SMC Cheerleading gets shocking suspension for the Spring semester

Three years ago, the Cheer Program at Santa Monica College was an afterthought. There was only one cheerleading class, but the group was non-competitive and languished on the edge of irrelevance.

Then coach Jessie Moorehead was hired and what was once an unnoticed part of campus life became a source of pride. The cheerleading squad were finalists for an ESPN photo shoot along with major universities including LSU, Rutgers and Auburn and the group was doing well in national competitions, finishing as high as fourth this year.

But after this string of recent success, the Cheer Program was unceremoniously cancelled for the Spring semester and coach Moorehead was ostensibly let go, left without an assignment. According to VP of Student Affairs, Mike Tuitasi, a rules violation exposed a lack of guidelines for the program. The violation involved the use of an ineligible cheerleader during the Universal Cheerleaders Association’s(UCA) College Cheerleading National Championship.

“I said I need to put this on pause and kind of look at this and put in some guidelines so that they’re safe, that our insurance covers them as cheerleaders,” Tuitasi said.

The issue was that one of the cheerleaders was not enrolled in a winter class which was a violation of the guidelines that SMC had in place. It was not in violation of UCA competition rules however, which only required that the team have a signed contract from Athletic Director Reggie Ellis, even though the program is not technically a part of Athletics.

According to Ellis, who only agreed to answer questions through email, “The Athletic Department is responsible for all intercollegiate athletic teams and cheer is not an intercollegiate athletic team. Cheer was offered as a class in the Kinesiology department.” This leaves cheerleading with different guidelines for eligibility from most athletic programs.

According to Tuitasi, “K-12 has just approved to have cheer under athletics. The CSC’s have cheer under athletics. Community colleges currently don’t but they’re moving in that direction.”

Caught in the middle of this regulatory confusion was Moorehead. To make matters worse, in her two-plus years at SMC, she had four different Athletic Directors, each with different ideas of what the program was and what rules it needed to follow. The SMC rules for this last competition stated that all participants had to be enrolled in winter classes, something that Moorehead said she did her best to confirm.

“I had no way to verify [if students were registered],” she said. “I don’t have access so the only thing I had to do was submit my information to my Athletic Director.” Moorehead said she requested a class schedule from each student to verify their enrollment and that she was provided false information by the student found in violation. “I was under the impression that he was a student,” she said.

Ellis wrote that, “Coach Moorehead informed me that she had checked with all the entire team and indicated that all the participants were currently enrolled at SMC[sic].” It was not discovered until the day before the finals, when the team was already in Florida, that a student was ineligible. When Ellis informed Moorehead of the development she said she would do her best to rework their routine and remove him from the floor.

According to Ellis, “Coach Moorehead informed me that she would talk to that participant to verify his enrollment at SMC. At approximately 5:35, coach Moorehead called me and told that she had made adjustments to the routine and removed the participant from the routine entirely.”

This was when things became difficult for Moorehead. Their routine was already rehearsed and ready and she realized there was no way to replace the student and still perform their routine. She said she was then told by the student that they had acquired an add code from an instructor at SMC and added the class, while in Florida, to become eligible.

“I tried to call Reggie the day of the competition and got his voicemail,” she said.

With her only options being to go ahead as planned or withdraw from the competition, Moorehead said she put her faith in the student. They performed and finished fourth.

After returning home to Santa Monica, she was informed that the student had not added the course and that the program, along with her duties, would be suspended.

When asked why they were not put on a probationary period, Tuitasi said, “The issue then is, who is going to follow up on the cheerleaders? When I started looking to see who was actually cheering, one kid was disqualified. To me, it’s like I need to put in place checks and balances.” He said he wants to do more research and make sure the students are safe. “That’s the reasoning why we had to look at it this semester because their big competition is in winter.”

The competition aspect however, is the main question right now. “The big discussion is competitive cheer here at the institution,” Tuitasi said. “Is that an activity that will be taken on or that we’re going to keep?... We’re keeping the course, but it’s the competitive part that I really need to look at and develop.”

Concerning Coach Moorehead’s future at SMC, he said that there is currently no discussion of bringing her back.

These developments leave the current and prospective cheerleaders wondering what to do next. Cheerleader Matt Boone, who transferred from El Camino College to SMC to be a member of the cheer team, said, “I never really was a great student… cheerleading gave me an opportunity to force myself to get good grades… you have to be a good student in order to compete. [Moorehead] personally pushed me to better my record... It’s like I lose a part of me that pushed me to do better in school, to keep going to school.”

There were also those who had yet to come to SMC who had to change their plans. “We had kids that already purchased their plane tickets to come out in May for tryouts and I had to contact them and say it’s not smart,” Moorehead said.

“I’m so sorry for many cheerleaders who planned on coming to SMC,” said Boone. “They’re missing out on an opportunity to better themselves, not only as cheerleaders but as a total person, and especially a scholar.”

Fellow cheerleader, Victoria Mandigo said, “[Moorehead] was always telling me to make sure you’re ready to transfer. She’s been kind of like a second mom to me here at school.”

When asked if the problems with cheer could be solved by moving it under Athletics, Tuitasi said, “I think so. That way there’s the checks and balances that are in place.” As far as when we can expect the cheer program reinstated, Tuitasi said he is aiming for summer.

Moorehead doesn’t deny the violation but she said, “It’s unfortunate. What they’re doing now [with the program] are things I’ve been asking for all along. It’s unfortunate that I won’t be there to see it.”

Moorehead’s stint at SMC was impressive regardless of how it ended. Taking a non-competitive program and turning it into a national contender is no small feat. Whoever takes over in the summer will have big shoes to fill. As Matt Boone said, “If you’re a decent cheerleader, you know that the coach is everything.”