But I'm an Athlete

A university’s recent attempt to cut its women’s volleyball team and replace it with a competitive cheerleading squad has rekindled the flames of a fiery debate among scholars of gender equity in collegiate athletics: namely, is cheerleading a sport?

June 30, 2009

A university’s recent attempt to cut its women’s volleyball team and replace it with a competitive cheerleading squad has rekindled the flames of a fiery debate among scholars of gender equity in collegiate athletics: namely, is cheerleading a sport?

In April, a group female volleyball players and their coach sued Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut, charging that the institution’s plans to eliminate the sport violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. (The university had also planned to cut its men’s golf and track teams.) Though the presiding judge in the case issued an injunction ordering Quinnipiac to keep the women’s volleyball team, the plaintiffs remained irritated by the university’s decision to elevate its competitive cheerleading club team to varsity status.

During the trial, Robin Sparks, head coach of Quinnipiac’s women’s volleyball team, argued that the purpose of Title IX is to ensure that women have athletic opportunities beyond cheerleading, an activity she noted had long been one of the few activities made available to young women for many generations.

Still, Sparks and the volleyball players from Quinnipiac were a bit more generous in their testimony than some critics have been toward competitive cheerleading, at least acknowledging the possibility that it might be considered a legitimate sport by Title IX standards.

Competitive cheerleading can be a co-ed sport, but at most institutions with varsity squads, the teams are female-only. Additionally, most varsity squads only compete against squads from other institutions in head-to-head cheer contests and tournaments. These events are what make cheerleading a sport in the eyes of its supporters. Some teams, however, also double as their institution's "spirit" squad, or the cheerleading group that appears at traditional sporting events like men's basketball and football games. Still, the norm is having two separate squads, one for "spirit" and another for the varsity, scholarship sport of competitive cheerleading.

Reducing Women’s Opportunities?

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, legal advisor for the Women’s Sports Foundation and professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, stated in an e-mail that competitive cheerleading can only be considered a sport when it is treated just like every other athletic team at an institution. She argued that the cheerleading squad must have the “same focus on competition, same objective criteria for winning/losing, same head-to-head competition, same school support with uniforms, equipment, medical care and physical therapy, locker rooms, publicity, media guides, scholarships, travel, access to training room, competent coaching, etc.”

Hogshead-Makar believes that a number of competitive cheerleading squads do not meet this standard. For example, she is currently in litigation against a high school athletic association in which some varsity cheerleading squads did not participate in any end-of-the-year contests because their members were “too tired from the football and basketball season,” an extra cheer obligation that does not constitute competition.

Though Hogshead-Makar made the slimmest of acknowledgments that competitive cheerleading can be run like a sport, she stated that its presence at the varsity level displaces other women’s sports – such as crew, gymnastics, field hockey, archery and soccer – that can lead to what she called “more educational opportunities.” She believes that some institutions have added cheerleading for less-than-honest reasons.

“The band could also be counted as a sport,” Hogshead-Makar wrote. “Have you seen them dance in formation in hot clothes – while playing an instrument? But schools aren't trying to add band because so many more boys are members. Again, it goes back to whether a school is trying to illegitimately beef up its women's program to make it look better as compared with the men.”

No Answers from Government

The federal view on cheerleading is murky, at best. The Office for Civil Rights, a subset of the Department of Education charged with enforcing Title IX, has never made a public stance for or against the recognition of cheerleading, even during the past decade when a number of high-profile institutions, such as the Universities of Oregon and Maryland at College Park, have elevated it to varsity status.

Instead, last year, the Office for Civil Rights issued a letter to universities around the country offering its official guidance as to what constitutes an athletic activity that can be counted for Title IX compliance. The letter does not call out any intercollegiate activities by name, but it does note that all should be considered on a “case-by-case” basis.

Among the benchmarks outlined by the letter, an intercollegiate activity must have competition as its chief objective to be considered a “sport.” It also must have a defined season, set practices, coaches and be under the umbrella of a governing organization. Institutions that sponsor competitive cheerleading as a varsity sport often argue that their squads comfortably meet these standards. But some critics counter that this non-decision on cheerleading is far from an official endorsement.

A spokesman from the Department of Education speaking on behalf of the Office for Civil Rights said it is “reviewing guidance from the previous administration before making further decisions.” As such, the recommendation from the Bush administration remains the closest to an official answer cheerleading advocates and critics have to this burning question.

Lack of Institutional Support

Despite the simmering legal and values debate, few institutions have introduced varsity competitive cheerleading squads that they include in Title IX counts. This being the case, the topic no longer attracts the ire of advocacy groups and the interest of athletic departments that it once did.

Lamar Daniel, a gender equity and sports management consultant who represents a number of high-profile Division I NCAA clients (and who is also a former Office for Civil Rights staffer), said he does not think many larger institutions will add competitive cheerleading in the near future.

“A whole lot of the schools I work with are at proportionality,” said Lamar, meaning that they offer athletic opportunities equitably to male and female students. “These are big football schools, some of them. They’re not going to add anything else. They’ve worked hard at it and have chosen proportionality because they believe it’s the strongest test of Title IX.”

Not only are few institutions jumping on the bandwagon to add competitive cheerleading as a sport, but Daniel said one of cheerleading’s largest governing bodies is not offering much support either. As the National Collegiate Athletic Association does not recognize cheerleading as a sport, the National Cheerleaders Association runs one of the major collegiate cheerleading championships. The association, however, is owned by Varsity Brands, a for-profit company that runs camps for young cheerleaders and sells them apparel.

“They’re opposed to intercollegiate cheerleading taking hold,” Daniel said of the National Cheerleaders Association, based on his dealings with them. “They make their money off of cheerleading camps. If the colleges take over the camps, much in the way that they do for other sports, they’ll lose money.”

On the Ground

No matter what experts on both sides of the issue believe, there are a relatively small number of varsity competitive cheerleading squads that have stayed up and running with nary a challenge. Morgan State University, a public historically black college in Maryland, elevated its squad from club to varsity status two years ago following an annual review of its Title IX compliance. The university now has six men’s sports and nine women’s sports.

Floyd Kerr, athletics director at Morgan State, said the decision to add competitive cheerleading instead of another women’s sport was one of both convenience and money. The university already had a highly active club cheerleading squad that had been competing for a handful of years against the other member institutions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the remainder of which currently have club squads. Morgan State, however, is the only member of the conference to have elevated cheerleading to varsity status.

Photo: Morgan State University

The Morgan State University Cheer Bears supporting their team at a home basketball game, a non-competitive event.

“We already had strong participation annually,” Kerr said. “The numbers matched the interests and needs of the females we looked at through our survey process. Also, when we did assessments of adding the costs of, for example, a soccer or field hockey team, these sports were found to be cost prohibitive. For a school of our size and with the level of funding we have, it didn’t make sense.”

Kerr said he feels confident that Morgan State is justified in considering competitive cheerleading a varsity sport, noting that he believes his squad meets all of the benchmarks set forth by the Office for Civil Rights. For example, the Morgan State squad competes against members of its own athletic conference throughout the year as well as cheering for other varsity sports. It also competes in an end-of-the-year national championship. Even through the NCAA doesn’t recognize cheerleading as a sport, Kerr said Morgan State has made the institutional decision to apply the same bylaws to its squad as it does its NCAA-sanctioned sports.

“They might not apply from an NCAA standpoint, but we’ve made the decision to treat cheerleading like an NCAA sport as a matter of institutional policy,” Kerr said. “They’re a varsity sport within our program, and those student-athletes have the same rights and responsibilities as our other student-athletes. There are no inconsistencies. They have the same experience.”

At Morgan State, at least, competitive cheerleading is here to stay; and those on campus are not afraid to call it a sport.

“I’m surprised how cheerleading, when you have it as a varsity sport, joins itself right there into the culture of intercollegiate athletics,” Kerr said. “They speak our language, do practices in a similar fashion, etc. There’s good school support for it here.”


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