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Is Competitive Cheer a Sport? Key Title IX Case Goes to Court

By Terry Zeigler, EdD, ATC 

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In a trial underway this week in Connecticut, a federal court will determine whether competitive cheer should be recognized as a sport. The argument being used to determine whether competitive cheer should be recognized as a sport is federal law Title IX of the Education Amendment (1972).

The basis for the question is a lawsuit filed by five athletes and one coach from the Qunnipiac University women’s volleyball team after they were notified that their team had been cut. The women’s volleyball team had initially been cut in favor of a less costly competitive cheer team.

The university stated that the competitive cheer team could serve more female students with less cost than the women’s volleyball team. However, the volleyball athletes and coach filing the suit claim that competitive cheer is not a recognized “sport”. If true, the athletes on the competitive cheer team could not legally be counted towards female participants when the university completes its annual report to determine if Qunnipiac University is in compliance with Title IX.

Complicating the issue in this case is reported information that Qunnipiac has allegedly over-reported the numbers of female athletes and under-reported the opportunities for male athletes to make it appear that the university has been in compliance with Title IX (Clark, A., 2010).

How has cheerleading evolved over the years? 

At the heart of the controversy is a question that needs to be answered, “Is competitive cheer a sport?” This question has been asked repeatedly over the past several decades with increasing frequency more recently as competitive cheer has steadily risen in popularity at the high school, college, and university levels.

Traditionally, sideline cheerleading was not considered a sport because its primary purpose was to support other teams. However, does this argument still stand in light of the changes that have occurred in cheerleading?

It can be argued today that while most schools still have traditional side line cheerleading squads, a branch of cheerleading has emerged in the form of competitive cheer teams. Not only is competitive cheer gaining popularity in high schools, colleges, and universities, thousands of youngsters train in all-star gyms every year.

According to one source (Boyce, R., 2008), 3.5 million youngsters participate in the sport of cheerleading (over age 6). Young girls learn early how to tumble, perform stunts, and perform highly synchronized choreographed routines in order to compete at local, regional, and national competitions.

As these young athletes grow up, there are opportunities for them to compete at the high school level either in all-star programs or in high schools that choose to field competitive cheer teams.

As cheer has evolved, it has met with a steady resistance against acceptance of the competitive side of cheer as a sport. Part of the confusion is that a large number of cheerleaders continue to perform in the traditional role as sideline cheerleaders. To help eliminate the confusion, perhaps it’s time to separate the two branches of cheerleading.

“Sideline cheerleading” or “cheerleading game squads” can be the terms to represent traditional cheerleading. The goal of these programs is to continue to support sports teams on the sidelines. Unless these programs have the resources to hire qualified coaches with safety training, these programs should be encouraging their performers to keep their feet on the ground.

“Competitive cheer” can be the terms to represent the branch of cheer that has evolved from traditional cheer to the highly competitive and stunt-focused teams that regularly compete today. These teams should have required safety trained certified coaches with hands-on experience in tumbling and advanced stunts and protective mats for the athletes to practice on.

While there has been resistance to accepting competitive cheer as a sport, the path has been recently paved with a recent ruling in a Wisconsin Supreme Court.

In February, 2009, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that competitive cheerleading was indeed a “sport” after a lawsuit was brought against a cheerleader who “allegedly failed to spot his teammate”. The court ruled that the cheerleader was immune from liability based on a Wisconsin assumption-of-risk statute which “forbids bringing a claim against any amateur athlete who acts negligently while performing a sport” (Edelman, M., 2009).

While several universities have granted varsity status to their competitive cheer squads (University of Maryland and Seton Hall University), there has not been a test case to determine whether competitive cheer can be defined as a “sport” based on Title IX compliance.

How does Title IX play a role in the recognition of competitive cheer as a sport? 

So the question facing the court this week is to determine if a particular school can count competitive cheer as a varsity sport for Title IX purposes. Although initially ruled as an extracurricular activity in 1975 by the United States Department of Education (meaning that the cheerleading squads in the 70s were not able to be counted for Title IX equity), the current competitive cheer teams of today may have evolved to the point where the original ruling needs to be reconsidered.

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in any educational program at an educational institution that receives federal monies. Most private institutions are also held to this federal law because most schools receive federal financial aid.

One of the primary goals of Title IX was to provide more opportunities for girls and young women to participate in sports and to receive the same treatment and benefits as their male peers. Although current estimates estimate that up to 80% of colleges and universities are not in compliance (Lopiano, D., 2005), the numbers of opportunities have come a long way over the years.

According to data from the Women’s Sports Foundation (2005), only one out of every 27 high school girls participated in varsity sports in 1970. As of 2005, the numbers had significantly increased to 1 out of 2.5 girls participating in high school varsity sports. While the numbers have significantly increased in high schools, college participation for women has also improved by more than tripling from 31,000 to 128,208.

Compliance with Title IX means that females need to be provided the same opportunities as males to participate in sports. The law also requires that female athletes receive “athletic scholarship dollars proportional to their participation” (Lopiano, D., 2005). Last, other benefits required by this law include equal treatment in the provision of:

• Equipment and Supplies
• Scheduling of game and practice times
• Travel and daily allowance
• Access to tutoring
• Coaching
• Locker rooms
• Practice and competitive facilities
• Medical and training facilities and services
• Publicity and promotions
• Recruitment of student athletes
• Support services

The bottom line is that while Title IX has provided opportunities for females to participate in sports, there has been a fiscal impact for athletic departments. If competitive cheer teams are recognized as a sport, the implications of the ruling will have a financial effect on athletic programs at all levels of cheer (junior high, high school, and collegiate).

While cheerleading is currently recognized by some high school athletic associations as a sport (i.e., Florida since 2007), the high cost of the sport may be prohibitive for some school districts and some states. Because public budgets are tight, few states will be able to cover the cost of the coaches, uniforms, practice facilities (if used), competition fees, and travel expenses. However, to offset the cost differences, fundraisers may need to be used as in traditional sports.

What is the benefit to competitive cheer if it is recognized as a sport? 

According to Dr. Fred Mueller, expert on catastrophic injuries from the University of North Carolina and advocate for recognizing competitive cheer as a sport, the primary benefit of officially recognizing competitive cheer as a sport is that it would allow the athletes on these teams access to the resources provided to traditional athletes (Penn and Teller, 2010). The primary value to the athletes would be enhancing the safety within the sport.

Because cheerleading has been called “the most dangerous girl’s sport”, enhancing safety alone would be a good reason to make the move towards recognizing competitive cheer as a sport. The benefits for these athletes would include:

• Access to certified athletic trainers and other sports medicine professionals on high school, college, and university campuses
• Ensuring the hiring of qualified coaches by the athletic administration including coaches that are CPR/FA/AED certified
• Access to emergency action plans and emergency medical equipment
• Access to protective mats and indoor facilities
• Oversight of program by experienced athletic administrators

How does recognizing competitive cheer as a sport affect other sports? 

Because budgets are tight, athletic administrations may choose to eliminate smaller more expensive sports while adding competitive cheer because of the high number of participants in competitive cheer squads. This is the dilemma that was the cornerstone of the lawsuit brought by the volleyball athletes and coach at Qunnipiac University.

Although the volleyball team was allowed to compete this past season (due to a temporary injunction), the ratio of female athletes to male athletes at the university was still a problem for Title IX compliance as evidenced by the athletic administration’s decision to cut men’s golf, outdoor track, and indoor track (Clark, A., 2010).

One of the painful outcomes seen in some universities trying to reach Title IX compliance is the decision by some athletic administrations to cut men’s sports. Cutting men’s sports in order to be in compliance is not mandated by Title IX law. It is the athletic administrator’s choice as to whether they choose to cut men’s sports or add women’s sports. Unfortunately, in a time of decreasing budgets, the decision to cut sports may be the only option for some universities.

What are the criteria used to determine if a program is a sport? 

So the question of whether competitive cheer is a sport is at the center of the controversy. According to Clark, A. (2010), Title IX has specific criteria for what counts as a sport including that a program must have the following:

• Competitions during a defined season
• A governing organization
• Coaches
• Scheduled practices
• Competition as its primary goal

What governing bodies could best serve competitive cheer? 

Competitive cheer meets the above criteria at the collegiate level with the exception of a “governing organization” (although it is emerging at the college level). Competitive cheer coaches from eight universities recently created the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association for the purpose of governing competitive cheer at the collegiate level. However, the organization needs to have a minimum of 12 universities involved in order to be recognized as a legitimate governing body (Clark, A., 2010).

Unfortunately, an appropriate governing body has yet to be created for competitive cheer at the high school level. Although athletes regularly compete at local, regional, and national competitions, the organization that currently hosts most of the competitions is Varsity Brands, Incorporated.

One of the problems is that Varsity Brands, Incorporated currently hosts more than 66 national championship competitions each year (Penn and Teller, 2010). They are also the organization that profits from the sport of cheer through the sale of uniforms, practice clothes, competition entrance fees, and competition gate fees (300 million annually). In order to bring the sport of competitive cheer within line with other traditional sports, there would need to be one annual state competition (per state) and one national competition.

Whether this can be done by reorganizing the current Varsity competition schedule or through existing state high school athletic organizations is yet to be determined. Reducing 66 national competitions to one national competition and reducing state competitions to one per state might have a financial impact on this company.

All-star competition teams would still need Varsity sponsored competitions, but would high school, colleges and universities move to a different system of competitions more in line with traditional sports? What would be in the best interest of competitive cheer? What organizations could provide the best oversight at the high school, college, and university levels? Are they in existence today or would they need to be created?

These questions need careful consideration by coaches and administrators currently involved in competitive cheer in order to ensure that the decisions made are based on what would serve competitive cheer the best and what would move the sport forward.

Why would the CEO of Varsity Brands, Incorporated, Jeff Webb, not support the move to recognize competitive cheer as a sport? 

One would think that the CEO of the largest cheer organization would advocate and support competitive cheer as a sport. Apparently that is not the case.

It is interesting to note that Jeff Webb testified for the Qunnipiac volleyball players and against the Qunnipiac competitive cheer team in court on June 22, 2010 (Associated Press, 2010).

According to Webb, competitive cheer ‘should not be a sport because it would threaten “classical sideline cheerleading” (Associated Press, 2010). Also interesting to note was his statement that “cheerleading is as much of a sport as chess”.

One might wonder how the athletes who compete on competitive cheer teams would feel about this statement considering that most cheerleaders’ families are contributing towards the 300 million dollar annual profit of Varsity Brands, Incorporated with a portion of the profits coming directly from Varsity sponsored competitions.

What is the future for the athletes in competitive cheer? 

According to Linda Carpenter, a professor emeriti at Brooklyn College and co-author of the book Title IX, “this case currently before the Connecticut federal court is a significant case that may ultimately set a precedent for the future of competitive cheer “(Eaton-Robb, P. 2010).

Regardless of the outcome of the trial, the ruling will have a significant impact on young athletes currently competing in competitive cheer. One thing seems to be certain, competitive cheer is gaining in popularity with thousands of young men and women competing for local, regional, state, and national titles each year.

Perhaps it is time to put the structures in place that will ensure that these athletes can compete safely and are afforded the same services, benefits, and respect provided to their peers competing in traditional sports.


Associated Press (June 22, 2010). Cheerleading expert: it’s not a competitive sport. Accessed on June 22, 2010 at http://abcnews.go.com.

Boyce, R. (Summer, 2008)). Cheerleading in the context of Title IX and gendering in sport. United States Sports Academy The Sport Journal (11(3).

Clark, A. (June 21, 2010). Is cheerleading a sport? Accessed on June 21 at http://wwww.salon.com.

Eaton-Robb, P. (June, 20, 2010). Connecticut trial to determine if cheerleading is a sport. Accessed on June 22 at http://blog.cleveland.com.

Edelman, M. (February 4, 2009). Sports and the law: Can schools ‘cheer’ their way into Title IX compliance? Accessed on June 22 at http://abovethelaw.com.

Lopiano, D. (May 26, 3005). Title IX: Question and answer. Accessed on http://www.womensportsfoundation.org.

Penn and Teller (June 10, 2010). Cheerleading. Aired on Showtime.