A federal judge's ruling last week that a Connecticut university cannot use competitive cheerleading to meet its federal Title IX requirements has only indirect immediate implications for the other 10 or so colleges that now sponsor cheerleading as a varsity sport, since none of them include the teams in their calculations to meet gender equity standards.
But while the court's decision could discourage other colleges from establishing competitive cheerleading teams, advocates for the sport said it could ironically hasten the development of a college sports infrastructure for cheerleading aimed at legitimizing the sport for gender equity purposes.
Quinnipiac University was found to have violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by cutting its women’s volleyball team and replacing it with a competitive cheerleading squad. The ruling spares the university’s volleyball team from the chopping block for the time being. Further, its determination that competitive cheerleading, or at least the version offered at Quinnipiac last season, is not a varsity sport has possible repercussions for an ongoing court case in Delaware.
Earlier this year, Delaware State University announced plans to cut its women’s equestrian team. Eight members of the team, with the help of the Women’s Law Project, sued the institution soon after, arguing that it had violated Title IX by doing so. University officials, however, defended the decision by arguing that the institution can show a history and continuing practice of expanding women’s opportunities — one of three ways an institution can meet the participation standard set by Title IX.
They further argued that the creation of a competitive cheerleading squad this coming season would help offset the loss of the equestrian team in any gender equity count because the switch would result in a net gain of female athletes.
Delaware State’s defense citing the addition of competitive cheerleading was presented months before last week’s ruling in the Quinnipiac case. Though one district court’s judgments do not apply in another district, legal observers said that the Quinnipiac case could have some impact on the Delaware State case in this regard. Two weeks ago, for instance, the case against Delaware State was granted class action status much like the case against Quinnipiac, expanding the scope of its Title IX questions.
In the wake of the Quinnipiac decision, officials from Delaware State declined to comment about the Title IX suit against them and how their defense might have changed. Lawyers for the plaintiff, however, did speak about the differences between the two cases.
“The cheerleading issue is important in our case, but it is not as important as it was in the Quinnipiac case,” said Abbe Fletman, a lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs and who recently helped win a Title IX case against Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. “The [opportunity] gap [between men’s and women’s sports] is so large that, even if cheer counted as a varsity sport and even if every slot Delaware State said it would fill with competitive cheerleaders was filled, the Title IX gap would still exist. We would still have a case.”
According to the latest government figures submitted by Delaware State, women make up 60 percent of the institution’s overall undergraduate enrollment but only 44 percent of its athletes. This gap pertains to just one of the three tests that institutions can use to meet Title IX, but Fletman also countered Delaware State’s contention that it has a history of adding women’s sports.
“You cannot claim [this] defense when you eliminate a team,” Fletman said. “When you eliminate a sport with sufficient interest to field a team, then you just cannot show a commitment to expanding opportunities for women.”
The case against Delaware State does not go to trial until October.
Implications for Existing Cheer Squads
About 10 institutions already sponsor competitive cheerleading in some form. Officials from those institutions had mixed reactions to last week’s decision in the Quinnipiac case. Most defended their squads, noting that they did not have to eliminate any other women’s sports to add them. Also, many pointed to the words in the judge's Quinnipiac decision acknowledging that “competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX” if more institutions adopt it and a governing body for them becomes fully organized.
Bill Odell, athletics director at Azusa Pacific University, noted that when his institution started a squad two years ago, a consultant urged him not to consider it a varsity sport to avoid possible vulnerability in litigation. Following the advice, the university considers the sport as a “club team” both locally and when submitting gender equity reports to the government.
Still, Odell noted that the squad is currently in a transition whereby this coming season it will be treated like all other varsity sports at the institution — with academic standards for players, practice limitations, etc. — even though the athletes on it will not register for Title IX counts. He said he was not sure what the impact of the Quinnipiac case would be on the development of the sport but acknowledged that he would like to see it earn varsity status for Title IX at some point.
“Everybody would love to use it as a Title IX sport,” Odell said. “We don’t. That’s not why we started the team. We didn't do this so that we can comply. We did this to meet a need. We have 60 to 70 girls who try out for our team. It’s also an admissions lure as well. These girls are athletes. It’s kind of an exciting time. “
Rusty Elliott, athletics director at Fairmont State University, in West Virginia, said he was not concerned about the Quinnipiac ruling because his institution had never used competitive cheer in its Title IX count and has always considered it a “club team.” For Title IX purposes, Fairmont has seven men’s sports and seven women’s sports. But, as with competitive cheer, the athletics department sponsors other club teams including rugby, dance and fishing teams that are not counted as varsity sports.
If the National Collegiate Athletic Association eventually deems competitive cheerleading an “emerging sport” and the Office for Civil Rights recognizes it for Title IX purposes, Elliott said he would elevate his squad’s status to varsity. If that sort of recognition does not happen, he said Fairmont State will still offer the squad at the club level. The interest in his area for the sport, he said, is too high not to do so.
“If we were good in ice hockey, I’d add that team,” Elliott said. “This area has a lot of good competitive cheerleaders. We’ll always offer it. If anything, I hope [the Quinnipiac case] might help people better understand the sport and the interest in it.”
Randy Eaton, interim athletics director at the University of Maryland at College Park, one of the first institutions to offer competitive cheerleading, said he is still unsure why the Office for Civil Rights does not consider his squad a varsity team, and that the competitive cheerleading team on his campus is held to the same standards and guidelines as every other varsity sport at his institution. Given this, the institution refers to cheer as a “varsity sport,” even though the government does not.
“There’s a good chance that [the Quinnipiac] ruling may fortify the impetus to do the things that the NCAA requires for activities to be considered an emerging sport,” Eaton said. “2011 may be too soon, but I think this is going to strengthen everyone’s resolve and get everyone serious about making this an emerging sport."
Lack of NCAA recognition aside, Eaton believes that misconceptions about cheerleading are also holding back the sport.
“The biggest misunderstanding is that people judge based on the name of the sport rather than going out there and watching these athletes perform,” Eaton said. “That’s what aggravates me, especially about some of these decision makers. At least watch some film of what’s going on.”
Renee Baumgartner, senior associate athletic director at the University of Oregon, said she considers the competitive cheerleading squad at her institution — which calls the sport “stunts and gymnastics” — a varsity squad. Like Maryland, however, Oregon’s government filings do not count it as such for Title IX purposes. Though its cheer squad had to compete against some club teams and was not always judged by the same scoring system all last season — two things that the judge held against Quinnipiac’s team — she argued that the sport has to be given a chance to start somewhere.
“You can’t start with a perfect model,” Baumgartner said. “But you can refine that model. The judge [in Quinnipiac] gives us an opportunity to refine what we’re doing with this sport. Also, our situation is different in Oregon. Out lens is a little bit different. We’re already meeting interests and abilities for Title IX [purposes] here.”
Like her colleagues at other institutions, she thinks the future of competitive cheer is bright in spite of the Quinnipiac ruling.
“This is what young girls want to do, whether people like it or not,” Baumgartner said. “We’ve got to think outside of the box, people. This can be something that can be big if people take off their conservative hats and look at it with a different lens.”