Time to sit under the bright lights with a hot dog and bat away the bugs. Time for martial drums and blaring trumpets. Time for V-I-C, T-O-R-Y. Victory.
But if you’re one of the young women and men leading the cheers on the sidelines, you may not feel much like spelling “victory” this year.
That’s because a federal judge has ruled that cheerleading, despite its growing focus on perilous gymnastic moves and cutthroat competitions, is not a sport.
The ruling came out of a lawsuit against Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University, which announced last year that it would cut its volleyball team and offer young women a chance to be on a competitive cheer team. U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill told Quinnipiac it couldn’t do that, because cheerleading — “competitive stunt tumbling” in legalese – is too “underdeveloped and disorganized” to be considered a sport.
For young women who have been training and tumbling and competing – and getting some pretty serious injuries – the judge’s words must feel like someone is turning the knife. And those words come right at the time when cheer teams are gearing up for another season as handmaiden to another sport, one dominated by boys.
But the judge may be doing cheerleaders, and women’s sports in general, a favor.
That’s because the case in question involved Title IX, a provision in federal law that requires schools to provide equal opportunities in sports to men and women – at least, if they want to get federal grant money.
Equity on the cheap
Cheer teams may want Judge Underhill’s head, but if he had declared cheer a sport, Quinnipiac – and other schools – would have been able to count every cheerleader as equivalent to a football player under Title IX.
Poof, equality. Football for boys and cheer for girls. And no need – or less need – for volleyball, softball and those other sports.
At least that’s how it sounds when you discuss it with Donna Lopiano, former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. Lopiano is an expert on Title IX and a leading advocate for equal access to sports – yet her testimony helped nix the idea of cheerleading as a sport.
“I was asked whether cheer squads met the OCR (Office of Civil Rights) definition of a sport,” Lopiano said in a phone interview. “Cheerleading can get there, but it’s not there yet.”
It’s not that the women and men of cheer aren’t disciplined or competitive, she said. It’s just that cheer squads haven’t been given the chance to compete in regular competition, with strict and uniform rules – like you’d see in every other sport. Cheer championships are sponsored by a variety of private organizations, and cheer teams operate without a lot of the support schools extend to other sports. So a ruling in the other direction would have given schools a freebie – at the expense of women.
Local administrators are very aware of the chicken-or-egg conundrum of cheer-as-sport.
Piedmont superintendent Matt Akin is convinced that cheerleaders are true athletes. He’s proud to say that Piedmont sends its squad to state competitions sponsored by the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
But he’s quick to note that only a fraction of Alabama schools go to the competition – a sign that not every school treats cheer as a competitive activity.
“There’s a difference between competitive cheerleading and Friday night cheerleading,” Akin noted.
Akin sees AHSAA’s cheerleading competition as rather forward-thinking, a sign of solidarity with cheerleading advocates.
But when I called AHSAA, I was tersely told that cheer is no sport.
“We don’t recognize cheerleading as a sport, and we never have,” said Wanda Gililland, AHSAA assistant director. “It’s a sports activity.”
So what is a “sports activity?” It appears to be a concept created so schools could get their cheer teams on AHSAA liability insurance, without having to hire lots of referees.
The elephant in the room
And here’s the kicker.
“We have surveyed our schools and they’ve made it clear they don’t want cheerleading as a sport,” Gililland said.
If they did recognize it, schools would have to confine cheerleading to a single season – just like baseball or volleyball, Gililland said.
And, by implication, cheerleaders wouldn’t be available year-round to root for other kids playing basketball, or volleyball or football.
It’s the elephant – or, if you prefer, the tiger – in the room.
Title IX is a federal law, and its authors may not have considered the reality of life in Alabama, where a lot of people would tell you there’s really only one sport. And it’s overwhelmingly male-dominated.
It’s hard to find metaphors for the space football occupies in Alabama’s culture. It’s as big as – well, to avoid being sacreligious, let’s just say that it’s bigger than Elvis.
If the goal of Title IX is to offer women the educational and social benefits of sports participation, it’s hard to imagine how to offer a single sport that matches the effect of Alabama football.
Football requires all the discipline and skill of ballet. If a player does well, he’ll get more scholarship offers than Miss Alabama. And he’ll be followed by a legion of fans as intense as the readers of the Twilight saga.
In our society, is there any one female-dominated activity that opens quite as many doors?
Local school administrators are too smart to even try to answer that one. But they’ll tell you what the official answer is.
“Technically, volleyball is considered the equivalent of football,” Akin said. “But that’s really because they’re played at the same time of year.”
Calhoun County assistant superintendent Bobby Burns and Oxford superintendent Jeff Goodwin offered the same answer. And the AHSAA’s Gililland is adamant when asked if volleyball equals football.
“It sure does,” she said.
Twice as much football?
Lopiano, the Title IX expert, knows why the administrators are so confident about that. The law, she said, is largely about counting bodies.
“Schools have to give sports opportunities to equal numbers of male and female students,” she said. “There’s nothing in the law that says you have to offer the same sports.”
And nothing in the law prevents small-town life from coming to a halt for Friday night football, while other sports get a more measured response.
So football can suck all the air out of the room, eclipsing all other activities, male or female.
Administrators admit they don’t like that.
“I’d love to see our cheerleading team, our band and our robotics team getting as much community support as the football program,” said Oxford’s Goodwin. “Which is not to say that I’d like to see less support for football. I’d like to see more enthusiasm all around.”
For Goodwin, himself a former basketball coach, football’s supremacy is about more than just culture. There’s the fact that the teams are huge – recruiting dozens of players rather than the handful in some other sports. There’s the short season, with its 10 high-stakes games. Imagine holding pep rallies for each game in a 35-game basketball season, he said.
But there is one intriguing solution to the football dilemma. Why don’t schools offer varsity football leagues for young women?
“It makes a lot of sense,” said Lopiano. “There have been surveys that show that young women want to play football competitively, and would do so if they were given the option.”
Girls’ football would mean, well, twice as much football.
Now that's something to Friday-night cheer about. And if you want a men's stunt tumbling team to do that cheering – well, bring it on.
So why, in a state obsessed with the pigskin, aren’t there varsity football teams for girls?
“You’ve got me there,” said Goodwin. “If you can figure that one out, you’ll really be onto something.”
A Teachable Moment is Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette's looks at schools and education issues. It appears in The Star each Tuesday. Contact Lockette at 256-235-3560.