New York Times Letter from America A Sport or Not? A Question for the Courts

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Cheer Parent
Jan 7, 2010
Sport or Not? A Question for the Courts
Published: July 14, 2010

NEW YORK — Is competitive cheerleading a sport?

At first blush, it wouldn’t seem to qualify, though, to be sure, it involves physical skills, training and coaches, and there are regular cheerleading competitions around the country.

In any case, whether cheerleading is a sport wouldn’t seem a question of earthshaking importance.

But here in the United States of litigation, there’s a serious case under way on the matter, involving a Connecticut university, a federal district court, two lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the contradictory opinions of various experts — with laws governing gender equality in collegiate athletics at issue.

What happened is this: Quinnipiac University, an institution in Hamden, Connecticut, with nearly 8,000 students in 52 undergraduate and 20 graduate academic programs, announced that it was dropping its women’s volleyball team and substituting competitive cheerleading instead.

Local news reports explained that cheerleading involved more participants and cost less, so the move was basically an effort to use money more efficiently. The university also made cuts in men’s sports, like golf and outdoor track (there is no men’s volleyball team).

Still, aggrieved at losing their sport and claiming that its elimination amounted to discrimination against them, four members of the women’s volleyball team and their coach sued the university and got two A.C.L.U. lawyers to represent them. Arguments in the case were heard before Judge Stefan Underhill of U.S. District Court in June. His ruling is expected later this month.

“It’s not just about volleyball,” one of the A.C.L.U. lawyers, Alex Hernandez, told the court. “It’s about making sure the university provides genuine and equitable participation to all its female varsity athletes.”

What the plaintiffs in the case are claiming is that the elimination of volleyball is a violation of the law known as Title IX, which was passed by Congress in 1972 and has been amended several times since. Over the years, Title IX has become the legal basis for a major transformation in school sports. It requires any institution getting any government money to provide equal athletic opportunities for men and women.

In 1994, the law was expanded, so that universities are required to provide annual reports to the Department of Education detailing things like their sports rosters, their recruiting budgets and their coaches’ salaries, to enable the department’s Office of Civil Rights to monitor compliance with the law.

That’s where the question of whether competitive cheerleading is or is not a sport comes in. If it is, universities could use it to make their numbers and to be found in compliance with Title IX. If it isn’t, then they would be in violation of the law.

“A lot of schools sponsor sports that do not have N.C.A.A. championships or which aren’t considered traditional sports — sand volleyball, badminton, etc.,” Elena Silva, an expert on Title IX at Education Sector, a Washington policy research organization, wrote in an e-mail message. The N.C.A.A. is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is the governing body for most collegiate sports.

“As long as these sports are treated as varsity (facilities, funding, coaching, etc.) then they can count these opportunities toward their gender equity efforts,” Ms. Silva said.

The debate rages: Those who say that cheerleading is a sport cite the required athleticism of the cheerleaders, the training required and the existence of competitions.

Judge Underhill granted a temporary injunction preventing the university from dismantling its women’s volleyball program, but he also made comments suggesting that he’s ready to rule in favor of competitive cheerleading as a sport. Cheerleading, he said, “although not presently an N.C.A.A. recognized sport or emerging sport has all the necessary characteristics of a potentially valid competitive sport.”

Those who say it isn’t stress what Judge Underhill said about the absence of the N.C.A.A.’s recognition. For that matter, the Office of Civil Rights has also declined to give cheering the status of a sport.

Ms. Silva said, “The intent of such groups is to lead crowds in cheers at sporting events, which makes them undeniably part of the entertainment” — even if there’s athletic skill involved.

But the deeper issue probably has a lot less to do with cheerleading per se and more with Title IX and its effects. Practically since it was passed into law, Title IX has had its detractors arguing essentially that it represents an undue interference in private life. Early on, for example, there was an effort to exclude from the law’s purview sports that raised revenue for universities.

After all, the argument went, many big university sports are not intrinsically part of an education but ways by which universities build their institutions, and Title IX represents interference in this effort. But in expanding the scope of Title IX over the years, Congress has rejected these arguments.

It’s easy to understand the feelings of those who brought the suit over the loss of their sport. But the case has provoked the argument among some Title IX critics that there’s something a bit off, 38 years after the passage of the law and the tremendous progress that’s been made in women’s athletics, for a college to get sued by the A.C.L.U. and accused of discrimination for essentially trying to balance its budget.

“It is an open secret that for whatever reasons — cultural, biological, or a mix of both — women generally tend to be less interested than men in competitive athletics,” Cathy Young, a libertarian commentator, wrote in a recent blog entry. “Nobody cries discrimination because male students are substantially underrepresented in college art programs or literary magazines.”

Or, somehow, it’s hard to believe that a university that has no men’s volleyball team is really discriminating against women because it has decided to allocate its resources so that women won’t have a volleyball team, either.