Traditional cheerleading is alive and well replete with hair ribbons, high kicks and pom poms but a new version of the activity threatens the conventional definition of sport.
Semantics can be so messy.
Take, for example, the recent wrangling over the word cheerleading. The word is reminiscent of the universally enjoyed sideline distraction of perky girls, crisp football Saturdays, short skirts and saddle shoes.
But lets get more specific. And less Norman Rockwellian.
I think cheerleading is entertainment because it is fun to watch. Most high schools regard cheerleading as an extracurricular activity because, among other things, it keeps kids off the streets.
Things get complicated in college. It is there that sports television networks capture cheerleaders nubile midriffs and flawless smiles as often as they broadcast the squads acrobatic basket-tosses and back handspring combinations. In college, it is customary for cheerleading teams have positions like base and flyer. The cheerleaders are all most decidedly agile. Athletic, even.
And, usually, when athletic people gather into teams, they do so in order to engage in a manner of sport.
Tread carefully, there is a linguistic rabbit hole ahead.
Last month two cheerleading organizations dragged the NCAA into what has become a contentious public debate about whether or not to consider a new version of cheerleading as an NCAA championship sport.
And theres the rub. Cheerleading is fun. Its cute. Its bouncy. But, a sport?
Last summer, a federal court reflected public perception and decided that competitive cheerleading was not — whew! – a sport. Perhaps more important than the specifics of the ruling was the underlying effect that, because cheerleading wasn’t a sport, it could not be used by colleges and universities to satisfy Title IXs proportionality requirement. The rule is intended to offer women and men the same educational opportunities at federally funded schools.
The judge based his decision on the lack of formal competitions as well as the absence of a national organization tasked with overseeing and regulating the activity at the collegiate level.
But it will take more than a federal court ruling to squelch the pep out of the cheerleading community. That trademark perky optimism is tenacious, if not insufferable.
That ruling was a blessing in disguise because it offered a blueprint to do what we needed to do, said John Blake, Executive Director of the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association.
In an effort to solidify cheerleading as a sport in the eyes of the NCAA, Blakes NCATA and another organization, USA Cheer, codified the skill set demonstrated in traditional cheerleading, lined up participating schools, standardized a competition format and implemented a scoring system.
Infuriatingly, the two organizations arrived at separate derivations of competitive cheerleading. The length of the competitions, or “games,” vary between the two sports. There is a different skill focus and, overall, disparate philosophies guiding the future of the sport. NCATA calls its sport tumbling and acrobatics; USA Cheers sport is STUNT.
Both organizations last month separately petitioned the NCAAs Committee on Womens Athletics to consider their own versions of cheerleading as an emerging sport.
When the NCAA gives a sport the emerging designation — a process that can take up to 18 months – the sport’s governing body has 10 years to gain championship status, which happens when 40 institutions recognize the sport at the varsity level. After almost 10 years on the emerging sport list, squash was recently removed because of a lack of growth. Rowing, ice hockey and water polo are now championship level sports that were once emerging. Sand volleyballs stint as an emerging sport starts this August.
Politics aside, whether the NCAA decides to recognize either tumbling and acrobatics or STUNT as its emerging sport, the opportunity provided to female high school graduates by a competitive cheerleading-based, NCAA sanctioned and scholarship sport is enormous.
In 2010 the National Federation of State High School Associations reported that nearly 125,000 girls participated in high school cheerleading/spirit squads, making it the ninth most popular girls sport — fine, activity — in the nation.
In fact, the number of girls participating in high school cheerleading is nearly double the amount that participate in golf, the next most popular girls high school sport, and an NCAA championship sport since 1982. Bowling, an NCAA championship sport starting in 2004, had 25,000 high school girls participate in 2010.
A situation now exists that a starting high school quarterback has access to a college scholarship to play football while the equally athletic head cheerleader sitting next to him in Spanish class is offered few avenues to explore her chosen athletic activity after graduation.
Certainly none that will pay for her education.
Had she only picked up a baseball or football as a youngster then she, too, would have been better positioned to get a free education in exchange for her athletic aptitude. Or perhaps she should have picked up a weapon because fencing and rifling have been NCAA championship sports since 1990 and 2006, respectively.
When the NCAA approves a version of cheerleading as a sport — and I assure you, they cannot avoid doing so — athletic departments that choose to adopt the version of competitive cheer as a varsity sport will potentially see another problem vanish: Title IX compliance headaches.
Indeed, a new cheer-based sport will appeal to athletic directors who are looking for a low-cost, large roster scholarship sport to add to its arsenal of offerings for its female population. In this manner, the new sport affords schools a relatively easy way to increase educational opportunities for women, a federal mandate under Title IX.
Perhaps a problem approving the latest incarnation of competitive cheerleading which has nothing to do with sideline support of another sport lies in the court of public opinion.
Its the glitter, isnt it? Or maybe its the skirts and the hair ribbons. Maybe these women would have a fighting chance if they smack-talked, scowled and snarled during competitions.
The question should be: Do they compete and are they athletes? said Bill Seeley, Executive Director of USA Cheer. Is the new format true to the intent of sports? Everything else is an accessory and personal and team preference.
Nothing should stand in the way of granting the worlds future tumblers or STUNTers all the privileges granted to any NCAA student athlete.
But, first, the two national organizations need to find common ground and submit a single proposal to the NCAA.
If they do not, the very serious discussion of educational opportunity for hundreds of thousands of girls will be usurped by the territorial cat fight among adults.