Why Don’t We Recognize Cheerleading as a Sport?

By Norma Nyhoff, Field Intern

On July 21, the American Association of University Women cheered a court decision announcing that cheerleading is not a sport. The Biediger v. Quinnipiac University case began with the university’s decision to cut the varsity women’s volleyball team and instead expand their club cheerleading squad into a varsity-level competitive team. The volleyball team’s coach brought charges and won the case in a victory for the enforcement of Title IX. The rest is history — or is it?

Why the decision that cheerleading isn’t a sport? Quinnipiac lost the case for a reason — its support-oriented cheer squad wasn’t even close to upholding Title IX — but that doesn’t mean that other competitive cheerleading teams aren’t in compliance.

In his ruling on the Quinnipiac case, Judge Stefan Underhill wrote that cheerleading didn’t qualify as a sport because “the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.”

Competitive cheerleading’s obvious athleticism and difficulty aside, the activity is largely unregulated and disorganized because it isn’t recognized as a sport. Currently, cheerleading is more of an industry than an organized athletic activity. Varsity Brands, Inc., a cheerleading equipment company that runs most championship events, has no motive to streamline or regulate cheerleading, especially when sloppy training and redundant competitions increase profits.

Granting cheerleading a place in the sports world will force the development of stricter regulations, official tournaments, and improved training and safety procedures — important symbols of legitimacy for an activity that is often dismissed, I suspect, because it is traditionally dominated by women. Additionally, I can’t help but wonder if cheerleading is denigrated even more than other ‘feminine’ athletics because its participants are typically not only women, but conventionally attractive, ones — women that no one in mainstream society appears willing to take seriously.

Recognizing cheerleading as a sport with established NCAA safety and training regulations may also be key in reducing the horrifyingly high rates of cheerleading injuries. According to the 2009 Catastrophic Sports Injury Research report, 71 percent of all catastrophic injuries to female college athletes are due to cheerleading.

Cheerleading has a problematic history, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t empower girls and women as leaders, competitors and athletes. Judge Underhill’s decision to keep competitive cheerleaders on the sidelines maintains the familiar precedent of women’s activities and health coming in last place.

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