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Is Cheerleading a Sport?

A federal judge’s ruling earlier today in a Title IX lawsuit against Quinnipiac University has focused considerable attention on the question of whether cheerleading should be considered a sport.

District Judge Stefan Underhill said the private Connecticut university violated Title IX by shortchanging female students of athletic opportunities. One way the university did this, Judge Underhill said, was by counting members of a newly created competitive cheer team as athletes for purposes of complying with the federal gender-equity law.

The NCAA doesn’t recognize cheerleading as a sport, and neither does the Office for Civil Rights, the federal agency charged with enforcing Title IX. In Quinnipiac’s case, the judge agreed: Legally speaking, cheerleading is not a sport.

It’s worth noting, though, that he took care to point out—at several points throughout the 95-page opinion—that this could change.

“Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX,” Judge Underhill wrote. “Today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.”

At Quinnipiac, members of the competitive cheer squad had all the trappings of a “normal” sports team: They received athletic scholarships, had coaches who reported to the athletic director, and focused on skills and conditioning at their practices. They even voted on a most-valuable-player award at the end of the season. 

But all too often the team was lacking in qualified opponents. Instead, it competed against club, not varsity, teams from other colleges and even squared off against high-school squads—hardly a standard practice among varsity teams at Division I institutions like Quinnipiac.

Thursday’s lengthy court ruling, though, provides a road map of sorts for elevating cheerleading to the status of what the judge called a “legitimate varsity sport”—should it wish to go there.

This includes, among other things, creating a championship based on teams’ success during the regular season. It also means growing and standardizing the pool of competitors so that varsity cheer teams like Quinnipiac’s do not face what the judge called “a motley assortment” of competitors.

“Whom a team plays against, how often the team plays, under what conditions competitions are held, and how a champion is ultimately selected are all essential to the varsity experience,” he wrote.

So what’s next for competitive cheer? Will it become the next bowling or sand volleyball, both of which raised eyebrows when first mentioned as potential varsity sports? We know that emerging sports for women have hardly been without controversy, as the recent uproar over sand volleyball illustrates.

It will be interesting to see what happens now that this court ruling lays out some of the details. For now, though, Judge Underhill has made clear that his quibbles with cheerleading are far more structural than ideological.

“I take seriously that the competitive cheer members consider themselves to be athletes,” he wrote, “and not entertainers.”

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