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Jim Murray

On Second Thought, Maybe Fan Can Use a Little Cheering Up

March 12, 1985|JIM MURRAY

To the great surprise of many who didn't think it was their principal difficulty, the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League moved forthrightly the other day to shore up a glaring weakness in the franchise. They fired the cheerleaders.

With the Express, any change would seem to be for the better. On the other hand, it also seemed to be a team where the more distractions the better. Anything to take the crowd's mind off the miasma of interceptions, fumbles, blocked punts and missed assignments they were otherwise asked to watch.

In fact, that thought belatedly occurred to the Express when they announced that they'd had second thoughts and would stage tryouts Saturday to reinstate the cheerleading program.

Which is encouraging. Cheerleading has always seemed an integral part of the great game of football, pro and college. They go together like apple pie and ice cream, they're as American as the hot dog. Cheerleading is an art show in itself, and it's possible historians of the future will linger longer over the Freudian overtones of the noises from the bleachers than they will the comparative inconsequentialities of the games they serenade.

Halftime shows are hallmarks of American ingenuity. High-stepping majorettes, bands that simulate the Robert E. Lee, plying the yard lines from end zone to end zone with smoke pouring from the tuba are as American as "76 Trombones," or George M. Cohan singing, "You're A Grand Old Flag!"

Who needs the damn game? The marching band is as valid a contribution of the university to American culture as Latin verbs.

Cheers are rooted in our history, too. They have a high content of nonsense in them, almost as if they were devised by Lewis Carroll. What, for instance, does "Sis, boom, bah!" one of the earliest recorded organized cheers, really mean? For that matter, where did "Three cheers and a tiger!" come from? And why?

The famous Yale cheer "Brek-ek-ek-ee-ex, ko-ax, ko-ax" comes from the Greek chorus of Aristophanes and evolved into "Give 'em the ax, the ax, the ax!" But where did Cole Porter get "Boola! Boola! (Delta frater.)"?

Organized cheerleading supposedly originated at the University of Minnesota at the turn of the century when an exuberant rooter leaped from the stands to exhort the student body to cheer in unison for the home eleven. Thus was "college spirit" born.

Fight songs could not be far behind. And "Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow, Wow, Wow" and other major contributions to higher education evolved. Cole Porter wrote one for Yale, and George Gershwin wrote one for UCLA. Far above Cayuga's waters, the senior class stood and wept for alma mater dear. Notre Dame shook down the thunder from the sky for her loyal sons on high, the fullback fought on for old SC, and Dartmouth was sure to win today as the backs go tearing by.

What would Michigan be if there were no one to hail the victors valiant? The game within a game at any Rose Bowl is the contest between the bands. The Big Ten has a commanding lead in that one.

Hollywood brought the art form to its highest fruition, naturally. The home of Busby Berkeley and C.B. DeMille could hardly leave a pageant to a passel of clumsy athletes and glockenspiel players. Halftime shows became a cross between a Biblical drama and Hannibal crossing the Alps.

In 1908, the first card stunts manifested themselves when a California rooting section unveiled a color portrait of a football player or coach--no one seems to remember which--but in 1920, they began to flip the cards and this gave a Southern California yell leader named Lindley Bothwell the idea for the first animated card stunts.

The first one was a sequential series at Corvallis in which Bothwell's rooting section was able to depict a beaver, Oregon State's mascot, smashing its tail down on a lemon-yellow O, symbolizing the University of Oregon.

The spectacle of flipping cards spelling out, in script, the school names, gave marching bands the idea of spelling out with human script.

The pro teams, of course, were less interested in Greek choruses or a semi-production of "Aida" on their sidelines than in selling tickets, generally, but George Preston Marshall of the old Redskins was the first to commission a fight song, "Hail To The Redskins," selected by his movie star wife, Corinne Griffith.

He also commissioned groups of scantily clad girls in goose bumps and Indian headdresses to jiggle on the sidelines. The truck drivers loved it. It was a combination of Minsky's burlesque and the Ziegfeld Follies. The comedy was on the field.

All this is in peril now. The Philistines are after our diversions, as usual. The New England Patriots have already disbanded their cheerleading squad because of a trifling matter of $2-million lawsuits. The girls are suing because of on-the-job injuries. One got run over on the sidelines by a Patriot running back who had been forced out of bounds by the New York Giants. So, the Patriots ruthlessly scrapped the cheerleading program.

A better solution would seem to be to make the playing field narrower.

After all, 100 years from now, who is going to remember trivia like who won the game when they are seeing a late-night rerun of "Debbie Does Dallas" and somebody says: "Wow! They sure had some great athletes in those days! But who are those funny characters running around in the background with those plastic bubbles around their heads and the guards over their faces?"

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