On Wednesday, a federal judge in Connecticut ruled that because cheerleading is not a sport, Quinnipiac University was in violation of Title IX rules that require equal funding be awarded to men’s and women’s sports teams. In March of last year, the university announced that it would cut its women’s volleyball team and replace it with a competitive cheerleading squad, in response to which several volleyball players and the team’s coach sued the university. This week’s court decision hung on whether or not competitive cheerleading is a sport, since if it were, the replacement of the volleyball team would not be a violation of Title IX.
Now, Title IX is fantastic. That’s not even up for discussion. It has caused a revolution in America, allowing college-aged women to play sports seriously and competitively and proving that they’re worthy of university money, space and attention. It is fantastic, and I believe that any university failing comply with it should be brought into line quick smart.
How is cheerleading not a sport? How, when you see the things these women (and some men) are doing with their bodies, can you call this anything but a sport?
Yes, cheerleading has a shitty, sexist history, a history of girls on the sidelines cheering for boys, of girls as human trophies for men’s athletic achievements. Yes, it is still sexist in that the guys get to compete in pants and the girls must compete in skirts and sometimes midriffs tops. Yes, it has a dismal rate, like gymnastics and cross country and figure skating lots of other sports, of body image issues and eating disorders. And yes, the music is unfreakingbearable.
There can be no doubt that cheerleading of this kind, the kind done against other cheerleading teams, is a sport. It takes talent, skill, practice and teamwork. It’s competitive, in that there are objective ways to determine if one team performs better than another. It’s also dangerous, with a rate of head and neck injuries comparable to that of ice hockey or horseback riding. Not that being dangerous makes something valuable, but we usually define a sport as involving some level of risk – that’s part of what makes it exciting.
I know quite a few cheerleaders, most of whom defected from gymnastics, which is where I first met them. Many of their gymnastics skills, as you can imagine if you’ve seen any cheerleading, transferred over, but there were new skills to learn too. They had to learn how to be a base, the crew of people who hoist a teammate up into the air and catch them again. Or they had to learn how to be the teammate who gets thrown, the flyer, and learn how to trust their teammates with their safety and their spines.
During the Beijing games, I was pretty unimpressed by some of the photo coverage of the women’s gymnastics, and also by the emphasis being put on making the gymnasts “pretty” when really, their job is to go out there and not fall off the beam. At the time, I wrote,
Gymnastics is a sport that places enormous demands on its athletes. It demands strength, flexibility, speed, agility, grace and power. It demands that gymnasts throw themselves upside down, rotating and twisting, at once defying and depending on gravity. And if they don’t land with their feet stuck together, perfectly steady and without a step sideways, the judges take points off.
All this applies to a cheerleader, who must do all these things in unison with two dozen other people, while tolerating that horrendous music.
Cheerleading is easy to dismiss, partly, I think, because of its history as an activity exclusively for girls, and for sexy girls at that. The fact that only women used to do it, and the fact that there are still some non-competitive cheerleaders like the Laker Girls and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders who, while skilled and talented, probably couldn’t be called athletes, makes it easy to believe that the kind of cheerleading going on at Quinnipiac isn’t a sport. But there can be no doubt that it is. If it’s not, someone’s going to have to break it to Tiger Woods and Jeff Ogilvy that they’ve devoted their whole lives to something that cannot, in the interests of consistency and fairness, be called sport.
But I wouldn’t want to do that to them. Just like I wouldn’t want to deny seriously impressive college cheerleading teams the funding, status and respect that they so clearly deserve. So, bottom line: don’t violate Title IX, because that would make you a sexist. But don’t tell me cheerleading’s not a sport, either, because that would make you flat-out wrong.