The XX Factor

Is Cheerleading a Sport?   

Cheerleaders from the Kentucky Wildcats.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Aisha Harris: So, the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals has upheld a 2010 ruling against Quinnipiac University, which found that cheerleading is not a varsity sport under Title IX. The issue arose in 2009 when the university replaced the women’s volleyball team with competitive cheerleading, which the U.S. District Court found to be an inadequate swap. Erin Gloria Ryan of Jezebel argues that the courts were right to do so, writing “Women’s volleyball was never an activity that got the crowd going for men’s volleyball. You can’t win a gold medal in Olympic cheerleading.” Is she right? Or does the long-looming stereotype of women cheering on athletic men no longer hold water with the increased physical demands of today’s cheerleaders? Is cheerleading a sport?

Rachael Larimore: The court made the right decision. This was a cynical plan by Quinnipiac to keep the school within Title IX compliance while cutting women’s volleyball (and, incidentally, men’s golf and men’s track and field).

Competitive cheering might be an evolving sport—the Washington Post notes that the “activity” is growing more organized and has various outfits, such as the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association, working to make it a recognized sport. Cheerleading’s raison d’être is to root, root, root for the home team. If you take that element away, what’s all that yelling and cheering for, even during competitions?                          

Marcelle Friedman: The athletic prowess demonstrated by competitive cheerleaders rivals, and perhaps even surpasses, the athletic rigor of other college sports. The controversy about cheerleading semantics—sport vs. “activity”—is rooted in its inconsistencies across the country. As you, Aisha, pointed out when we were chatting earlier, the element of competition seems critical to the designation of an activity as a sport, and at universities where the cheer team does compete, it seems ludicrous not to acknowledge it as an endeavor on par with any other college sport. In the interest of consistency, however, it seems reasonable that schools with cheer squads that do not compete may have to call their squads something else that suggests that they are not recognized as “sports” under Title IX, such as a pep or dance squad.

Also, the Jezebel post argues that swapping out volleyball in favor of cheerleading may have merely been an effort to appeal to ogling audiences. But girls’ volleyball—the sport Quinnipiac University sought to replace with cheerleading—also “still obliquely requires its female competitors look pretty in a traditionally feminine way.” Olympic volleyball players wear makeup on the court while donning itty bitty spandex shorts—arguably an even more “feminine” and potentially sexualized “uniform” than cheerleading garb.

Harris: Right, and you can also say the same about gymnastics as well—glittery hair and makeup. I guess the competition element would essentially be the difference between a pep squad and a cheerleader, though I’ve never quite understood what the difference was between the two—is a pep squad supposed to be a less athletic version of cheerleaders (i.e., no tumbling or lifting?).

Larimore: I have no doubt that cheering requires athletic prowess and grace. But so does ballet dancing, and no one is trying to call that a sport. And sure, it probably requires more “athletic rigor,” than, say, golf. But the NCAA already offers a sport for women who can do back handsprings—it’s called gymnastics.

If colleges are really committed to competitive cheer and consider it a sport, there’s nothing stopping them from offering it as a club sport. In fact, schools frequently introduce a sport as a club sport before it becomes varsity—hockey, rugby, even soccer. If a college is really interested in offering cheer as a competitive sport, they could go that route and see if the interest level warrants making it a varsity sport.

But I suspect that Quinnipiac (and other schools like it) doesn’t have such high esteem for the athletic rigors of cheerleading. It’s just a sham to say they have enough female athletes.

Harris: In addition to offering it as a club sport, cheering has to completely sever its ties from the sidelines of men’s athletic teams so that the cheerleaders can be taken seriously for all of the hard work and extreme athleticism that goes into what they do. I think that, and the lack of national and regional competitive events compared to other sports, are what’s holding it back.

Friedman: Aisha, I completely agree that we should get cheerleaders off the fields of other sports teams, which is why the designation of dance/pep squads distinct from cheer squads would be important in the process of legitimizing cheerleading as a sport. There may be fewer national and regional competitions for college cheerleading compared to the most visible college sports, however I’m sure there are other sports whose legitimacy is not in question, despite a considerably smaller scale and visibility. (I’m thinking maybe curling or some of the more obscure martial arts.)

Harris: Yeah, definitely—fencing, too.

Torie Bosch: One strong argument for labeling cheerleading a sport is that it could help rein in some programs that, as I understand it, are pretty out of line. In Kate Torgovnick’s book Cheer, she talks about one of the perennial leaders in collegiate cheerleading, a junior college where the guys openly use steroids. A lot of the high-level cheerleaders apparently transfer repeatedly to try to get on a better team; some people will stay in college for seven years, even, so they can keep competing. And because it isn’t a sport, injuries aren’t treated as effectively as they are for, say, swimmers or football players, and the coaches are less likely to know what they’re doing from a safety standpoint.

Also, while the athletics are impressive, I know a lot of gymnasts hate the way cheerleaders tumble–they just have to turn the trick and land it, rather than performing it properly. Some of that sloppiness may help explain the crazy high injury rate. The Jezebel writer refers to their “Aly Raisman-like tumbling,” but the acrobatics are quite different.

Larimore: I still don’t think that’s worth allowing colleges to call it a sport, and subsequently allowing them to kill off real sports like volleyball and softball while still maintaining Title IX “compliance.”

Harris: I’m vacillating back and forth here because I think that any cheerleading team that is not competing should not be considered a sport, since competition is a basic element of “sport” (no?) and one of the defining factors of Title IX. So if more teams (scratch that—all teams) were forced to compete and also quit cheering for other teams altogether, then that would end the debate.

Bosch: And if they really want to be taken seriously, they should downplay or eliminate the yelling part of the routine … though of course that’s what “cheerleading” initially meant, I suppose.