport.
In 1948, a charismatic cheerleader named Lawrence "Herkie" Herkimer at Southern Methodist University in Texas, started the first cheerleading camp with about 50 participants.
Today, hundreds of thousands of cheerleaders attend officially sanctioned camps and clinics each summer, and millions of people participate in more than 100 countries. With the front leg straight and the back leg bent, the Herkie is still a popular cheerleading jump. And cheerleaders now appear at more than just football games. They also root for basketball, soccer, cricket, rugby and other sports.
Photo: Lawrence Herkimer
The list of cheerleading alumni is full of famous names, including newscasters Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer; entertainment professionals Aaron Spelling, Meryl Streep and Steve Martin; and presidents Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush.
Cheerleading has always required character and the ability to command respect, and cheerleaders often act as role models and leaders in their schools, said Karen Lawrence, senior vice president of the National Cheerleaders Association in Garland, Texas.
"If you are trying to lead, there need to be reasons why people are going to follow you, besides that you are standing up and yelling," Lawrence said. "Cheerleading helps develop character. There is an emphasis on the positives in life and how to be the best you can be."
Photo: George W. Bush, Andover Philips Academy Year Book in 1964.
Despite anecdotal evidence that cheering boosts morale for players, there is no scientific proof that the fanfare helps teams play better, and it may do just the opposite.
Several studies in the 1980s showed a home-field advantage for baseball and basketball teams -- until crunch time, said Arnold LeUnes, a sports psychologist at Texas A&M University in College Station. In the seventh and deciding games of the World Series or the NBA finals, teams made more errors and shot fewer successful free throws when playing at home. That research has been criticized but offers food for thought.
"The home team was at a disadvantage in the most critical games," LeUnes said, "probably due to the effects of anxiety brought about by performing in front of loud, adoring but sometimes critical friends and family."
Out of the last six Super Bowls, four were won by teams that didn’t have cheerleaders.