High school football has resumed in Ohio, but cheerleaders left home amid COVID restrictions, including the state champion Bexley squad, reveal a still-unequal playing field

When each Bexley High School football player forked over the $150 “pay to participate” fee required of all athletes by the school, all of the cheerleaders did the same.

When the football players participated in socially distanced conditioning sessions twice a week throughout the late summer months, the cheerleaders were also training outdoors three or four days a week, preparing as best they could under the conditions for the physical rigors demanded of their sport.

And when the football players boarded a bus to travel to the season opener at Liberty Union on Friday, Sept. 4, a game the team lost 42-9, the cheerleaders, including junior Margaret Zirwas, remained at home, barred from participating amid COVID enforcement. (The cheerleaders are allowed to partake in Bexley home games, but road trips are dependent on policies put in place by the opposing school.)

“Our athletic director (Eli Goldberger) emailed our [cheerleading] coach (Brooke Wojcik) and said, ‘The other school says … they want to limit the number of people there, so you can’t go,’” Zirwas said. “And this is coming from our athletic director, who had been telling us, ‘You know, guys, just keep practicing,’ who had been talking to the board, who had been advocating for sports. And then when it came down to it, it was like, ‘Well, we only meant the sports that are sports-sports.’ It just kind of felt like, ‘You guys don’t matter.’”

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Goldberger and Wojcik never replied to emails from Alive requesting an interview; officials with Bexley City Schools also declined to make the athletic director available for an interview, emailing a statement that read, in part, “Per the Ohio Department of Health order, each school district is required to establish health and safety protocols based on their unique facilities to ensure safety for all athletes and limited spectators during competitions. Unfortunately, due to the specific health and safety protocols required at Liberty Union, our cheerleaders were not invited to participate in the away football game held at their stadium.”

In a phone message, Liberty Union athletic director Janet McClaskey said the school’s decision was made due to the small size of the stadium and the state requirement to cap event capacity at 15 percent. McClaskey also noted that Liberty Union’s cheerleaders would similarly not be allowed to travel for away games.

At the same time, Zirwas noted that every football player was allowed to travel to the game, even freshmen who stood no chance of seeing the field, and the decision exhibited a double standard, invalidating the cheerleaders’ claim to the event. “These are our games, too,” Zirwas said. “Other than field hockey, we’re the only sport that’s just girls, so it kind of felt like they were saying, ‘What you guys do isn’t real. You’re just an accessory.’”

Zirwas also noted that, with social distancing practices in place, cheerleading would have a significantly lower risk of spreading infection than a high-contact sport such as football.

Zirwas started participating in cheer in middle school, though she can’t recall what about the sport attracted her interest. Over the years, though, she said her view of cheer had evolved, shifting from one where she didn’t view it as a sport (“At first it was something I just did for fun,” she said) to one of great respect for the degree of athleticism involved. “It’s very fulfilling to be able to throw someone in the air, and to know it looks good and that I’m doing this correctly,” Zirwas said. “We have to lift, and there’s actual conditioning involved to be able to do what we do.”

The Bexley cheer team is accomplished, too, having captured the Division III state championship in the first year the school entered the competition.

“I think the fundamental challenge we’re facing — and it’s not related to COVID, per se, though a lot of of biases might be coming to the surface because of COVID — is that there is an interpretation among certain populations that cheerleading is not equal to other sports,” said Nicole Kraft, Ohio State associate professor of clinical communication and director of the Sports and Society Initiative. “I remember when I was in high school, our cheerleaders would bake brownies for the football players and decorate their lockers, and there was a subservience, and historically I think it’s been that way.

"There’s a level of subordination from the people who are in cheer to the people who are in football. There has never been an equal balance, and that attitude has to change, and I think it has to change from both sides. The people who are participating in cheer need to promote it as being an equal athletic event that just so happens to be held in cooperation with football. And football has to stop thinking of cheer as something that serves it and more that these are people who have athletic talent who are showcasing it in the same space at the same time.”

Zirwas said her cheermates were similarly disappointed upon learning their season could be severely truncated, but there was a hesitation among some about drawing too much attention to the issue. “First of all, nobody wants to act like they really care, because it’s not cool to be like, ‘This is sexist!’” Zirwas said. “So the general attitude has been, ‘There’s nothing we can do. Let’s hope we can go to the next one.'”

“And how heartbreaking is it that even in a place like Bexley, which is considered to be a pretty liberal space, that women don’t feel comfortable standing up and saying, ‘We deserve to be treated equal to men’?” Kraft said. “And what a message we’re conveying to these high school students, these future leaders in our communities, to say, ‘What you’re doing isn’t as important as what this other person is doing.’”

At the same time, Zirwas said the cheerleaders never pushed for the football team to skip the away game in a show of athlete solidarity (“If we had actually tried to advocate for that there would have been a lot of backlash,” she said). Rather, Zirwas said the cheerleaders just wanted to see some evidence that administrators had fought for their inclusion, along with a recognition that their sport deserves to be placed on equal footing with football.

“I’d like our school to stand up for us, or even acknowledge it was unfair,” Zirwas said. “There was no acknowledgment. No one said, ‘We know this is unfair and we’ll do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’ Even if there was nothing they could do in the end, some show of support would have been nice.”