"You have to choose him.”
The voice hung over the large elliptical wooden table. The table, buffed to a high-gloss shine only hours earlier, was now strewn with empty soda cans, piles of applications and stacks and stacks of videotapes. On the wall, there was dozens of multi-colored names that were crossed off, arrowed to one side or another and the individuals within the room were spent. They had spent the last three days reviewing the qualifications and audition tapes of the country’s top mascots. Although a majority of the mascot applicants were in college, a surprising number of High School applicants had made impressive inroads into the application process.
“You can avoid this as long as you want,” said the calm voice, “but he is going to be chosen. There are two dozen reporters outside, all from national media outlets, and they are expecting an announcement soon.”
“I don’t know,” said the chairman. “The halftime presentation on the bombing of the Vieques Island, the PETA thing and the salute to bio-diesel keeps bothering me. It is not cheerleading.”
“It is cheerleading,” responded the voice in a polite but forceful tone, “it is socially responsible cheerleading.”
The boardroom was on the top floor of Bigcheer, Incorporated. Bigcheer was the nation’s largest spiritwear and cheer equipment manufacturer/distributor in the world and the group around the table took the marketing of spirit very seriously. Each year, Bigcheer assembles the brightest and (obviously) most enthusiastic group of cheerleaders in the nation to get together to determine the best cheerleader. Surprisingly, past winners have represented all races, creeds and backgrounds with a nice balance of females and males. Bigcheer was always the first to state that “the love of cheering was a pure love for all humankind®.” Cheerleading was one of the first disciplines to drop all barriers; from sexual orientation to national origins to pursue the art of cheerleading. Grounded in a strange combination of theater and athletics, it remains a truly American concoction of coordinated and non-genuine enthusiasm. Whether the winner was an actual cheerleader or a mascot, the purity of their message was paramount.
The cluttered table was a long, elliptical oval that was surrounded by huge bronze sculptures of young men and women in mid-flight with their mouths silently projecting percussive cheers for perpetuity. At night, many of the cleaning crew would successfully pass the room to the novice cleaners as the collective attitude was the room creeped out anyone who had not had immersed themselves in the religion of cheer. They took cheerleading very seriously and this new challenge was sure to at least force some conceptual changes in an activity that always resisted change, but now this was something cosmetic, this was real.
The ten-person selection committee was made up of three main constituencies: rapidly aging old female cheerleaders that were desperately clinging onto their own illogical perspective of youth, middle-aged effeminate men cheerleaders that cut their teeth in the sport in college only and three flacks of the marketing department. The tenth member was the son of the founder of Bigcheer who was fighting the growing sentiment of the groups.
“Mama would die if that Mulendyke kid got an invite.”
“Stan, your Mama died six years ago.”
“Well, you know what I mean. If she was alive when we picked this rabble-rouser, it would have been the death of her.”
“Fascinating circumstances aside,” said a dark suited marketing toadie, “We need this kid to position ourselves for the future.”
“How so?” This was asked by one of the fossilized
cheerleaders who likely turned heads back in the days of the first moon
landing. Now, she sat surrounded by two other yellow haired relics that
likely waxed nostalgic between rounds of vodka martinis. Today, other than
an alumni cheerleading get-together, they were kept busy slugging back
adult drinks and lying about the books they had read.
“This is how so,” said the marketing representative. “When you think about the real purpose of cheerleading, you have to admit that it is a bit antiquated.”
The other two fossilized cheerleaders redundantly responded in ironic unison for the first time since they hung-up their pom-poms, “Antiquated in what ways?”
“Think about it. Young women, or primarily young women, dressed in costumes, encouraging people to shout in semi-rehearsed manners. The question is not ‘why do people cheer?’ The question is ‘why do we need an organized cadre of similarly dressed young people to show them how to do it?’”
The room fell silent. The absurdity had always been there but no one up until now questioned it. Undaunted and pre-occupied with making his afternoon plane, the marketing representative concluded, “We are obligated to embrace the new ideas and position ourselves for the future. Today, we have only one socially-conscious cheerleader but there is a good chance that within five years, it will be relatively common to see entire cheerleading squads act out ‘Cesar Chavez: The Musical’ or ‘Smackdown: Roe v. Wade.’ Let’s get with the times people or we will be literally and figuratively left off the field.”
The room began to come alive after the plea from the marketing guy. The discussions were wrapping up and no final vote was necessary: the kid from Florida was going to be invited to the National Championships. The list was reviewed a final time, sorted alphabetically and a final press release was produced.
“Send the reporters in,” said the chairperson, “Let’s make some news.”
The large oak doors opened up and a dozen reporters and camera walked in to hear what the committee had to say. As the technicians hastily set up camera and lights, the beat reporters went to chairperson and asked the question that everyone cared about.
“Is the Mulendyke kid in?”
“We will be reading the final list of invitees, in alphabetical order, in about thirty minutes. We are in the process of contacting them via the telephone and want to make sure that formality has been taken care of prior to any press release.” However, as the amateurs continued to ask, all the major news groups were being leaked the news they had been waiting two days to hear: the socially conscious kid from Florida was in the championships.
Sitting in the office with the rest of Team Mulendyke, Ned saw the news crawl at the bottom of the screen announce his invitation. He smirked and reached over to one of the recently-completed planning booklets to review the strategy. The book, authored by Valerie Slate, detailed and prioritized the proposed strategy for the championships. Ned’s success was growing and both Valerie and their third partner, Raymond Hawken, had prospered by the arrangement. Ned’s second year was one for the record books, with national media attention and several awards from several human rights groups. Some enthusiastic staffers were quietly checking into eligible humanitarian award for future applications.
“I bet Katie Phillips is pissed,” said Valerie as she scanned the faxed copies of the nominees. She has been at UCSB for two years and she’s done nothing. Except for a few Supermarket openings.”
“She has lost the fire,” said Ned, “she doesn’t
care anymore. She was talented but her problem was that she completely
missed the hypocrisy of the whole thing.”
Valerie contacted their press agent to make sure he fielded every call and made a first pass at prioritizing the press requests. The strategy book had laid it all out: national television would be the first group to accommodate, followed by national print and then finally, the regional and local beat reporters.
The group had been planning this right after Ned’s first year as the Broward High School Tarpon. That summer fell nicely into place, once a few negotiations were held outside the traditional arena of school activities. Ned had a three year no-cut contract and complete artistic freedom. He could say or do anything he wanted, all the name of school spirit. As a freshman, he showed glimpses of a social conscious but it wasn’t until his sophomore year did he hit his stride. That summer before sophomore year was when Ned and his partners established their goal of BigCheer competition.
They knew they could run their business regionally but to really cash in, they needed to take it national and the competition provided them the best vehicle for that plan. They studied the rules and criteria for nomination and began an intensive lobbying effort to get on the short list. Once they were on that list, a hungry media that was desperate for something creative and newsworthy, would push Ned into the front and center. The halftime shows were evolving into more emotional vignettes with Ned’s interest in the environment front and center.
The first game of the season, Ned circled the football stadium in a solar-powered car, complete with a bio-diesel backup. He had coordinated with the marching band to conduct, as a tuxedo-wearing Tarpon in an up-tempo version of Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine.” The rest of the early games were salutes to alternative energy strategies including Wind Technologies (with the songs of Lerner and Lowe), safe nuclear disposal (George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” and Pat Travers’ “Boom, Boom: Out Go the Lights”) and Car Pooling (with a medley of the Beatles’ “Baby, You Can Drive My Car,” The Ides of March’s “Vehicle,” and Ronny and the Daytona’s “Little GTO”).
The second half of the football season, Ned moved into a hybrid of melding Broadway show tunes with separate salutes to the Second Amendment and innovative recycling ideas. One evening, with a NBC affiliate looking on, Ned came out in his Tarpon costume, bedecked as a Cowboy (complete with pair of scaly chaps) and did a full-on production from “Oklahoma.” In the song, “The Farmer and the Cowman,” he replaced the two protagonists with “the Vegan” and “the Lacto Ovo Vegetarian. “ And he ended up with an a cappella version of “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” where he chided the audience while flashing airborne pollutants statistics on the scoreboard while referencing hybrid engine research several times in the song. At the end of the show, he drove his surrey into a large recycler which spilled out reusable building materials on the on other end a few moments later. He killed and left the field into the salivating clutches of the local NBC reporter and by the end of the weekend, the national desks were heading to Broward.
The winter season began as strongly as the fall season ended. Ned and his team made conscious efforts to replicate their messages to match the venues. Their website, featuring props from the shows, DVD’s of performances, posters, Chumcorn®, FinsUp® foam fins, autographed pictures and other products were selling very well. He had another year to go as the Broward Tarpon but the team consensus was they were all anxious to go after the big time. The one thing that was missing was an invitation to BigCheer’s national competition. Once that was achieved, Team Mulendyke would be ready for some serious, serious money. No other socially conscious cheerleaders were in the market, or at least not yet, so the end game was to become the first, remain the best and get out on top. There was no interest coming back for a third year as the unpaid Tarpon, it was time to bring this show on the road.
The application process for BigCheer was the easy part but the group knew that the traditional judges on the panel were likely not going to consider Ned and his progressive theater antics. The consensus of the group was to start a media groundswell, thus providing leverage to get into the elite group of cheerleaders. Valerie was tasked to develop a marketing strategy to achieve such a goal and within a few weeks, it was completed. The underlying strategy for success was a combination of national media exposure, a ringing endorsement from a key opinion leader and a great new theme which could be easily expanded in a pageant atmosphere. Once the theme was agreed on by the group; the fittings, prop acquisition and pyrotechnics would be needed to be sketched out to determine its show quality. What separates this gig from your standard half-time showcase was the location: Vegas, baby.
Raymond worked with the theater folks and landed on the main theme for his selection: key government efforts in the 1960’s and 1970’s including the Civil Rights Act of 1964/1968, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, Title IX, Fair Packaging and Labeling Act and the establishment of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It started with an opening montage of southern cities, supermarkets, women’s athletics and nutritional labels. The Tarpon was seen in numerous situations including reading “banned” books (by Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Salinger, and et. al), shopping and reading labels in a supermarket (complete with giving a “fins up” when discovering examples of truth in labeling and shots outside the local courthouse with prominent images of blind justice. The background music was well-paced and the Tarpon’s choreography was understated and appropriately muted with such a heavy subject to celebrate.
Valerie bundled up the videotape, application and an impressive press packet for the judges. The team was confident with the selection of the theme: it was diverse, non-derivative and very responsible. The judges couldn’t ignore their insights but to make sure, Raymond had made himself available for all media requests and the components of his application were leaked to ensure maximum airplay. The theme was both patriotic and forward-thinking and the kids were confident that it would bubble itself to the top as it was surrounded by the same insipid and tired camera shots shakily held by someone’s well-meaning mother.
After taking as much time as possible, the selection committee announced the ten finalists and the last one named was Ned Mulendyke. Only very rarely did a High School student get an invite but Ned’s underclassman rank made him a rarity. Even on her best day, Katie Phillips couldn’t even imagine getting a nomination because although she was good, her act was replicated in a hundred venues each weekend. A strong smile and an athletic bounce gave you nothing; you had to have something unique to make this field and Ned had it. But unfortunately for the group convening in Manhattan, no one knew what to make of it….whatever it was.
The weekend of the competition had Team Mulendyke arrive at the hotel complete with a small entourage of press from several countries. Ned’s showmanship had won him a large following from the French and Le Monde had sent two reporters to follow his every move. As the team worked its way through the lobby, Ned was besieged for autographs and asked the same litany of questions that had no known answer.
“Ned, do you have any idea of the judging criteria?”
“Ned, how do you think you are going to do?”
“Ned, where are you going to college?”
“Ned, “Qu'est-ce que vous faites comme amusement?”
The group got into the elevator and went up to their suite. It was a quiet ride and when the got there, all the equipment including a back-up costume was waiting for them. Once their bags were dropped and they all retired briefly to their rooms, they reconvened to discuss their strategy. The two day competition was structured a lot like the first Broward competition. There were interviews with all the judges, basic tumbling and dance proficiency assessments and the improvisational component of the competition. The second day was two major pieces: the planned long program and a cruel musical chairs method of all ten nominees continually playing off each other while being directed by the judges. The last event was legendary to see how these supposedly unflappable spirit machines reacted to the pressure of unscripted and random madness. There were numerous stories of cool and confident candidates being reduced to teary-eyed and stammering idiots thanks to several hours on stage.
The winner was instantly a celebrity; joining the tour of champions, numerous endorsements, impressive appearance fees at the myriad of cheer and mascot camps around the country and the mountain of free tchotchke and related equipment/spirit wear that would be becoming valuable and sought-after collectibles in the future years.
The team compared notes and began an in-depth analysis of Ned’s competition. There was no specific challenger as the rest of the nominees had come from very traditional cheer backgrounds: there were seven cheerleaders (five female and two male) and two other mascots (one female, one male). Ned was the only competitor in High School but two of the others were in their freshman year at college and were also considered part of the younger generation. Only one had been at BigCheer before, placing a forgettable sixth place two years earlier. The sheer generic nature troubled both Valerie and Ned. The big question was whether or not Ned would antagonize the uninitiated and as a result, eliminate himself early in the competition. As Raymond went downstairs for more press interviews, the two began to focus on their messages.
“I wouldn’t open with your salute to generic prescription drugs,” said Valerie.
“I agree,” said Ned. “I also am not planning on my protest on land mine manufacturing.”
“Good, how about something a bit more upbeat? Maybe our nod to increase teen literacy.”
“Maybe, what do you think about mandatory seat belts?”
“Too preachy,” said Valerie, “Let’s get something about our personal freedoms. You need to throw in an American flag but it has to be classy, similar to our salute to the Panama Canal last year.”
“Agreed. Let’s go with teen literacy. Let's take the high ground.”
Raymond came up from the lobby after giving his tenth interview and proclaimed that the press, to a person, was completely for Ned and his bold, innovative strategies to “reclaim” the medium of cheerleading.
“I feel soiled,” said Raymond. “I am a seventeen year old kid and I am jerking around every major news organization in the country.”
“Who else was there?” asked Valerie without looking up from the itinerary.
“Everybody, including your friends from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, ACLU and National Coalition Against Censorship. Where do you find these people?”
“They are just friends,” said Valerie, “and I want to go to Yale next year.”
“I want to graduate, get a car, go on a date and do seminars at fifty thousand a gig,” smiled Ned. “But we have to win this little tryout first.”
“I wish I was old enough to gamble,” said Raymond.
“We are basically gambling now,” said Valerie. “I don’t know how many other cheerleaders are memorizing music cues to a trip to the library and dancing with an inflatable Dewey Decimal to the tune of "Book of Love.”
The rest of the cheer nominees were completely anonymous to the press and could come and go as they pleased. Easily recognizable with their own equipment bags loudly proclaiming a wide spectrum of action verbs and cheerleading synonyms. Stage mothers hauling boom boxes, wardrobe carts and pom-poms were seemingly everywhere while the media was oblivious to all spirit professionals, save Ned Mulendyke and the rest of Team Mulendyke.
The trio all called home and left the hotel though a back kitchen door, avoiding the media crushes. Just as soon as the cleared the last corner in the loading dock, they were spotted by a phalanx of reporters. As the crowd turned and began to chase after them, Valerie waved a cab over and they all piled in. As they looked back, they saw dozens of reporters and camera/sound people scrambling with their equipment and trying to give chase. The cab turned the corner, and upon instructions to lose the crowd, double-backed though a nearby alley and headed in the opposite direction of their assumed escape. The taxi driver, nonchalant with this break from the mundane, brought them to a local restaurant that would make it impossible for anyone to find them.
“I’ll be back in an hour and a half,” said the driver, “Try the plantains.”
Exactly an hour and a half later, the taxi pulled up to the front of the restaurant and the driver came in. He saw his young charges and sat down at their table. The table was full of empty plates and the distinctive dark smudges of cooked bananas told him that numerous plantains were consumed.
“So, are you guys a rock band or something?”
”No, this guy,” said Valerie with a motion of her thumb, “Is the cheerleader of the future.”
“Yes, really. We are here to compete in a national cheerleading competition.”
“We? Are all three of you cheerleaders?” asked the driver.
“You seem humble,” said the driver. Right when the comment was uttered, Raymond convulsed and a stream of root beer shot out of both nostrils.
“Humble?” said Ned, “I may have been a few years ago, but I assure you that one thing I am not these days, is humble.”
The three friends, seeing an opportunity to confide in someone with almost no interest in the motives, began to tell the story. They began with the first plan, one to achieve social recognition and eased right into the second chapter, that of making obscene amounts of money while playfully placing an American institution on its enthusiastic ear.
The driver, now picking orts of food off the sea of plates, laughed and provided important validation to the three. “I think what you are doing is fantastic,” he said. “No one is getting hurt and you are forcing people to re-think a lot of things.”
“We’ve created a monster,” said Ned.
“I agree,” mumbled Raymond. “And I am beginning to really hate the French.”
“You have no argument from me,” said the driver.
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