Joe Neary was a cheerleader for four years as an undergrad at the University of South Carolina, an experience he enjoyed so much that he decided to become a cheerleading coach.
“There’s nothing more exciting than going to a game with 80,000 people that just want to see your team win,” recalls the Delaware County native. “I got to travel. I got to see a lot of different things that I had never seen before.”
Sure, he caught some ribbing from his high school buddies during his college cheerleading days, but he countered with the fact that he got to hang out with 25 of the most beautiful women on campus.
“It was a good time and I got great seats at football games,” he says. “Once you think about the logistics of it, all the other stuff fades away. If you enjoy it, the stigma doesn’t really matter.”
Since 2006, Neary has been the head coach of the Penn cheerleading team. He came to Penn from Villanova University, where he served as a volunteer assistant for three years.
Neary, whose primary job is that of athletics coordinator in the Division of Recreation and Intercollegiate Athletics, says cheerleading is more about a person’s physical fitness than size.
“I think that’s a misconception about the sport,” he says. “Some people don’t realize how in-shape some of these athletes have to be.”
The Current recently sat down with Neary to discuss being a male in the mostly female cheerleading world, the dangerous aspects of the sport and what he looks for in potential recruits.
Q. Are you a rarity in that you are a male cheerleading coach, or is it more common than people might think?
A. I think at the college level it’s a lot more common than people would expect. When you’re in grade school and high school it’s more common to have a female coach.
Q. Was it difficult to get the female cheerleaders to accept a male coach?
A. I think it’s easy from the standpoint of physicality. When [a male coach] is going to spot a skill, you have a strength advantage that I think most often female coaches may not have. But the disadvantages of it are when you’re going to teach a skill. There are often times where I’m not up in the air. The girls may be thinking, ‘What does he know about this?’ That’s why I usually have female volunteer assistants as a counterbalance. While I understand the technique and how the body is supposed to work, there’s a difference between hearing it from me and hearing it from someone who’s done it before.
Q. Your team contains both male and female cheerleaders. Do they have separate roles?
A. Our males are usually what we call bases. They usually do the bulk of the lifting. They’re underneath the stunts; they’re underneath the pyramids. This year, fortunately, one of our guys is a high-level gymnast. It’s always a struggle to get guys in. First, you have to get over the stigma of being a cheerleader, then you have to get over that learning curve and it’s difficult to retain guys. But their primary goal is to lift. We do have females who are bases and females that we call middle layers. They can go in the air but they do a little bit more of the lifting while they’re up in the air. Then we have girls who are our flyers and they’re the ones that the crowd sees. To get a rounded squad, you want to have bases, middle layers and flyers who are all gymnasts, who are all flexible. You really want to have a versatile squad, too. Granted, you’re always going to need bases that are a little bit bigger. One of the misconceptions is that big girls can’t be cheerleaders. You need girls who are a little bit stronger.
Q. Is the stigma of being a cheerleader difficult for some males to overcome?
A. I think it is. It’s really kind of a taboo subject but I think that once guys get in here, they realize it can be a lot of fun and it’s different and challenging. There are really a lot of different things that you can do. Holding a girl in one hand above your head, that’s not something that most people can do and it takes a lot of practice. We had one guy who was a lightweight football player. He came and said he wanted to give it a shot and he just wanted to learn the technique. He gave it a shot and he really progressed. He’s worked on gymnastics and he’s worked on his stunts. He sees the value in it and he’s progressing and seeing that reward just like any other athlete would.
Q. MSNBC reported last year that cheerleading is by far the most dangerous sport and continues to cause more serious and deadly injuries than other sports. Would you describe the sport as dangerous?
A. To be a college coach, you have to be certified by the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, which means you have to go through a safety course every four years and you have to follow a certain set of guidelines. There is a really big risk of injury with cheerleading because you’re talking about multiple bodies in motion that aren’t protected. There’s a huge safety initiative, especially in the college realm.
I think the logic is that what we do at the college realm will filter down through the high schools. So every year our students go through safety certification. Basically, [the certification] says if you can’t do a skill at a certain level, you should not move on to the next level. Cheerleading can be done safely as long as the rules and guidelines and common sense are followed. I tell my kids there are always going to be accidents. I had three or four concussions when I was in college. Some of them are preventable, some of them aren’t. Concussions happen in football and they’re wearing helmets. As long as you’re playing by the rules and doing what you’re supposed to be doing, the bulk of the injuries are, for the most part, avoidable. In college, we’re not allowed to do basket tosses on hardwood floors anymore, which is when the cheerleaders throw a girl up in the air and catch her. There are high school kids doing this on concrete. That doesn’t really make sense.
Q. Can you talk about the training to become a Penn cheerleader?
A. It’s kind of intense. Just so you have an understanding of our year, we will start in August with our camp, which is about a week to a week-and-a-half long. Then we’ll have a couple weeks off before school starts. Once school starts, we are in training through football, which rolls right into basketball, then we usually end right around Spring Break, and then tryouts are usually around two weeks later. And then we’ll start back up with preseason, getting into the swing of things and beginning the prep for next year. So it really is kind of an all-year sport.
Q. Is it difficult to keep the cheerleaders’ spirits up when the teams they are cheering for don’t perform well?
A. It’s hard to keep your spirits up sometimes in the rain, for football, but it’s easier when they’re winning. Sometimes you just have to remind the girls they are here to lead the crowd. One thing that would make it easier would be if there was more of a crowd to lead. We had a rough basketball season this year. But we had that great win over Cornell. That was a great game for the girls; they felt what it was like to have a crowd. And I think that’s what it is; if there’s a crowd, it’s easy for the girls. If there isn’t a crowd, it’s hard for them.
Q. Your tryouts begin in late April. What do you look for in cheerleaders?
A. I want to make sure that the kids who are there know what they’re in for and are really committed. It’s always a balance between talent and that commitment. I have girls who don’t have the skill set that a traditional college cheerleader would have. I have girls that can’t do back flips but they bring a lot of other things to the table. Our tryouts are as much about the skills you do as they are about how you approach the skills that you do.
Q. The team competed in the Universal Cheerleading Association Nationals in January. How was the experience?
A. The process was difficult but I knew that it would be. The last time we went was 1997. It’s hard to do something like that without an institutional knowledge. These kids had never gone, so they had no idea. That was one of the big challenges. In our division of about 20, we took 17th place, which is fine.
For us to go down there and do our routine and to hit it without anything dropping, with hardly any mistakes, was impressive. It really speaks a lot about their ability to go out there and do what they want to do.
Q. You put on the Quaker Cheer Classic this past winter. What does the competition entail?
A. This year we had about 100 teams compete. We actually do it as a fundraiser to supplement our budget. The girls work at the competition. We have all-stars, the little kids, high school kids and colleges. It runs all day and it’s in The Palestra. If you’ve never seen a cheerleading competition, I highly encourage any faculty or staff member to come out and see it. Cheer parents, cheer moms, cheer dads. It’s glitter and makeup and everything you could imagine it to be.
Originally published on March 25, 2010