Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cheerleading a Sport, But Not at Quinnipaic

In 2009, Quinnipaic University cut its women's volleyball team, pledging to replace it with a new sport for women- competitive cheer (also known as cheerleading). In response to this move, several members of the volleyball team sued, claiming that the university violated Title IX- the federal law mandating equal opportunity in education. A federal judge held last week that the University discriminated on the basis of sex with respect to athletic opportunities because cheerleaders cannot be counted as athletic participants under Title IX.

Initially, as a volleyball player myself, I had a knee-jerk sort of WTF response before reading the opinion. How could cheerleading ever be a legit substitution for volleyball, I thought. After reading it, I still think the court decided correctly, but I also realize how quick I was to dismiss competitive cheer as a Real Sport. On that point my gut-level instinct was wrong.

It's not a Startling Revelation to note that the sports world is a macho, male-dominated arena. Cheerleading, however, is perhaps the most blatant symbol of the submissive, decorative feminine in the sports world. So much so that our sporty cultural narrative simply takes it as a given that cheerleading is no way no how a Real Sport. If mostly women do it or are good at it, after all, it by definition cannot be a sport, right? With that background in mind, it is important to tease out my primary criticism of cheerleading here. Namely, that it is a sport that is rooted in that old-style notion that women exist to support men who are living their big dreams. However, that is a different critique than one that posits that cheerleading isn't a sport because it's so visibly feminine.

Even though they were my high school arch nemeses and so this pains me somewhat to admit, they are, unquestionably, athletes. I've seen some of those competitions. I can't do that stuff and I know damn well 90% of the macho weekend warrior crowd couldn't either.

Moving on, the Court describes competitive cheer thusly:

"Competitive cheer is an outgrowth of traditional sideline cheerleading. Competitive cheer teams use many of the moves and techniques that sideline cheer squads have developed over the decades, and their routines look like more athletic and aerobatic sideline cheer orchestrations. But whereas sideline cheerleaders primarily work to entertain audiences or solicit crowd reaction at other teams’ games or school functions, competitive cheer teams strictly engage in sport....

As I noted in my preliminary injunctionruling, competitive cheer is an athletic endeavor that 'could be easily described as ‘group floor gymnastics.’”

While that may be true, despite these sporty characteristics, neither the Department of Education nor the NCAA recognize cheerleading as a sport. The Court then looked at the history of competetive cheer, an activity that began when an athletic equipment company began holding competitions "with the intent of creating a business that would sell cheerleading equipment and offer training camps for cheerleaders." The founder of these competititons "never imagined that his competitions would establish a new sport; rather, he understood his competitions as a publicity vehicle for his startup business."

I wonder, the annoying consumerism issue aside, does the founder's intent about cheerleading becoming a sport really matter, especially if the event has evolved into something more or can aptly be categorized as floor gymnastics? After all, when Pheidippides ran the 40 kilometers from Marathon to Athens with word of victory over the Persians, he probably didn't intend for his actions to establish a new sport either. My point is that the competitive cheer participants likely take their exertions seriously and aren't in it to advertise athletic products. If we removed the athlete label from all athletes whom companies made a buck off of, well, the Real Athletes of the NBA, NFL, and MLB would no longer be athletes.

Although noting that history, the Court doesn't actually use it to determine that cheerleading isn't a Title IX sport. Instead, the Court used a Title IX analysis to determine “[w]hether intercollegiate level participation opportunities for male and female students are provided in numbers substantially proportionate to their respective enrollments.” In applying this rule, a Court will assess the percentage of female (and male) athletes relative to female (and male) enrollment. And, in order to count, an athletic participation opportunity must be "real, not illusory," offering the same benefits that other athletes get.

This case, of course, turns on whether a cheerleading opporunity is a bona fide athletic opportunity for women. For, without the competitive cheer team, the university did not provide women with participation opportunities in numbers "substantially proportionate" to their enrollment in the school. The Court concluded that cheerleading was not a bona fide athletic opportunity, noting that it's not an NCAA sport, didn't have locker space, and didn't recruit athletes off-campus.

In addition, the Court found that the team's season and competition was "quantitatively and qualitatively different from established varsity sports." For instance, although the team was part of an association with other school teams, the association had no power to enforce its rules, which varied from competition to competition. For instance, the team participated in 10 competitions during one season conducted according to 5 different scoring rules and against a variety of different teams (including private, club, and high school teams). Furthermore, in the championship, teams were not ranked or seeded and didn't have to qualify to participate. It operated more at a "club" level than a Division I NCAA varsity sport.

Reading this, I am sympathetic to the cheerleaders' situation. It wasn't even argued that cheerleading couldn't be a sport, it was taken as a given that it could be. Rather, the Court correctly decided it wasn't a sport because the university was trying to pass off this half-assed gig as though it were a legit female varsity athletic opportunity when it wasn't even remotely close to how other varsity sports competed. I'm not opposed to competitive cheer being recognized as a sport, especially when the focus is on competition rather than cheering others on, but if a school's going to claim it as a sport, they have to make it comprable to others varsity sports, get it sanctioned by the NCAA, and make sure consistent rules and standards are followed at each competition.

Unfortunately, shallow news accounts are already framing this as "Judge says cheerleading not a sport." With the implication being, obviously, because it's girly and shit. What accounts will undoubtedly fail to note is that the Judge ended by noting:

"In reaching my conclusion, I also do not mean to belittle competitive cheer as an athletic endeavor. Competitive cheerleading is a difficult, physical task that requires strength, agility, and grace. I have little doubt that atsome point in the near future – once competitive cheer is better organized and defined, and surely in the event that the NCAA recognizes the activity as an emerging sport – competitive cheer will be acknowledged as a bona fide sporting activity by academic institutions, the public, and the law."

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