Is Cheerleading a Sport?

Posted on July 27, 2010

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More post-World-Cup reflections on soccer soon. But in the meantime, a philosophical debate about sport erupted on a slow summer sports-news day last week.

In case you missed it, here’s the AP’s account of the story:

Competitive cheerleading is not an official sport that colleges can use to meet gender-equity requirements, a federal judge ruled Wednesday in ordering Quinnipiac University to keep its women’s volleyball team. The parties in the case said it was the first time the issue had been decided by a judge.

Several volleyball players and their coach sued Quinnipiac, in Hamden, Conn., after it announced in March 2009 that it would eliminate the team for budgetary reasons and replace it with a competitive cheer squad.

Quinnipiac contended that the cheerleading squad and other moves kept it in compliance with Title IX, the 1972 law that mandates equal opportunities for men and women in athletics. But Judge Stefan Underhill of United States District Court in Hartford disagreed. University officials responded by saying they would start a women’s rugby team but declined to discuss the future of other teams or say whether they would continue offering scholarships to competitive cheerleaders.

For non-Americans of a certain age, this must sound like a Monty Python sketch. Judges are deciding philosophical “What is x?” questions, and passing judgment on the thoroughly innocent and legal extracurricular activities at universities? For outsiders curious enough to follow up, you’ll find more than enough information about “Title IX” here.

Long story short: athletics are huge at American universities; they can consume significant chunks of the college budgets (though men’s football and basketball teams do, at some schools, turn a profit), and provide tens of thousands of scholarships nationwide — often to kids who would not otherwise have gone to university. And for these reasons, American federal civil rights legislation (i.e. Title IX) requires that the benefits of university athletics should be shared equally among male and female students. And universities have to show they are in compliance.

So sometimes judges will have to decide if an activity being funded primarily for female students counts as a sporting activity for the purposes of Title IX.

The sports media in the US late last week immediately reframed the issue simply as: Is cheerleading a sport? Snap polls I saw on ESPN had a strong majority of the mostly male audience answering No. Most of the naysayers were no doubt thinking about girls and young women with pompoms on the sidelines of high school and college sporting events, and not about competitive cheerleading squads like this one, which perform something that is a cross between circus acrobatics, a Vegas show and, well, gymnastics. ESPN itself televises the national championships for this “activity” at the high-school level. And in recent years we’ve come to learn that cheerleading of all sorts causes two-thirds of catastrophic injuries among female high school and college athletes in the US, as well as some 30,000 emergency-room visits annually.

But the court case was not really trying to settle the issue of whether competitive cheerleading counts as a real sport. The judge may have ruled the same way if the activity in question had been a varsity women’s flag-football team. (Flag football is a form of American football that has players immobilized by pulling their “flag” — a ribbon attached to the waist by velcro — rather than tackling them to the ground.) Flag football is clearly a sport, and it is becoming popular as a high-school sport for girls in Florida, but it does not have any real intercollegiate infrastructure at the college level. This court case was all about the interpretation of a federal statute and the regulatory law associated with it.

But the question of whether cheerleading is a sport had the effect of setting the mass typing and tweeting classes abuzz over the more general philosophical question of what criteria are relevant for deciding whether some particular activity counts as a sport.

This “philosophy of sport” blog is now about six months old, so it is probably about time we pose that simple question, What is a sport, anyway? And does anything about our understanding of any particular sport hang on our answer to this question? (To be continued….)

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