The debate over whether cheerleading is a sport or not is ridiculous. There are competitions, it involves high levels of athleticism and it offers entertainment — all boxes checked. Pragmatically, though, the line that determines whether a sport qualifies as an NCAA sport is a lot less cut-and-dried.
The issue of cheerleading’s eligibility as a sport starts and ends with Title IX. In the sports world, Title IX has one main goal: ensure men and women have equal access and opportunities to play sports. This doesn’t mean the same sports, but that the amount of roster spots on official athletic rosters are even. Additionally, there are mandates on competition guidelines and funding that get into more specifics to prevent the neglect of women’s sports.
So this should help cheer, right? Not exactly. Some cheer teams are all female, but the majority are co-ed. So in a binary men’s or women’s sport NCAA, a co-ed sport just doesn’t fit.
“You couldn’t throw it into a men’s sport because you have women competing, and you couldn’t throw it into a women’s sport likewise because we integrate men into what we do,” Michigan coach Pam St. John said. “ … I think that it’s more important at this point in time to pursue opportunities for women athletes at the NCAA level than it is for us to take on what would really be a pretty monumental task of trying to develop a co-ed NCAA category and then, in addition, try to get our sport into that.”
So that’s the first hurdle. On top of that, Title IX prevents cheerleading’s adoption as a sport in its pursuit to protect other sports, most recently in a 2012 federal appeals court case ruled against Quinnipiac University. Quinnipiac attempted to make an all-female cheer team one of its sports teams in order to cut volleyball, a more expensive sport to fund. So really Title IX’s prevention of cheer as a sport isn’t malicious, rather a side effect.
“I don’t think there’s any exclusion of cheer as a sport per say,” St. John said. “I don’t think there was any intentionality of that. When it was written cheer wasn’t an NCAA sport, so I don’t think there was ever any intent to exclude cheer from that. I think it was intentionally constructed to address NCAA sport numbers and scholarships and that did not apply to cheer at the time. And for the most part it still doesn’t.”
Another barrier is the absence of head-to-head competitions for cheer teams. While gymnastics, another sport officiated by judges, holds official competitions between teams, cheer currently has no equivalent at the college level. The closest currently is the National Cheerleaders Association Championship which allows for a judged winner — a title Michigan captured in 2019 — but still isn’t separated as a head-to-head or round robin tournament, nor is it separated by divisions like the qualified NCAA sports.
“I’d love to see a Big Ten (only) competition, but no conference is doing that at this point in time,” St. John said. “So we’re working on that. That might be the one exciting thing that comes out of COVID. We might actually get to go head to head with Michigan State and Ohio State in cheer. I would love it. They both have good programs and I’d love to have some kind of platform where we could compete head to head with them.”
There’s also a push for components of cheer to enter the NCAA as their own sports. Though Michigan has neither program, the all-female stunt and acro are primed for NCAA competition. Acro already has emerging sports status, but stunt’s application process was halted as a result of the pandemic. Status for any sport is granted based on attendance of its championship events, so with stunt’s championship canceled, there was not enough data for the status upgrade.
Though the full-female composition and more competition-friendly acro and stunt are poised for sport status in compliance with Title IX, funding has now become a concern due to COVID-19. With colleges cutting sports as a result of revenue losses, it’s hard to imagine an environment where programs are instead being added.
For the time being, stunt, acro and cheer wait on the sidelines. Eventually there could be the opportunity for new-sport status, but for now, just keeping the programs funded is crucial.
“I don’t see that changing (at Michigan),” St. John said. “And for right now honestly, I think the whole world is in a holding pattern. Really not looking too far in the future trying to mitigate all this craziness that has come with COVID.”
Stoll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nkstoll.