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Is Cheerleading a Sport?

As recently as two decades ago, it seemed ludicrous to think of cheerleading as a sport. Co-ed cheer squads, with the occasional gymnastic move by the girls and loud shouting in the megaphones by the guys, seemed more like a free way to get in to see the game rather than a true "sport" that involved competition.

But the evolution of cheerleading into a true competitive sport may be more than a simple academic question these days.

Quinnipiac College, a Division I non-football playing school, recently had a lawsuit brought against it by members of its recently-cut volleyball team. The team says that their team was the victim of budget cuts so that that Bobcats could continue to sponsor a "competitive cheerleading squad".

Advocates and foes alike can agree on one thing: if competitive cheerleading will be accepted as an official sport, the decision will have huge ramifications throughout the entire NCAA. (more)


The reason this could be such a huge decision would be because of Title IX.

For those unfamiliar with the law, Title IX basically states philosophically that "[high school or collegiate] men and women should have equal access to a sports experience in campus", but practically means that men's and women's sports should have some defined level of scholarships or spending in some proportion to the composition of the student body.

There are different ways (or "prongs") to implement this: 1) through proportionality (broadly speaking, "if the U. is 65% male, 65% of the sports opportunities go to men"), 2) through continual improvement ("we weren't good before at offering athletic opportunities to women, but we've gotten better"), and 3) through "effective accommodation of the underrepresented sex" ("we surveyed the women on campus, but they don't want scholarships for their volleyball team").

At the time of Title IX's enactment as law in 1973, certainly there was a need for expansion of women's sports opportunities.  It was hardly fair that full scholarships be given out to football players sitting on the pine all four years at, say Ohio State while women's basketball players had no athletic aid available.

Today, though, it's clear that Title IX has had a lasting impact on high school and collegiate athletics that will never be rolled back.  Women's sports are a part of the fabric of the collegiate educational experience, and it's hard to imagine schools suddenly stopping aid in (for example) women's basketball if the law were scrapped today.

And it's a lot harder to justify the same levels of injustice that existed in 1973 vis-a-vis men's and women's sports, though advocates of Title IX will passionately argue that the job of the law isn't close to being done:

The number of men's teams also increased from 5820 to 6010 in a 750-school sample of schools that were NCAA members throughout the 2004-2005 school year (to account for any changes that might be due to schools joining or dropping out of the NCAA). And the number of women's teams also rose during this time (5941 to 8550), which also undermines the idea that Title IX only promotes cuts to men, rather than gains for women.

Of course, Title IX doesn't say anything about number of teams, just number of participation opportunities. Those are on the rise for men (179,834 to 217,123) as well as women (93,959 to 153,347).
Select data like this are used to buttress the belief that men's sports participation hasn't suffered over the past fifteen years - that Title IX has led to more sports being available for everyone, even if the amount of athletic opportunities for women almost doubled and the opportunities for men only went up less than 25%.

And ask anyone who loves the sport of wrestling, however, and you'll get a different view.  While this op-ed New York Times article dates from 2003, the feelings are still very much in play in 2010:

In 1996, the Department of Education further bolstered the proportionality zealots by requiring colleges to count every name on a team's roster -- scholarship and nonscholarship athletes, starters and nonstarters. It is this ruling that has prompted a lawsuit by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the Committee to Save Bucknell Wrestling, the Marquette Wrestling Club, the Yale Wrestling Association, and the National Coalition for Athletics Equity, all of whom argue that the 1996 rules exceed the Department of Education's statutory authority ''by effectively mandating the very discrimination that Title IX prohibits.''

Why are wrestlers so upset about this? The number of collegiate wrestling programs lost to Title IX compliance is staggering; this is especially alarming because, since 1993, wrestling has been a rapidly growing sport at the high-school level. Data compiled by Gary Abbott, director of special projects at USA Wrestling, indicates that in 2001, there were 244,984 athletes wrestling in high school; only 5,966 got to wrestle in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Not to put too fine a point on it: there is only one N.C.A.A. spot for every 41 high-school wrestlers. The numbers have been going downhill for a while. In 1982, there were 363 N.C.A.A. wrestling teams with 7,914 wrestlers competing; in 2001, there were only 229 teams with fewer than 6,000 wrestlers. Yet, in that same period, the number of N.C.A.A. institutions has increased from 787 to 1,049. No wonder wrestlers are unhappy.

While "overall participation" may have grown, sports like wrestling have declined.  And while it wasn't mentioned in the article, a multitude of FCS football teams have been discontinued over the same time frame, some mentioning Title IX as the very reason they were dropping the sport.  (Northeastern and Hofstra, two schools that dropped football this offseason, did not mention Title IX directly as a reason for dropping their football teams, though I believe in both cases it was mentioned that their Title IX ratios would benefit by their decisions.)

Like some other legislative battles I'm aware of, the two sides on the issue are pretty entrenched, and are using the courts to try to legislate their vision of what is acceptable and what isn't.  That's what has led us to this point about competitive cheerleading.

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To be clear, competitive cheerleading is not currently sanctioned as a "sport" in the world of the NCAA. Sure, you have probably been channel flipping at one time or another and seen a collegiate "cheerleading championship" being shown on ESPN, but the body sanctioning that competition is in no way associated with the NCAA.  Those competitions were most likely created by Varsity Brands, Inc., a "a for-profit company that sells cheerleading gear and hosts up to 60 'national championships' a year," according to a Salon.com article detailing the issue.

But it's undeniable that there is some sort of legitimate championship competition out there today, involving students wearing their school colors, that involves cheerleading.  There are standardized rules and a judging system, just like there is in Olympic figure skating.  And it's not like it's some sort of beauty pageant without skill being involved: there is actual physical difficulty to the stunts and the ability to perform in tandem.

It's hard to argue that gymnastics or figure skating is a sport - where participants perform routines with levels of difficulty and are judged by a panel of experts - and cheerleading isn't, which is exactly the same thing.

There is even a collegiate organization in its infancy, the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, that was co-founded by Quinnipiac in order to start some form of governing body for this "emerging sport":

Eight universities from across the United States have come together to form the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association (NCSTA) which will act as the governing body and coaches association for competitive cheer's evolution into an NCAA emerging sport. The current members include the head coaches and administrators from Oregon, Maryland, Baylor, Quinnipiac, Fairmont State, Azusa Pacific and Fort Valley State, in addition to the club team head coach at Ohio State.
But the fact that the NCAA doesn't even count competitive cheerleading as an "emerging sport" at this time gives cause to the fans of Title IX to dismiss Quinnipiac's defense of its action to drop women's volleyball in favor of competitive cheerleading as doomed from the get-go.  "The NCAA not only doesn't sanction competitive cheer, it isn't even considered an 'emerging sport,'", says Hillary Smith of the Northwest Indiana Times.  "That's not to say that cheerleaders aren't athletes, only that cheerleading isn't yet recognized as a sport with a season and characteristics other than support of other squads."

The letter of the law says that in order to be considered for Title IX compliance, a sport needs a defined season, a governing organization, and a "feature competition".  But in ways this is a Catch-22 for competitive cheerleading: without one overriding governing organization, it's hard to have one definitive "feature competition" or defined season. 

Anyway, to me, this only seems like a technical point.  The fact is that cheerleading has been around for a long time, remains a popular activity of participation (with 117,000 girl participants nationwide in high schools around the country) and it's clear looking it over today that it's advanced a long way from the days of pep rallies, megaphones and crepe paper.  Again, it's only the advocates and NCAA that can't see what others clearly see what is emerging as a legitimate competition.

Folks with interest in the status quo - notably, Jeff Webb, CEO of Varsity Brands - testified in the trial and stated that he didn't think competitive cheerleading was a sport and that the sport threatened "classical sideline cheerleading".  That stance is unsurprising, though.  His entire business plan of hosting, sponsoring, and getting competitive cheerleading on ESPN is threatened if the NCAA sponsors competitive cheerleading as a sport.  Would anyone watch his Varsity cheerleading competitions if there was an NCAA cheerleading championship?

(Any advocates out there for "classical sideline cheerleading"?  Anyone?)

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Whether competitive cheerleading is Title IX advocates' worst nightmare (an 'invented sport' made to put schools in compliance) or truly a sport, the truth is that there is a fighting chance that sooner, rather than later, competitive cheer squads will count towards Title IX.  Even if Quinnipiac doesn't win their lawsuit, it seems like that's the direction things are headed, not least because it is a sport and it does involve skill, athletics and ability.  Folks may be able to try to deny its status as a sport because of the thought that the sport is inhabited by Mean Girls and girls who seem like they might star in the movie Heathers.

But it won't last forever.  It will happen.  There is too much interest and too much cost savings (according to this report, a cheerleading spot costs the university $1,250 per athlete in contrast to over $6,000 per voleyball player) to think otherwise.  Opponents will have to eventually throw up their hands and acknowledge this, celebrate the fact there will be "more opportunities" for women to pursue sport in college, and be done with it.

When this happens - and we see things like scholarships for cheerleaders - it could be a way to expand the number of scholarships available for men.

At large schools like Penn State, it wouldn't expand football scholarship aid - they offer 85 full scholarships to their football players, and those levels are capped.

But at smaller schools struggling to meet Title IX and aren't offering the full number of scholarships, even a few women's scholarships can help some of their football teams be better in compliance or offer more athletic aid for football.  It could even allow some teams to continue to sponsor FCS football rather than drop the sport entirely.

Cheerleading isn't an "invented sport": hundreds of thousands of girls participate in it in high school, and many continue to pursue it in college.  There are actual championships, with governing bodies.  It isn't an NCAA-sanctioned sportyet , but it's well on its way to becoming one.

And when it does get sanctioned by the NCAA - paradoxically - it could help FCS football immensely, a sport that has been hurt by Title IX in the past.

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