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Is cheerleading a sport?

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“Is cheerleading a sport?” isn’t some sort of semantic question, like “is bowling a sport,” “is auto racing a sport,” or “is challenge pissing a sport.” (The link is NSFW language, but it’s not what you think. Or hope, if you’re R. Kelly.)

“Is cheerleading a sport” is a question that will be answered in a courtroom, and it could have an effect on how boys and girls are counted when it comes to Title IX, the federal law guaranteeing equal access by gender for any student in any school that receives federal money.

A trial started Mon., June 21 against Quinnipiac University (the Fighting Pollsters!) of Hamden, Conn., which is being sued by six women’s volleyball players over the school’s dropping their program. The players contend the elimination, as part of budget cuts, violated Title IX federal guidelines. A judge has already sort-of agreed, granting a temporary injunction to keep women’s vollyeball alive at Quinnipiac and granted the lawsuit class-action status.

That’s all well and good. But more interesting is one way Quinnipiac sought to prove that its female athletic participation is in step with its 62-38 female-male ratio: by elevating competitive cheer, with its 40 female members, to the rank of “sport.” From the New Haven (Conn.) Register:

The trial could ultimately be a referendum on competitive cheer, the gymnastic-like sport that is neither recognized as a varsity sport by the NCAA nor listed as an emerging sport. Quinnipiac initially intended to replace the 11-member volleyball program with a much larger competitive cheer squad.

According to published reports, cost estimates for a roster of 40 in competitive cheer is approximately $50,000. The volleyball budget was over $70,000 for 11 players last year.

Competitive cheer has many of the qualities of gymnastics, yet to some, it’s just an extension of “sideline cheer,” which is commonly seen at collegiate sporting events.

Others see competitive cheer as a low-cost loophole used to inflate the proportionality of female athletes at a school.

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which sets the guidelines for Title IX student participation does not have a specific ruling to allow or disallow competitive cheer, but in 2008 issued a “Dear Colleague letter” which provided clarifying information to help institutions determine which intercollegiate or interscholastic athletic activities can be counted for the purpose of Title IX compliance. The letter indicates that when OCR conducts an investigation to determine whether an institution provides equal athletic opportunities as required by Title IX regulations, OCR evaluates the opportunities provided by the institution on a case by case basis.

Quinnipiac is currently in an alliance called the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association which includes the universities of Maryland, Oregon, Baylor, Ohio State (club team), Fairmont State of West Virginia, Azusa Pacific of California and Fort Valley State of Georgia.

If this were a movie, there would be a climatic scene in which the competitive cheer team performs in court, and the judge, so moved, declares: “You ARE a sport after all!” And everybody hugs.

In 2009, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared cheerleading was a sport — and a contact sport at that, in that competitors were in physical contact with each other. (And given the high injury rates for competitive cheer, you’d be safer on the football field instead.) However, that ruling wasn’t for Title IX purposes. It was to disallow a cheerleader’s right to sue the partner who failed to catch her, as well as the school and its insurance company to pay for treating her injuries.

In some states, the high school athletic ruling body includes competitive cheer under its jurisdiction, although often it seems like it does so to pull the same kind of Title IX shenanigans in which Quinnipiac is accused of engaging. For example, in 2009 the Florida High School Athletic Association had plans to cut back every sport but football (which it declared was coed because three girls played) and competitive cheer. Those plans were beaten back by Title IX activists, among others. And Florida’s inclusion of competitive cheer also seemed similar to why catchers have to report with pitchers to spring training. Somebody’s gotta cheer for the football team, and somebody has to catch the ball.

As of this writing, the Quinnipiac trial is ongoing.

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