How is this not a sport?

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.

BUT.

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.

BUT.

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.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted July 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m with you. I’m baffled as to how anyone could watch this and conclude that it isn’t a sport. I’d like to see that Connecticut judge do the things those girls (and the few guys) are doing. Of course it should be given funding like any other sport.

    Still though, I can’t help being a little uncomfortable with the fact that Quinnipiac chose to prioritize this more traditionally “feminine” activity over women’s volleyball. Are women’s sports more valuable if they involve putting the women in tiny little skirts? I respect competetive cheerleading for the skill and hard work involved but I’d respect it a lot more if it took even more steps to remove itself from its sexist past. Lost the cutesy uniforms, first off. Better yet, why even all it “cheerleading?” “Cheering” denotes an essentially supportive activity. It’s inextricably tied to girls waving pompoms, shouting “Go Team!” and competing for the attention of the captain of the football team. That’s clearly not what’s going on here. These “cheerleaders” are the team.

  2. Posted July 23, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Chloe, I understand where you’re coming from–certainly cheerleading is athletic, the judge did not disagree with that. But there’s some misunderstanding of facts in your post. The judge ruled that in its current incarnation cheerleading is not a sport. Why? Because Title IX requires that “collegiate sports must exist, only for the purpose of competition and [must not] perform on the sidelines of other sports.” Quinnipiac University was not providing competition or coaching or funding for its cheerleading squad. Also, they were in other violations of Title IX (they were inflating their number of female athletes). The judge never ruled that cheerleading couldn’t be a sport in the future–especially if Quinnipiac actually bothered to fund it, recruit, provide locker rooms, search for a coach, provide intercollegiate competition and actually treat it like a sport (like the University of Oregon does).

    These links explain the situation in full:
    http://title-ix.blogspot.com/2010/06/cheerleading-on-trial.html
    http://www.registerguard.com/csp/cms/sites/web/news/cityregion/25051434-41/competitive-cheer-team-oregon-ruling.csp
    http://www.thisweekinladynews.com/2010/07/brrr-its-cold-in-here-why-cheerleading.html

  3. Posted July 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I have a lot of mixed thoughts about cheerleading. Yes, it very obviously requires skill and talent and a ridiculous amount of athletic ability. However, like you said, it focuses WAY TOO MUCH on physical appearance. I used to work as an usher at an arena and we hosted a cheerleading competition once a year. I was disgusted at the number of little girls, barely school-aged, done up in false eyelashes, red lipstick, eyeliner, miniskirts, belly shirts and truckloads of glitter. It seriously nauseated me seeing these little girls paraded out in front of the crowd and told to “smile and look cute for the judges!” (sooo many mothers told their girls this, it got REALLY annoying). I remember one girl’s coach screaming at her for crying and ruining her makeup. This does not happen in other sports.
    I think cheerleading needs to be stripped down. No more miniskirts (they wear shorts under them anyway, doesn’t the skirt just get in the way?), no more ridiculous amounts of makeup, curled hair, peppy smiles and “looking cute.” Why can’t we just let women be unabashedly athletic? Women sweat, women don’t always look like adorable little princesses, and women can do some seriously awesome things with their muscles. The image that cheerleading perpetuates is seriously damaging to little girls as well as boys. I want to see cheerleading (and gymnastics and figure skating, for that matter) eliminate the ridiculous standards set for females in the sport and just let them be amazingly athletic.

  4. Posted July 23, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    I agree with SBE. Being athletic and involving risk does not make a sport: competition and consistency does. Title IX itself calls for this. I wrote about this in Salon:

    While physical effort and ability are a given for many of the high-level gymnasts who cheer, Title IX has specific criteria for what counts as a sport when it comes to equity in athletics: a program must have a defined season, a governing organization, and feature competition as its primary goal. Competitive cheer is not recognized by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) as a sport. Nor does it have a governing body: two versions of organizations that have filled the role have been associated with Varsity Brands, Inc., a for-profit company that sells cheerleading gear and hosts up to 60 “national championships” a year. To amplify its case that competitive cheer can indeed count as a varsity sport, Quinnipiac has joined with seven other schools to form the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, which is intended to be a new governing body for the sport. Four more schools need to sign on for it to be recognized as a legitimate governing body, and the sport itself to be seen as “emerging.”

    Also, the volleyball team really was screwed in this case. And the university has a long proven history of shirking around Title IX responsibilities. They didn’t initiate cheerleading as a varsity sport because they give a shit about women athletes — even if many of the cheerleaders are capable of great athletic feats. Again from my Salon piece:

    Now, it’s possible that competitive cheer could be a legitimate sport. I’m open to the point. But what a sorry birth it would be for varsity cheerleading if it were to come out of a swamp of data manipulation and lawsuits that pit sports against one another, making a mockery of any claimed commitment to the participation of women in athletics. In this case, I’m cheering for the volleyball team.

    Title IX Blog has been thoroughly covering this case, incidentally: I hope folks read up on what they have to say. http://title-ix.blogspot.com/

  5. Posted July 23, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    @ Anna Clark and SBE:
    Thanks for the clarifications. It’s pretty clear that Quinnipiac was in the wrong here, and it’s clear that currently, cheerleading doesn’t fulfill the NCAA or Title IX requirements. I’m not arguing with that. I am arguing with the idea that because cheerleading has traditionally been the province of women and girls, and because it’s often been associated with sexiness, or at least attractiveness, that it doesn’t deserve to be considered a sport on a broader basis. And Anna, I would argue that it is consistent and competitive, with a scoring system that is far less subjective than, say, figure skating, which despite recent changes to the judging system is notoriously subjective. There’s a big difference between what happens at a cheer competition and what happens on the sidelines of a football or basketball game, and regardless of the shady way Quinnipiac seems to have tried to get around Title IX, these are athletes who deserve respect for their remarkable abilities. That said, I agree with Sarah in that I would love to see that athletic side emphasized more; the perception problem isn’t only one that’s thrust upon the sport, but one partly of their own making. Thanks for the links to the Title IX blog – I would suggest that everyone go read more about this case!

  6. Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the link to the definition used for a sport. I’m not sure I have ever liked things like gymnastics and diving being called sports – all the judged events, really. They are certainly athletics. (Dear lord are they.) They are certainly competitions. They are athletic competitions. I’m just not sure of “sport”.

    But in many ways that’s neither here nor there. It seems this case clearly has Quinnipiac in the wrong, of course, and I agree with Chloe that a lot of the specific resistance to cheerleading as a sport comes from its past as “thing girls do”.

  7. A
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    I love this discussion because I don’t think there is a right answer, and that makes it really interesting. For my part (and this is something I blogged about awhile back after watching ice dancing at the Olympics,) I think there are two questions here:

    1) What makes something physical/athletic a sport, rather than an art?
    2) Why is it so important for something physical/athletic to be a sport, rather than an art?

    When thinking about the first question, I don’t think that simply stating “look what they can do with their bodies” alone qualifies something as a sport. For one thing, dance – universally recognized as an art – is filled with all kinds of physical contortion, not to mention anaerobics and athleticism/physicality. For another thing, the attributes Chloe listed that may qualify cheerleading as a sport – “talent, skill, practice and teamwork”, not to mention competition – are also all crucial in the world of dance.

    For me, as someone mentioned above, a big dividing line is whether the result is objective or subjective. In a traditional competitive sport, the score (within the confines of the rules) after a played game designates a victor. With cheerleading (and even with other already-designated sports) – the outcome is decided by a panel of judges who do their best to use a defined set of rules and scoring criteria to determine a winner. These results are often controversial and frequently debated – it’s one of the reasons why there is some new figure skating debacle at every Olympics. It’s easy to disagree with a judge, but not so easy to disagree with a team winning with 3 goals against 2. That said, a lot of people would take an issue with my designation because it “demotes” some sports into being, well, Not Sports. Which leads me to question #2.

    Why should it matter? There seems to be this Issue of Big Importance in terms of separating sports from arts, even if both can be equally competitive, physical, and passionate. And indeed, when making this separation, the implication always seems to be that to be designated as an art rather than a sport is to acknowledge inferiority. Sports are masculine. Arts are feminine. Four legs good. Two legs bad.

    I think, in this way, Title IX is problematic, in that it tends to only reward the sports that women have struggled to break into (which is good, it encourages equality) but it neglects some of the equally physical and difficult activities – arts? – that women have always excelled at (cheerleading, competitive dance.) This whole issue sets up the false dichotomy of “cheerleading is either a sport, or it’s not worth collegiate funding,” when neither really has to be true. It almost certainly deserves merit and appreciation, but I don’t think it should have to win the categorization of “sport” to get that respect.

  8. Posted July 25, 2010 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    I agree with A LOT of what you said. Cheerleading has a complicated history for so many reasons, and many are quick to dismiss the sport due to stereotypes and labels (not to say that all of these things, like short skirts and make up are not true, but it really depends on who is talking about them and how.) I wrote my undergraduate thesis on feminism and competitive cheerleading. As a former cheerleader myself I can attest to the injury rate (comparative to ice hockey and horseback riding like you mentioned, but in many cases, actually higher risk than football). During my career I sustained two broken noses, countless muscle tears and pulls, along with serious joint injury to my knees. THERE IS NO WAY THAT CHEERLEADING IS ANYTHING OTHER THAN A SPORT!!

    In my research I focused on the comparison between “public and private” cheerleading (public school and elite cheering also known as all-stars which is in deed elite in every sense of the word because you essentially pay to play). In terms of competitive cheerleading however, up until this case concerning Quinnipiac, the only school in the country that benefited from Title IX funding by declaring cheerleading a sport is the University of Maryland Terps. These men and women are eligible for scholarships which in this case is truly a rare occurrence in the in the realm of collegiate cheerleading, let alone competitive collegiate cheerleading (oh yes, there is a difference!).

    I would like to say THANK YOU for helping to propagate the notion that cheerleading should be considered a sport! Many people I know, including my peers in the class, dismissed my argument that competitive cheering actually complicates the narrative around feminism because while it empowers women it does so that in some ways can cause them to be objectified. As a feminist, a young activist, a grad student and a former cheerleading captain, thanks for this article!

  9. Posted July 25, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Keep in mind that I am saying this as someone who was tortured by stereotypical evil cheerleaders at my first high school–but OF COURSE this is a sport. When more cheerleaders get injured annually in practice than football players, I don’t know how anyone could claim otherwise. While it is true that cheerleaders are unfairly judged on their personal appearance as well as their performance, if we use this as the rubric for declaring an activity a sport, then we’ll have to tell gymnasts and figure skaters that they’re not really athletes, either. I think that if existing rules exclude “supporting” activities like cheerleading from the definition of competitive sports, then the rules ought to be reexamined. If I had the physical ability to work half of the shit these people can do into my drag routines (set to better music, of course!), I’d be one happy lady!

  10. Posted July 25, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    This is the “what is art” argument only done with sport. I think the relevant factor is whether you can do it while drinking six or more beers. Cheerleading is clearly a sport. Golf, on the other hand, is not.

  11. Posted July 28, 2010 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to admit something I almost never fess up to in feminist circles: I was a cheerleader for 7 years. At my high school, cheerleading was originally more about looking pretty on the sidelines than it was about competition. But when we went to camp or held pep rallies, we were always bombarded afterwards with people exclaiming how GOOD we were. So, my freshman year we held our annual fundraiser for the school’s athletic fund with one major difference: Instead of splitting the proceeds up amongst football, basketball, etc. we kept it for ourselves and used it to fund our first trip to a “big time real deal competition.” Boooooy HOWDY you can imagine the outrage that ensued! People (mostly footballers and their parents) were livid that athletic funds would be spent on something that wasn’t a sport. So know what we did? We invited the student body to our Saturday morning practice. At the time, football, boys bball, and baseball were all multiple time State Champs. You’d think those guys would be able to handle a 2 hour practice but no. One puked from exhaustion before we were evn done warming up. Another few made it through jumps and said “this is too hard. I quit!”. And when it was time for stunting, only one of them (a GIRL bballer, not a dude!) could do any of the lifting we asked of them… And we only threw the easy stuff at these novices! My point to this story is, people who are recognized as athletes couldn’t keep up with the demand that us “silly little pretty girls in skirts” faced 5+ days a week.

    In my state, in order to use a stunt in competition, you have to “qualify” it with every possible combination of bases and flyers you might use. In order to qualify, you have to perform that stunt 100% perfectly with no mistakes 5 times in a row. If you mess up on the 4th try, the count starts over. We smile and wave at the crowd so it LOOKS easy, but there is nothing easy about throwing a girl who weighs anywhere from 90 to 130 pounds very high into the air with enough force to allow her to twist/kick/flip, catch her, and reload her into yet another toss/build. As you can imagine, injuries happen if the slightest thing goes wrong. Best case scenario, you get elbowed hard in the eye when your flier overcompensates and falls a bit too much to the left. Worst case scenario, something goes wrong, she falls, and either breaks/twists something in the process, isn’t caught appropriately, or lands on someone else resulting in their injury. At a particularly rough practice, we sent 3 girls to the ER with serious injuries. By the time I had a 120 lb girl fall right onto my neck, taking me down with her and breaking my ankle (she was fine, just shaken up) the only person left who could rush me the the ER was the football team’s defensive coach. When it turned out that I had a broken ankle, a torn ACL in my other leg and bruised neck, He told the doctor, “I sure am surprised at how serious these injuries are for something that’s not even a sport! These girls have it easy compared to my football guys!”. The doctor looked at him and said, “Sir with all respect, if you can watch these young women perform and are aware of the injury risk and you DON’T think this is a sport, I’d say you don’t know jack about athleticism.”. LOL!

    And as for the comments about how cheerleaders dress, I’ll say this. The halter tops and middrifts ARE too much. But short sirts are truly what is most practical. It’s very dangerous to have a long skirt on in competive-level stunting. All it takes for serious injury is someone’s skirt getting caught or tangled up. Short skirts allow for high kicks and jumps, safer stunting, and more impressive tumbling. Shorts would be just as practical, except it4 easier to find skirts that all 35 team members can fit into and match than it is to get that many pairs of shorts that aren’t too long, too short, too tight, or too big on some girls.

    Am I defending the HUGE amount of sexism at play in cheerleading? Hell no! I quit for a reason, mind you. But I will argue until I’m blue in the face that without a doubt, cheerleading is a highly risky, incredibly athletic sport which requires a huge amount of skill, dedication, ability to fight through pain and we do it all with a smile and a grace so strong that for the last 30 years, we’ve managed to trick y’all into thinking it’s still not a sport.

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