Is Cheerleading a Sport?

by Prez Ro, Matteson, IL

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Is it legal to count cheerleading as a varsity sport?
As someone who covers high school students in sports, it has always amazed me how often the debate about whether cheerleading is a sport comes up.

Some cheerleaders have admitted to me they don’t think what they do is a sport. Others have been downright militant defending it.

First, the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the Quinnipiac Title IX lawsuit most athletic administrators are still wondering if it is legal to count cheerleading as a varsity sport. The short answer is no, at least not yet.

Second, there were a couple of instances in the past week when talk about whether any Olympic event that had the words “rhythmic” and “synchronized” preceding it was really a sport, and at one party I attended that spurred the cheerleading debate again.

Did the court make the right decision? We believe this was a cynical plan by Quinnipiac to keep the school within Title IX compliance while cutting women’s volleyball (and, incidentally, men’s golf and men’s track and field). 

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The IHSA considers cheerleading a sport, and the championship it holds is actually a state-wide recognized event. Raising a competitive cheerleader I’ve learned that the amount of time on offseason work is now the equal of, since I am posing this as a question, for purposes here what I will refer to as conventional sports like football and basketball.

Competitive cheering is an evolving sport—the Washington Post notes that the “activity” is growing more organized and has various outfits, such as the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association, working to make it a recognized sport. Cheerleading’s raison d'être is to root, root, root for the home team. If you take that element away, what’s all that yelling and cheering for, even during competitions?

This is not your mother's cheerleading anymore!!!!

In 2003 the University of Maryland became one of the first universities in the country to elevate its cheerleading squad to varsity status. This move opened the debate as to whether or not cheerleading, dance teams, and drill teams should be considered varsity sports for the purposes of Title IX compliance. Critics of this action argue that promoting cheerleading to a varsity sport is merely a way for institutions to circumvent the intended purpose of Title IX. Supporters of the action argue that cheerleading or competitive cheer has evolved over the years to become a nationally competitive sport that involves strength, gymnastics and teamwork.

Today competitive cheer more closely resembles the sport of gymnastics than the sideline cheering of the past. This change has been reflected in the Office of Civil Rights gradually softening its position on this issue. In 2000 OCR issued a statement that said that while there was still a presumption that cheerleading was not a sport that determinations would be made on a case-by-case basis.

Competition must be its primary goal and not merely exist to support other athletic teams. To qualify, a squad must meet five (5) criteria promulgated by the Office of Civil Rights:

Selection of squad members must be based largely on factors related to athletic ability.
The squad’s activity must have as a primary purpose the preparation for and participation in athletic competition against other, similar teams.
The squad must prepare for and participate in competition in the same way other teams in the athletic program do, for example by conducting tryouts, being coached, practicing regularly, and being scheduled regularly for competitions.
National, state, and conference level championship competitions must exist for the squad’s activity.
The squad’s activity must be administered by an athletics department.

These guidelines appear to point in the direction of allowing competitive cheer to be defined as a sport, and to be considered a varsity sport for Title IX purposes; and, the decision in Quinnipiac did not disagree with these requirements.

Now after talking with an attorney who deals with labor, she believes the court believed that at this time competitive cheer at Quinnipiac did not meet these standards. If your institution is considering moving cheerleading to varsity status remember that in addition to meeting the OCR criteria outlined above, the competitive cheer program would also need to have full access to all of the support services available to other varsity teams such as academic advising, strength and conditioning, sports information, training room, marketing and promotions, and locker rooms. Finally, the competition-oriented priority of the competitive cheer program should not be undermined by having the squad cheer at other teams’ games. In fact, it would be best if the traditional cheerleading team continued to exist and cheered at games, while the competitive cheer team concentrated solely on competition. In short, two separate entities.

The athletic prowess demonstrated by competitive cheerleaders rivals, and perhaps even surpasses, the athletic rigor of other college sports. The controversy about cheerleading semantics—sport vs. "activity"—is rooted in its inconsistencies across the country.

Advocates who argue that cheerleading is as much a sport as football or baseball are quick to point to high school injury rates, which show more per capita injuries in cheerleading than in any sport outside football. For the record, Prep Rally has always been sympathetic with this view, with those injury rates only a small symptom of the larger competitive cheerleading circuit which has gained prevalence and even landed TV airtime on ESPN.

Naturally, that doesn't make cheerleading a sport in and of itself. The flips and tumbling routines would seem to do that. Don't tell that to the federal courts, though. Evidently they aren't hearing any of it.

SLOGAN... Athletes lift weights... cheerleaders lift athletes!!!!



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