The Highs and Lows of the ‘Cheer Mom’

By mid-January of this year, Kristin Wheeler, a self-described “cheer mom,” was exhausted. She was spending most of her days in the cheer gym or in the car with her bottomless cup of coffee while her 14-year-old daughter, Abby, a high school varsity and All Star cheerleader, practiced for major competitions.

Like most cheer moms, Ms. Wheeler, was also entrenched in squad fund-raisers, scheduling travel plans (March to May is the pinnacle of cheer season), heaving out emotional support, reapplying fake eyelashes and smearing glitter gel on her daughter’s cheeks.

“I went into cheer saying, ‘over my dead body’ and ‘I’m not going to be one of those moms,’” Ms. Wheeler, a mother of two and a restaurant owner, said in a phone interview. But the next thing she knew she was up at 5 a.m. doing hair and makeup, and spending up to $10,000 a year on travel expenses, uniforms, competition fees and camps.

And she’d started doing what many parents of teenagers do these days: She turned to TikTok.

No, Ms. Wheeler, 38, didn’t do any dancing. She created an array of cheer mom characters, poking fun at herself and the stereotype of the domineering cheer mom that’s become a symbol of the overinvolved sports parent. There’s the naïve parent who’s overwhelmed by the commitment; the exhausted sports mom at the end of the season; and a group of cheer moms gossiping, calculating and obsessing over which squad their daughters will make.

One video was especially popular. It depicted a peak tyrannical cheer mom who, in the voice of Cardi B — a popular meme — screams, “What was the reason?” over and over at the coach all because her daughter was taken out of the coveted flyer position.

Mothers from all over, — in person and on social media — approached Ms. Wheeler about the video. They felt seen, they told her. They felt understood. “The more awareness we bring to it, we can kind of say, OK, let’s take a step back and maybe not do that again,” she said, laughing. “Because we do crazy things when we’re broke and tired.”

All Star cheer’s primary purpose is competition. Unlike typical high school or college sideline cheerleaders, whose objective is to uplift the crowd’s spirits, All Star cheerleaders don’t “cheer” for anyone in particular. There is no rah-rah. No go-team-go. All star cheerleaders practice up to seven days a week, all year around, spending hours upon hours in the gym, with heads often slamming into mats and shoulders collapsing under bleach-white cheer shoes. (According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, cheer is second only to football in the number of concussions during practice.)

All of this emotion and tears and athleticism is poured into a hyper-aerobic, high-flying routine that lasts two and half minutes, with wired parents watching their child’s every move.

The U.S. All Star Federation spells out the “role of the parent” in a graphic-heavy guide that addresses topics including how to behave at events, when to call the coach and how gossip is damaging. But in recent years, some have seemed to struggle with boundaries.

“I went into cheer saying, ‘over my dead body’ and ‘I’m not going to be one of those moms,’” Ms. Wheeler said.Credit…James Stukenberg for The New York Times

In the Headlines

Cheer moms aren’t alone in being accused of atrocious sideline behavior. In the past few years, parents have brawled at a softball game, cursed each other out at a Little League game and have been ejected by the referee at a girls soccer game. A referee shortage is currently plaguing youth sports, with many jobs going unfilled in part because the verbal abuse from parents has gotten out of hand.

Remember the soccer mom? In 1996, she was described in The New York Times as: “pacing the sidelines of her children’s games,” and she wore T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “I don’t have a life. My kids play soccer.”

In comparison to the caricature of the cheer mom, soccer moms were just a benign voting bloc. Cheer moms are often cast as more deranged, more calculating, more controlling — sometimes even vicious or villainous. Why?

For one, a few have been in the headlines. In March, Raffaela Spone, a 50-year-old mother of two, was arrested on charges of harassing three girls from her daughter’s cheerleading squad. Ms. Spone allegedly sent texts and voice mail messages to the girls from an unknown number that said, “You have no friends” and “You should kill yourself.”

According to a police report, a video that was allegedly doctored was also sent to the girls’ coaches at the Victory Vipers cheer gym in Doylestown, Pa. But in mid-May, the Bucks County district attorney’s office said evidence of the video being doctored was no longer clear. Ms. Spone declined to comment for this article. The case is scheduled to go to trial in October.

In 2014, Andrea Clevenger, who appeared on the TLC show “Cheer Perfection” with her young daughter, went to prison after pleading guilty to one count of first-degree sexual assault and engaging a child in sexually explicit conduct; the victim was a 13-year-old boy. She was released in 2017 and is now on parole.

But cultural fascination with cheer moms who commit crimes can be probably traced back to the Texas cheer mom Wanda Holloway, who in 1991 tried to hire someone to kill her 13-year-old daughter’s rival, in order to secure her daughter a spot on the high school cheerleading squad.

Ms. Holloway’s face was plastered on entertainment and news shows, and she was sentenced to 15 years in prison. (Her defense lawyers petitioned successfully for a new trial, but before her case went to trial, she pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 10 years; six months later she was released on probation.) Two campy made-for-TV movies came out of it, including, in 1993, a Holly Hunter classic, “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.”

It should serve as the perfect plot twist that Shanna Widner, Ms. Holloway’s daughter, didn’t even want to be a cheerleader to begin with.

When Ms. Widner was 5, her mother convinced her it would be fun — the skirts, the pompoms. Then, Ms. Widner says now, it became this thing they were going to do, not something Ms. Widner herself wanted to do. Ms. Widner, who is now an English teacher near Humble, Texas, just north of Houston, tried to quit, but her mother wouldn’t allow it.

“And then I got disqualified and she got arrested and it didn’t matter anymore,” said Ms. Widner, 44, with a nervous laugh during a phone conversation. (Her ability to laugh at herself may have come from the many hours of therapy she’s had to deal with her trauma.) “Part of me was really relieved,” she said.

Now, when Ms. Widner sees parents getting into fights at sports events, she’s still amazed by it. “I’m fairly sure the kids are embarrassed when the parents act like that,” she said. “Parents think they’re doing it for their kids, but they’re causing damage. They don’t see the harm they’re causing.”

Wanda Holloway, left, and her daughter Shanna Harper, right, leave a courtroom in Houston after a custody hearing concerning Shanna and her brother in March 1991.Credit…David Scarborough/Associated Press

Rah-Rah? Nah.

Much has changed since Ms. Holloway was in the news, including cheerleading itself.

There’s the rise of All Star cheer, a different beast than your regular sideline cheer squad. In 2019, more than 10,000 cheerleaders on 550 teams competed at the Cheerleading Worlds, according to the U.S. All Star Federation. (Known as the Super Bowl of cheer, Worlds was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.)

There is no question that All Star cheer is difficult and dangerous. But it doesn’t matter how much athleticism it takes: Cheerleading still isn’t considered a sport by the N.C.A.A. or by U.S. federal Title IX guidelines. In July, however, the International Olympic Committee recognized it, for the first time, though it is not yet an Olympic sport.

Laura Grindstaff, a sociology professor at the University of California, Davis, who has studied the intersection of cheer and gender, said cheer’s girlie girl aesthetics detract from the status conferred upon football, hockey or baseball and other sports typically dominated by boys and men. “The hair ribbon, the makeup, the glitter, the bows, the crop top, the short skirt, the smiling, the head wag, the cheer fingers,” Dr. Grindstaff said. “It’s this hyper-feminine performativity that gets married to the athleticism and therefore compromises the athleticism.”

Additionally, she said, there is sexism, including stereotypes around mothers and the idea that there is no higher calling in life than being one — and more, that mothers must help their children at all times.

“So you have the sport itself that struggles for legitimacy,” Dr. Grindstaff said. “And then mothers themselves are perceived as over-invested in something that’s not even legitimate to begin with — so it’s double the disdain.”

Social media has exacerbated the cheer mom-as-stage-mom archetype. She’s just as glamorous as her daughter. She wants to photograph her daughter looking her best, shoulders back, head up, pompoms in the air, arms raised in a V. She sends her daughter to the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleading camp. She posts countless photos with hashtags like #cheercompetition, #cheermomlife, #cheermomproblems and #mybabygirl. She gets slammed by coaches for micromanaging her daughter and pressures her to be a flyer. At major competitions, the cheer mom wraps her kid up in a banner like a champion.

Just last year, the cheer parents John and Debbie Butler were accused by many on Twitter of capitalizing on and micromanaging their superstar cheerleading daughter Gabi, who appeared on the Netflix documentary series “Cheer” as a member of the Navarro College cheer team. In one episode, her mother told her daughter to eat jackfruit instead of eggs before a competition because jackfruit “can actually hold your stomach for 10 to 12 hours with no other food.”

The internet went berserk. Gabi defended her parents on Twitter, and the director of the series, Greg Whiteley, said he owed them an apology. The Butlers did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.

“The more awareness we bring to it, we can kind of say, ‘OK, let’s take a step back and maybe not do that again,’” Ms. Wheeler said of overheated parental behavior.Credit…James Stukenberg for The New York Times

The Compassionate Coach

For the cheer moms who like to stay on the sidelines, who are doing it for their kid — and there are many of these parents — it’s a difficult sport to be part of.

This is how it felt for Stephanie Rothrock of Yardley, Pa., a therapist and elementary school counselor. A friend encouraged her to bring her two oldest daughters, who were in the third and fourth grade at the time, to a highly competitive cheer practice.

There, the coach told parents that cheer would be their No. 1 priority. Kids must show up to every practice. That if they have 104 temperature, you give them Tylenol. If they’re vomiting, they still come to the competition.

Ms. Rothrock’s daughters were eager, but she found an alternative: a modified competition team with practices twice a week. “And if you were vomiting, you could stay home,” Ms. Rothrock said with a laugh.

The girls had to wear a face full of makeup. Bright red lipstick and glitter everywhere. One mother went around doing wiglet checks to make sure the wigs were tight enough. Ms. Rothrock’s girls hadn’t even turned 10 yet, but they loved it: the stunt groups, being in the gym, competing.

By the time Ms. Rothrock’s daughters were teenagers, she found it impossible to relate to the other parents. She likes to give people the benefit of the doubt, she said, but she had experiences that she wouldn’t want any child to have. When her daughter Aly Martin was 14, a mother screamed in Aly’s face. Ms. Rothrock described the woman as a “typical cheer mom” who was “trying to live through her daughter.”

Ms. Martin, now 23 and a substitute teacher in Pennsylvania, recalled that year as filled with what she called “cheer drama” — fistfights and school suspensions, all antagonized by the cheer mom who screamed at her. The year culminated with a nasty rumor spread by members of the cheerleading team about her younger sister. Aly was told that she couldn’t join the team again, but that didn’t mean her cheer career was over.

At 19, she became a junior cheer coach for the Pennsbury Falcons Cheerleading Association, about 40 minutes north of Philadelphia. They were a team of 14-year-olds with a rough reputation, and few people were willing to coach them.

A majority of the parents were completely supportive, Ms. Martin said. Their kids were happy, so they were happy. Until one cheer mom who came into a practice as a backup coach got aggressive with the girls.

According to Ms. Martin, the woman hovered over one of the cheerleaders and screamed at her until the girl got up from the mat, crying hysterically. “The girl was having an emotional day and didn’t want to be there,” Ms. Martin said. “But I don’t talk to kids like that. I’m positive. I told the mother, give her a second, don’t tear her down. My whole thing is they’re 15. They’re moody. They’re kids. Her mom didn’t have a problem with her not participating, so why did this woman?”

Ms. Martin has a child of her own now, an infant girl. Despite everything she went through as a cheerleader, Ms. Martin would love for her daughter to cheer. She loves the team mentality, she loves supporting the other cheerleaders. She’d try to be an involved cheer mom — but not too involved. She’d let her daughter’s coaches do the coaching. And she’d sit in the stands and watch.

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