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Is there any activity more essentially American than cheerleading? Think about it: Organized, pepped up, bursting with can-do, those gorgeous girls on the sidelines embody that iconic national virtue, pluck. It wasn't always a woman's game, though. Female students were allowed onto the University of Minnesota team for the first time in 1923, 25 years after the father of cheerleading, Johnny Campbell, stood up at a football game there to lead a chant of "Rah! Rah! Rah!" But by the time the Baltimore Colts created the National Football League's first squad in 1954, the tables had turned: All the Colts cheerleaders were women, and today, an estimated 97 percent of cheerleaders are female. Who would you rather see on the 50-yard line—former 49er cheerleader Teri Hatcher or the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and George W. Bush, all of whom rocked pompoms in their day?

Cheerleading was integrated by the civil rights movement, sexed up by the sexual revolution, and buffed up by the fitness revolution. Along the way, costumes got shorter, tighter, and skimpier. Today, the girls wear glorified bikinis with built-in support systems for Herkie jumps and kick lines. Thank goodness for indoor stadiums. The one thing that hasn't changed is good old American pluck, which you will find in spades on the sidelines this Sunday, as the Indianapolis Colts bash helmets with the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.

—Maya Singer

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