Cheerleading as a Title IX College Sport: How It Could Happen

July 21, 2010

As you may have heard, a federal judge recently ruled that cheerleading isn’t a sport on the college level – specifically, that Quinnipiac University in Connecticut can’t count its competitive cheerleading program toward gender equity requirements for athletes.

Ever since the trial began, plenty of allegations and speculation about what would happen if cheerleading were declared a sport have surfaced. Would school squads be flooded with funding and resources, as some folks claim? Would traditional sideline cheerleading cease to exist, as others have implied?

The “sport” label isn’t just about athleticism. It’s all about how cheerleading is regulated and controlled, and understanding that is essential for making sure it’s safe, fun, and athletic in the future.

So, let’s figure it out: What would it take for cheerleading to be classified a sport nationwide?

1. The Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education would have to indicate that competitive cheerleading could count toward a school’s equity requirements, commonly referred to as “Title IX” after the landmark federal law that guarantees equal athletic opportunities for guys and gals. (Yeah, this is what the judge just ruled against. But don’t get discouraged yet!)

2. The National Collegiate Athletic Association and each state’s High School Athletic Association would have to recognize cheerleading as an official sport. (And they’re not going to do that before the OCR gives its approval.)

3. Individual universities and high schools would have to establish cheerleading as a sport. (Many of them already do, but I’ll explain that later.)

First things first. For the OCR to count cheerleading as a sport, universities would have to prove, among other things, that their cheerleading squads’ primary purpose was competition, and that their squads had similar structure and administration as the rest of their sports.

Today, only a handful of college squads can make that claim. Despite being full of ultra-talented, super-competitive athletes, most squads spend way more time cheering games than they do preparing for their two-and-a-half minute routine at nationals once a year.

That’s why the judge in the Quinnipiac Trial ruled that cheerleading didn’t count as a sport – because it was still too “underdeveloped and disorganized.” Its competition schedule wasn’t similar enough to other sports at Quinnipiac. And no one is likely to rule otherwise until a greater number college squads start to spend more time at organized competitive events than they do on the sidelines.

Anyway, let’s suspend reality for a moment and pretend that cheerleading did fulfill those requirements, and that the OCR gave the green light for universities to consider it a varsity sport.

If enough universities added it, cheerleading could become an NCAA Emerging Sport. Then, if 40 varsity NCAA programs adopted competitive cheer as a sport within a 10 year period, cheerleading could become an official NCAA sport, with its own NCAA championship.

Now let’s pretend that cheerleading fulfilled all those requirements …Yay! We’re a sport! But wait. What’s different about college cheerleading?

Well, pretty much everything.

College cheerleaders would be limited to 20 hours of activity each week, in accordance with NCAA rules. That’s definitely not enough time to compete regularly and cheer games, and things like parades and pep rallies would totally be out of the picture.

So, competitive cheerleaders would legally have access to the same benefits as other varsity athletes, such as study tables, locker rooms and scholarships, but they probably wouldn’t cheer for games at all.

Another change to conform to NCAA requirements: Cheerleading wouldn’t be a year-round activity anymore. It would be one season long, just like other varsity sports. Also, the NCAA is super-strict about the benefits and payments that athletes receive, which means a lot more scrutiny about where cheerleaders are working and how they’re paid. (That might mean no more cash for private coaching lessons.)

Plus, although many NCAA varsity sports can be co-ed, competitive cheer probably won’t be. Why? Erin Buzuvis, associate professor at the Western New England College of Law and author of the Title IX blog, explains that universities’ main motivations in adding cheerleading as a varsity sport are based in satisfying their Title IX requirements – usually trying to make up for an imbalance caused by a huge football roster – and co-ed squads aren’t going to help them there.

So, college cheerleading as an NCAA varsity sport would be really different than the college cheerleading we know today. Would it also be the end of sideline cheerleading as we know it?

Hardly, says T. Lynn Williamson, senior associate of general counsel at the University of Kentucky and adviser for UK’s cheerleading squad for 30 years.

Cheerleading is an important part of UK’s wildly popular football and basketball programs, he notes. When fans buy season tickets, they expect the cheerleaders to be part of the package. Big universities aren’t going to give up sideline cheerleaders anytime soon.

Plus, many cheerleaders love cheering for games. Williamson guesses that at least 90 percent of his current UK squad would choose traditional sideline cheerleading over a competition-only model if given the choice today.

So, sideline cheerleading would likely continue to exist, with the same regulations it operates under now, with squads likely attending the same private camps and competitions. That would mean no increased safety regulations for sideline cheerleaders, as many cheerleading-as-a-sport proponents are advocating. The safety regulations would apply only to competitive squads, which would exist separately, perhaps under a new name.

One possibility for that new name: Competitive Stunts and Tumbling.

Several universities, Quinnipiac one of them, have already established a National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association in hopes of developing competitive cheer into an official NCAA sport. The competitions would likely be similar to gymnastics meets, where squads compete in several different events, like partner stunts and jumps, for individual and team scores.

With more and more kids growing up in an all-star cheerleading programs, recruiting students for both competitive and traditional squads would be no problem for many universities, Williamson says. It would be easier to fill a roster for competitive cheer than for many other sports, such as women’s field hockey, for example. Williamson, for one, is convinced that competitive cheer is going to become a sport. It’s only a matter of time.

Don’t worry, we’re not finished. Up next — What would happen to cheerleading in high schools if it were an official sport? Find out here.

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