Harris Mug

Christopher Harris

When I first read the story about the University of Kentucky cheerleading coaching staff being fired as the result of a probe into alleged hazing and public nudity on the beautiful waters of our own Lake Cumberland, I thought of writing something about it through the prism of human sexuality.

Then WDRB’s Rick Bozich wrote a column about it too, and suddenly the issue became about human sexuality viewed from an entirely different angle.

The nutshell version: The UK cheerleading program is about the only group of athletes at the school that could put the basketball program to shame. They have 24 national championships, more than anyone else in the country. And on Monday, successful head coach Jomo Thompson and his assistants were fired for failing to provide oversight over the the students in their charge, as determined by a three-month internal investigation.

Imagine dropping the hammer on John Calipari and his whole staff because the basketball team is partying too much. It’s a big, big, big deal.

Supposedly, the cheerleading squad would go down to Lake Cumberland and perform a move known as a “basket toss” minus either a top or a bottom to cover their naughty bits. Alcohol was said to be involved (imagine that, college kids and alcohol. I’ve never heard of such a thing). And then at a camp in Tennessee, “some members of the team were directed by others to perform ‘lewd chants and wear outfits that did not include underwear,’” as the Lexington Herald-Leader put it.

Go on Twitter and see. Several of the UK cheerleaders posted video of themselves doing the basket tosses, saying they were not partially naked, nor intoxicated, nor coerced. Allie Law tweeted that the allegations are “completely false” and there was “no hazing.” The Herald-Leader quoted former cheerleader Jaxson Noel as saying the coaches weren’t to blame, that the team did what was reported at the lake but none of it was forced on anyone, and that the “lewd song” at the camp was “only for fun to bring us together.”

Compare that to some of what we’ve seen lately on the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” about the Chicago Bulls, with Michael Jordan berating and punching teammates in practice, and bottomless basket tosses and dirty lyrics seem downright wholesome.

But then again, we’re a society that’s much more forgiving of anger and violence than sex much of the time. 

As a culture, we have a very complicated relationship with our own sexuality. It’s something we all have in common -- none of us would be here if not for sex -- but we don’t like to talk about it. We don’t like to acknowledge that it’s out there, people are doing it, people are enjoying it, and usually in their own individual, often less-than-vanilla ways. It makes people uncomfortable. They shift in their seats. We get a “TMI” if we’re lucky, censorship when we aren’t.

And part of coming to terms with the fact that we red-blooded humans are indeed sexual beings is being an adult about it. I won’t lie. I snicker at a ribald joke like any 12-year-old potty humorist. But you also have to be an adult and be able to see past sexuality, to see a whole, three-dimensional human being. Not doing so is called “objectification.”

That’s what Bozich failed to do in his piece. As an occasional columnist myself, I don’t like to throw others under the bus, even when I disagree with them, but Bozich’s writing almost became a news item to itself, drawing criticism on social media not only from the cheerleading community but other UK sportswriters like Rivals’ Justin Rowland, who called the take “really bad.”

Bozich’s article, “Firing of UK coaches a perfect time to reassess emphasis on cheerleaders, dance teams,” has been revised from the original writing. The first go at it appeared to question the role and validity of cheerleaders and dance teams as unimportant additions to other sports, and observed that they are often dressed scantily, which means ... what, exactly? 

First of all, cheerleaders and dance teams aren’t just a sideshow to “big boy” sports. They are gifted athletes who work hard and train hard and achieve, just like those in any sport. They deserve respect for that in and of itself. They also deserve to have their skill and effort appreciated for what it is, and not just looked at as halftime eye candy.

Yes, it’s true, perhaps they dress in something more revealing than a burlap sack at times. So do the athletes on the court or the field. Those football players wear awfully tight pants. The basketball team is running around with exposed arms and legs (and remember the short-shorts that everyone used to wear before the ‘90s? Those certainly left little to the imagination). Michael Phelps became one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all-time in little more than a pair of Speedos. So what’s your point?

It sounds an awful lot like slut-shaming -- criticizing women (heavily represented in both dance and cheerleading) for having the audacity to show a little skin, to be anything other than prim and proper by social standards. And slut-shaming isn’t cool. Bozich should have known better.

All this being said ...

Athletes are still human beings. And again, human beings are sexual creatures, but to be fair, athletes are more conventionally attractive than most thanks to the focus put on sculpting their bodies into peak condition. Male or female. Going back to “The Last Dance,” NBA Commissioner David Stern discussed Michael Jordan’s incredible global popularity in the early ‘90s, in part by describing him as “handsome.” It sounded a bit odd at first; in the sports world, we are indeed much more used to hearing women discussed in terms of aesthetics than men (which is part of the problem behind Bozich’s original column). But it was true. Jordan’s athletic abilities were his true claim to fame, but that wasn’t the only thing people liked about him. He looked the part, and to some people, was physically attractive.

Let’s now return to the scene at Lake Cumberland. College students out in the sun, having fun ... and oh yeah, they’re all super buff. What do you think is going to happen? A Star Trek fan club is going to break out? No, they’re going to do what college kids do. And college kids are silly and hormone-driven anyway. Make the whole group of them, male and female alike, incredibly attractive, and ... yeah, I can see tops and bottoms coming off during basket tosses, no coercion or “hazing” required. You’re likely to see that on a normal day at Lake Cumberland as it is.

Of course, I use the term “kids,” but ... they really aren’t. They’re in college. Everyone present, whether cheerleader or coach, should be an adult. The idea that coaches knew about these activities and let it happen is the most troublesome dimension of the report, because we expect them to set a good example. But ... “good” example suggests there’s something inherently “bad” about taking off your pants and jumping in the lake. And isn’t that just a result of our complicated relationship with sex rearing its ugly head again?

The issue is complicated by the presence of alcohol -- supposedly, some squad members drank too much and required medical treatment -- and we feel the need to be extra-careful because of all the legit examples of sexual misconduct. We see teachers and coaches act inappropriately with minors in high school, or the sex abuse scandal at Michigan State, and wince at a story that involves students, coaches and nudity. And hazing is a very real problem. Students have gotten seriously hurt, even died from some of the more extreme examples out there. You don’t want that in any sports program, anywhere.

But reading about what supposedly happened with the UK cheerleading squad, it doesn’t feel like any of that. It feels like randy, good-looking college athletes of both sexes getting together, feeling uninhibited with the bodies God gave them, and having a little fun, and their coaches maybe not cracking down as hard as they could because, let’s face it, we all remember what it was like at that age. Maybe that was just a little bit of understanding on the part of the coaches.

On the part of UK, it shows little understanding. It hurts the students by making them lose the coaches who were huge parts of their lives, mentors to whom they were very close. It hurts a program with a proud tradition of success. It hurts the coaches, obviously. And it hurts the reputation of the university -- not for allowing these incidents to occur, but by making it look like they’re ashamed of their students expressing human sexuality in a seemingly harmless way (if, in fact, that even happened at all). Bottomless basket tosses, heaven forbid. I do declare, I’m clutching my pearls.

It almost feels like the university is slut-shaming the students and taking it out on the coaches. Again, human sexuality is complicated. But when you’re so uncomfortable with the very idea with it that you harm the students you serve by creating a scandal where there didn’t need to be one ... that’s a problem. It means you need to be honest and stop hiding behind the flimsy “hazing” excuse, and reflect on just what it is about the idea of the unclothed human body that bothers you so much. 

There’s a lot in this story that I find shameful. But I’m not looking at the cheerleaders or even their coaches when I say that.

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