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What makes cheer a sport?

Competitive Cheer Does Not Count As Sport under Title IX, Court Rules

Biediger v. Quinnipiac First to Decide Issue

In March 2009, Quinnipiac University, a small school in Connecticut, announced plans to eliminate three varsity sports, including women's volleyball, while pledging to start up a new varsity sport: competitive cheer. The volleyball players and their coach sued, claiming the move violated Title IX, which mandates equal athletic opportunities for women. In July 2010, a federal district court judge agreed, ruling in Biediger v. Quinnipiac that Title IX prohibited the move because, unlike volleyball, Quinnipiac's proposed competitive cheer program did not qualify as a sport under the law.
Cheer pyramid

Judge Stefan Underhill's decision is the first by a federal court directly addressing the issue of whether competitive cheer is a sport for purposes of Title IX.  The closest a court had previously come to deciding the question was a 2009 ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that cheer participants fell under the so-called "contact sports" exception, which says that an athlete injured while playing a contact sport cannot sue another person in the sport unless he or she acted with reckless disregard for the person's safety or acted to hurt the athlete intentionally.  At the time the ruling gave some hope to those participating in competitive cheer that they could show for Title IX purposes that they were playing a sport (and a dangerous one, based on recent statistics).

What makes cheer a sport

In rejecting the argument that competitive cheer at Quinnipiac was a sport, the federal court agreed with the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights' (OCR) that a number of criteria must be met  in order for competitive cheer to be considered a sport. 

According to the OCR, to be a sport a competitive cheer team must:

  • use athletic ability as the primary factor in team selection;

  • operate like other sports teams;

  • spend more time competing than supporting other teams (sideline cheering, or what is now called "spirit")

  • have a defined sports season; and

  • be run by the athletic department.

The Women's Sport Foundation supports the OCR guidelines and they have had and still have widespread support.

Wild, wild west

Applying OCR guidelines, Quinnipiac's cheer program simply didn't measure up. Indeed, it didn't really have a chance of qualifying as a sport.  The very nature of competitive cheer makes it hard for a competitive cheer program to qualify as a sport unless a governing body takes an active step to rein cheer in.

The fact of the matter is that cheer is still in the wild, wild west stage of its development.  It doesn't have a set season, and the rules vary depending on who's sponsoring a competition. Cheer goes all year; it is financially dependent on for-profit apparel companies and competing sponsoring organizations. The result is that a team can be in Cheer America's finals one month, and in USA Cheer's semifinals two months later. The uninitiated might find it odd that right after one championship there's another, but the key to understanding cheer is to realize that every tournament has its own sponsor, and each sponsor charges an entry fee from the teams, raking in a lot of cash in the process. 

All of competitive cheer's flaws were on display in the Biediger case.  The Quinnipiac  cheer team couldn't be counted as a competitive sport because it competed against a mix of competitive and sideline cheer teams. The team was run by the sideline cheer coach and  competed under different rules in different places. Scholarships were going to be available, but not nearly as many as in a regular sport. In short, the whole thing was a mess.

Path to success

In applying the OCR rules, however, the District Court did cheer a favor because the rules provide a clear path for cheer to  become a competitive sport. Some high school programs, such as in Michigan, already comply with the OCR standards.  Indeed, the Michigan High School Athletic Association received its letter from OCR  way back in 2001.

The federal court in Connecticut has done exactly what a federal court is supposed to do. It promulgated legal rules that people can follow. So long as schools follow the rules, cheer will become a competitive sport, instead of a money-making machine for apparel companies and tournament sponsors.

Created July 29, 2010