In July, federal district court judge Stefan Underhill held that, for purposes of Title IX compliance, cheerleading is not a sport. The background is this: In March 2009, Quinnipiac University cut its volleyball program, replacing it with a competitive cheerleading squad. The reason, of course, was budget cuts. Five volleyball players and the Quinnipiac coach sued under Title IX, which requires any institution taking federal money to “provide equal athletic opportunity for members of both sexes.” 34 CFR 106.41.
In 2008, the Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education issued a memorandum outlining factors for deciding whether a sport meets Title IX guidelines. In the absence of such guidelines, schools could skirt the law by calling anything a sport and meet Title IX. For example, Big State U. could have Men’s Football, Basketball, and Baseball, with Women’s Basketball, Ping Pong, and Horseshoes if it could schedule Ping Pong and Horseshoes with other colleges.
The OCR said 1) Program Administration and Structure, and 2) Team Preparation and Competition would be considered, with several guidelines for these underneath. Judge Underhill relied heavily on these, essentially applying the OCR’s guidelines to the facts in the Quinnipiac case. His conclusion was that competitive cheerleading “is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.”
The reaction on the interwebs was predictable: Sports sites linked with mocking “proof” that cheerleading is not a sport, where women’s sites called the judge a sexist.
Note that the basis for Underhill’s ruling was not on the merits of the relative “athleticism” of cheerleading. He held that the governing boards and organized competitions were not, for lack of a better word, “official” enough to qualify for Title IX. It’s not recognized by the NCAA, the Department of Education, there’s no official playoff system (insert BCS comment here), and the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association is unincorporated and disorganized. There’s no governing board, no voting system for its members to make decisions about competition rules, it applies inconsistent scoring methods—heck, it doesn’t have a website that I can find. The judge gives an exhaustive list of factors separating competitive cheerleading from “varsity” sports.
So, please do not make the mistake THAT EVERYBODY ELSE ON THE INTERWEBS IS MAKING, INCLUDING EVERY SINGLE NEWS OUTLET WITH THE HEADLINE “JUDGE SAYS CHEERLEADING NOT A SPORT!” The judge did not say cheerleaders are not athletes.
In fact, in my reading, this is an encouraging decision for women. By having a high standard for what constitutes a varsity sport, schools can’t skirt Title IX by having, say, a Women’s Ping Pong or Horseshoes team. In fact, the judge explicitly says that if the governing boards of cheerleading get more organized and the university provides resources befitting a varsity sport, cheerleading will be a sport for purposes of Title IX.
The Catch-22 is Quinnipiac cut volleyball for cheerleading because of a lack of resources. Though Quinnipiac doesn’t have a program, this is where we have the argument about football, which my sports-loving friends will say fund women’s sports. Then I, a sports-lover myself, will counter with actual data and evidence showing football is basically state-subsidized entertainment that drains university resources and administrator time and focus. But we’ll have that one later, maybe on the Hill by the Campanile before the K-State game.