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Original Issue


These are cruel times for honest-to-goodness, sis-boom-bah cheerleaders. The word itself has fallen into such disrepute that anyone who is tagged as a cheerleader for any cause is dismissed as a narrow, addle-brained boob. And while we're on that subject, there are also the Dallas Cowboy leerleaders. Is this the wave of the future in cheerleading: "Gimme an S, gimme an E, gimme an X...whatdya got?" Even as you read this, the citizens of Los Angeles, envying the exposure given the Dallas beauties, are scouring the streets for "Ram girls" (SCORECARD, April 17). As many as 2,000 scantily clad Angelenas are expected to vie for the 20 spots on the sideline, where they will do their bare-midriffed best to divert interest from the Ram offense.

So, wouldn't it be nice if we could hear it again for all those old-fashioned cheerleaders who work for the team instead of for TV close-ups? This very thought occurred to Producer Brad Marks, who while watching cheerleaders at a college football game one weekend mused, "Why don't we, just once, show something positive about the good young people in America?" If memory serves, this same observation used to leave Dick Clark's lips at 10-minute intervals, but even though Marks was once a devotee of American Bandstand, he pushed ahead. The result of his efforts, which can be seen next Monday night, April 24, on CBS, is the first National Collegiate Cheer-leading Championships.

I was a judge at these proceedings, which were taped early in April at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles, with teams from five finalist colleges. There is a lot of monkey business in the show; despite the best intentions, positive witness to the goodness of American youth cannot, by itself, be trusted to consume 90 minutes of prime time. Thus considerable portions of the NCCCs are devoted to the extraneous antics of George Burns, Gene Kelly, Lou Rawls and Cheryl Ladd.

(The question of whether or not a cheer-leading contest is primarily entertainment or sport was answered conclusively, I think, by Marks and his minions when they designated the distinguished writer from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as a "judge." The journalist from Daily Variety was ranked as a "celebrity judge" and lumped with the likes of Charles (Peanuts) Schulz, Bert Jones of the Colts and the redoubtable Cheryl Tiegs.)

The show's co-hosts, Phyllis George and Bruce Jenner, together exude so much saccharin that they should be declared dangerous to viewers' health by the FDA. But they are a positively inspired pairing, America's adorables, and perhaps it's high time that somebody took a run at Donny and Marie. Phyllis, who was a high school cheerleader, dresses up as once she did for the glory of the Denton (Texas) Broncos; Bruce dons the sweater of his alma mater, Graceland (Iowa) College. They nimbly perform a "cheerleading lift" and sing a ditty entitled Sporting Hoe-down, which manages in 2½ minutes to invoke the names of 32 athletes and seven teams, e.g., "Bobby Hull with a neat hat trick/Secretariat's fabulous kick/That's the sporting hoe-down." But seriously, folks....

If life is indeed a game, then both Phyllis and Bruce are currently at the will-call window. Phyllis has just concluded an unfortunate marriage that lasted approximately as long as the NBA playoffs, and she recently signed a new contract with CBS that will effectively remove her from sports and take her into other sorts of programming in which her grace and graciousness will better serve her. Bruce—soon to be a new daddy—is nearing the end of his contract with ABC and, like Phyllis, appears to be angling away from traditional sports work into the more spacious world of what is known in TV biz as MOR—middle-of-the-road. Besides his vaudeville turn on the NCCCs, Jenner will also be featured next week on a Dorothy Hamill special, in which he will sing and generally cavort. Now would be an apt time, I think, for Bruce to get a grown-up's haircut.

But, traditional TV divertissement aside, the cheerleading competition is all business. The five teams, battling for $25,000 in scholarship money, were all scrupulously selected after rigorous screening of entrants from 62 NCAA Division I schools. The finalists were chosen by The International Cheerleading Foundation, an affiliate of the NCAA, which has been naming a national champion for the last 11 years (Penn State won in 1977). The ICF is headed by its founder. Randy Neil, himself a former cheerleader at Kansas, who is known variously as "Mr. Spirit" and "the creator of the vinyl pompon."

I did pick—though I shall not divulge—the winner of the $10,000 first prize. But it wasn't easy, not only because all the finalists are very proficient, but also because they exhibit great variety in their six-minute routines. For example, Southern Cal, with the home-court advantage and the prettiest girls, presents a veritable Vegas spectacular. Kansas is the best dressed and most athletic; North Carolina is well-scrubbed and deep, not unlike a Dean Smith team. Florida, with the best-looking boys, oozes the most enthusiasm, while Pitt is the most spontaneous and most fun to watch. The Panthers' costumed mascot also proves to be a more versatile beast than the Gator or the Jayhawk.

At the taping, the crowd took its cues well and dutifully cheered for the cheerleaders instead of with them. However, I am also honor bound to report that the crowd cheered loudest of all for the celebrity judgette, Cheryl Tiegs. As Ben Franklin so sagely put it (or was it Voltaire?): "Vinyl pompons will only take you so far."