Letdown on Competitive Cheer Ruling

The 2nd U.S. Circuit of Appeals upheld a U.S. District Court’s 2010 ruling that competitive cheerleading cannot be considered a sport under Title IX. In the 2010 decision, Judge Stefan R. Underhill forced Quinnipiac University to reinstate the women’s volleyball team because competitive cheerleading “is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.” In the decision, he later noted, “I also do not mean to belittle competitive cheer as an athletic endeavor.”

Well, it seems like Judge Underhill did just that, and unfortunately, this second court ruling lets down the millions of young men and women who combine their athleticism, gymnastics skills, and showmanship to keep up with the increasingly competitive and complicated nature of  cheerleading. As ESPN’s Greg Easterbrook wrote in 2010, “Those who think cheer isn’t a sport may be thinking in terms of 1950s cheerleaders clapping hands and kicking legs. Think again.”

If all of the gravity-defying stunts and backward flips aren’t convincing enough to prove just how far cheerleading has progressed, one only need look at the shocking statistics on the prevalence of injuries. According to the latest “Catastrophic Sports Injury Research” report, “High school cheerleading accounted for 64.8% of all high school direct catastrophic injuries to female athletes (two males not included) and 70.6% at the college level (four males not included).” In total, this amounts to “two-thirds of the catastrophic injuries to female athletes” in high schools and colleges. Based on all of the minor and serious injuries, concussions, fatalities, and requirements of this sport, the authors propose, “it should not be called cheerleading since it has nothing to do with cheerleading. It is an activity with gymnastic type stunts.”

As we noted in 2010 (as the College Sports Council), safety considerations, not judges and government bureaucrats far away from the cheerleaders’ mats, should determine the varsity status of competitive cheerleading. It makes sense that schools should be the ones responsible for deciding whether making competitive cheerleading a varsity sport will ensure the attention to safety it requires and offer meaningful opportunities for boys and girls under Title IX.

Quite expectedly, this decision has garnered positive reactions from some activist groups that still believe cheerleading cannot and should not be considered a varsity sport. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented Quinnipiac University’s female volleyball players in the original 2010 suit, claims victory. Sandra Staub, legal director for the ACLU Connecticut chapter, states, “We expect the Second Circuit’s decision to finally persuade Quinnipiac and any other university in violation of Title IX to stop fighting gender equity and start providing meaningful and equal athletic opportunities for women.”

This viewpoint is shameful considering that competitive cheerleading is one of the fastest growing sports and already enjoyed by millions of young women who believe that what they’re participating in is plenty meaningful and challenging.

Joshua Thompson, staff attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, perfectly sums up why this ruling is both significant and upsetting. He observes, “The school, to come into compliance with Title IX, was forced to cut men’s golf, men’s track and field, and women’s volleyball.   So it didn’t have to cut any more, the school created competitive cheerleading as a new varsity sport with a lot of participants.  This decision means that there are fewer recognized athletes than there could be.  At a school that already has to provide over 60% of it’s athletic opportunities to females, it’s only a matter of time before the next sport gets the ax.”

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