The XX Factor

Why Cheerleading Will Never Be a Sport

Last January a group of cheerleading coaches and administrators from eight universities united to form the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, a centralized governing body whose stated purpose was to elevate competitive college cheer to the level of NCAA-sanctioned varsity sport. Despite the artful rebranding efforts of NCSTA members like Oregon coach Felecia Mulkey-who excised all traces of “cheer” and “spirit” from her squad’s name and now calls the program ” team stunts and gymnastics “-a federal judge ruled Wednesday that competitive cheerleading is not an official sport. As such, it cannot be used to satisfy Title IX gender equity requirements for college athletics. The decision came in a case in which Quinnipiac University dropped the women’s volleyball team and promoted its sideline cheerleading squad, whose primary duty had been pompom pumping and audience baiting, to competitive cheer squad in order to comply with federal law.

While the decision has some cheer partisans crying foul, Judge Stefan Underhill’s ruling is an unequivocal victory for gender equality and serves as a powerful warning to universities who try to cut funds for established women’s sports. The judge’s reasoning was fairly straightforward: To be deemed a sport under Title IX, activities must have coaches, practices, and seasonal competitions, with competition, not support of other teams, as their raisons d’être . Not so with cheer. As Underhill noted , there is no intercollegiate playoff system, and the new governing body doesn’t have a board of directors or voting system for its members.

With the rapid growth and evolution of the NCSTA, cheerleaders and coaches see an “inevitable march toward acceptance,” possibly within the next six months. But even if cheer were to get its act together and meet the baseline criteria for Title IX protection, is it really a sport, one worthy of inclusion in our country’s landmark provision against gender discrimination? Probably not.

No one disputes that excelling in competitive cheerleading requires dedication, physical stamina, technical skill, and other traditional hallmarks of athleticism. But so do most forms of dance. And that’s the problem with cheerleading. Like dance, it’s primarily about putting on a show, an aesthetic performance meant to tantalize and entertain a rapt audience. Judge Underhill was right to repudiate Quinnipiac’s bait-and-switch. Title IX aims to root out gender discrimination, not protect and elevate activities that rely on subjective appraisal of high-kicks and crowd appeal.

Photograph of pompoms by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.