Should Cheerleading be a Sport?

by Helena Varnavas September 21 2009, 09:35

I.   Introduction

          There is an ongoing debate among the media and cheer world as to whether or not cheerleading should be recognized as a sport under Title IX.[1] A recent poll found that 60% of people thought cheerleading was a sport, while 35% did not.[2] Cheerleaders sometimes a> Opponents argue that because the primary function of cheerleading is not competition, it does not meet the qualifications of a sport.[3][4] The answer to this debate depends on your definition of a sport.[5] The NCAA, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) all have their own definition of “sport” that a competitive cheerleading squad could possibly qualify under.[6] The question also brings up other issues that would need to be addressed.  Cheerleading is an estimated half-billion dollar industry,[7] and an underlying problem to solving this debate stems from national for-profit cheerleading associations that would prefer cheerleading to remain an “athletic activity” for financially-based reasons.[8] There is also speculation of educational institutions upgrading cheer squads to varsity status in order to save money off of traditionally more expensive women’s sports.[9]  Cheerleading’s classification as a sport under Title IX may also influence courts’ decisions regarding liability issues arising from cheerleading injuries.[10]  This paper will discuss whether or not cheerleading should be sport and why it depends on if you are in favor of more regulated competitive cheerleading program governed by educational institutions or a less competitive self-regulated cheerleading program. 

II.   Cheerleading as a Sport under Title IX

          Approximately half of the U.S. states have already recognized high school cheerleading under Title IX.[11]  Cheerleading has grown significantly in popularity among women, almost 25%, since 2000.[12]  Cheerleading’s largest barrier to achieving Title IX status nationwide seems to be its inferior status as a second-rate sport to others that are more traditionally known.[13]  Raising a woman’s cheerleading club to that of a varsity sport status is the easiest way a school can comply with Title IX.[14]  A cheerleader that wants their club to be a sport would need to show the school was out of Title IX compliance and raising their status to a varsity sport would constitute compliance.”[15]  Determinations of whether cheerleading is a sport needs to be made on a case-by-case basis, beginning with whether the competitive squad meets the qualifications under the definitions traditionally used to make that determination.[16]  The way in which Title IX applies to cheerleading usually depends on whether the educational institution defines it as a sport or an extracurricular activity.[17]  Common authorities on the definition of “sport” are the OCR, the WSF and the NCAA.

          a.       OCR’s definition of “Sport”

          The OCR’s criteria are as follows: (1) athletic ability; (2) athletic competition; (3) preparation similar to other athletic teams; (4) multi-level championship competitions; and (5) administration by an athletics department.[18]  If a cheerleading squad selects it’s members according to their athletic ability, makes it their primary purpose to compete against other squads, prepares for competitions like other sports, competes in regional championships and allows their athletic department to administer their activity, then it seems like cheerleading may easily qualify as a sport under the OCR’s definition.[19]  Because the OCR’s definition requires squads to make it their primary purpose that they compete against other teams,[20] cheerleading clubs that traditionally cheered for other sports might not be able to do so anymore if they’re trying to achieve varsity sport status.[21]  The OCR’s definition does not exclude sideline cheering,[22] but it would be to a squad’s detriment if they still engaged in cheering for other sports.[23] 

          b.      WSF’s definition of “Sport”               

          The WSF’s definition of a sport is: (1) physical activity involving mass resistance; (2) against/with an opponent; (3) governing rules; and (4) skill-based competition.[24]  Cheerleaders compete against other squads and function under the regulations of the NCAA.[25]  As long as cheer squads in pursuit of becoming a varsity sport make it their primary purpose to compete against other similar squads, they should qualify under the WSF’s definition as well.[26]  Currently, the WSF has found that cheerleading is not a sport because their purpose is not to compete and “most competitions are not structured like school sport competitions.”[27]  By assuming that all cheerleading squads have the same purpose, WSF has not allowed room for judgments to be made on a case-by-case basis.[28] 

          c.       NCAA’s definition of “Sport”

          For purposes of reviewing emerging sports, a sport is defined by the NCAA as: (1) An institutional activity involving physical exertion with the purpose of competition within a collegiate competition structure;[29] (2) at least five regularly scheduled competitions within a season; and (3) standardized rules with official rating/scoring systems.[30]  Many educational institutions choose not to elevate their cheerleading clubs to the level of varsity sport because they do not want increased regulations imposed by the NCAA,[31] nor do many schools want to phase out the non-competitive sideline activities of cheerleaders altogether.[32] Although the NCAA does not recognize cheerleading as a sport, “an estimated 225 junior and four-year colleges award some kind of cheerleading scholarships.”[33] Cheerleaders can practice and compete more hours a week than other sports because they are not recognized as a varsity sport by the NCAA, which requires no more than twenty hours of practice per week.[34] Cheerleaders are not forced to follow requirements such as mandatory physical examinations, collegiate participation past four years or only practicing certain times of the year.[35]  These risk factors increase their chances of injuries,[36] and leave educational institutions susceptible to negligence litigation depending on the cheerleading stance of the court.[37]  Educational institutions that unintentionally or recklessly create risks outside of the ordinary activities related to cheerleading may not be able to claim that the cheerleaders assumed the risks of the dangerous athletic activity.[38]

III.   Liability Issues Arising from Cheerleading Injuries 

          High school and college cheerleading accounted for 57% of catastrophic injuries and direct fatalities in U.S. female students from 1982-1997. [39]  From 1982 to 1992, partner stunts caused 41.9% of college cheerleading injuries and gymnastic routines accounted for 20.5%.[40]  In 1995, the Consumer Product Safety Commission data found that, “an estimate of 16,982 cheerleading injuries involved an individual going to a hospital emergency room.”[41]  Most female cheerleaders have had at least one injury in their cheerleading careers. [42]  A university will either take a hands-off approach that views their cheerleading squad as a club or a full-service approach that organizes cheerleading like an athletic team by providing coaches, safety training and regulations.[43]  This is why a sport classification would mean so much for liability purposes.

          a.       Assumption of Risk

          Although courts generally hold that cheerleaders assume the risk of injuries while cheerleading, this assumption may not completely bar them from recovery.[44] However, some courts still find that since there is a high and definite risk of physical harm involved, a school does not owe a duty to cheerleaders to provide adult supervision and monitor their activities.[45]  To build a case for assumption of risk, educational institutions often use exculpatory clauses to shield themselves against future negligence liability that may arise in the course of cheerleading.[46]  These clauses may appear in the form of a warning, waiver or release that a cheerleader must sign in order to engage in cheerleading activities.[47] 

          b.      Duty of Care 

          If a duty of care exists, injuries caused by cheerleading may be a result of negligence.[48]  Most courts have agreed with juries that, “schools owe a duty to provide its student cheerleaders with adequate supervision, training, and coaching for its student cheerleaders.”[49]  University administrators must be aware of any factors that may constitute a special relationship between the university and its cheerleaders.”[50] If there is a mutual benefit to both parties, a court may find a special relationship exists between the parties that designate a duty of care by the educational institution.[51] 

          c.       Governmental Immunity 

          Some courts have statutes that provide them immunity from “negligence actions for participants in a recreational activity that involves physical contact between persons in a sport involving amateur teams.”[52]  The Wisconsin Supreme Court held on January 27, 2009 that cheerleading is a contact sport, and as such they are “immune from negligence actions under Wis. Stat. § 895.525(4m)(a) (2005-06) because they participate in a recreational activity that includes physical contact between persons in a sport involving amateur teams.”[53]  The Wisconsin Supreme Court defined “sport” as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs”[54]  According to the National Cheer Foundation, “this is the first decision of its kind in the nation.”[55]  This ruling also meant that coaches and school districts may not be sued for lack of supervision.[56]  If more courts agree with the Wisconsin Supreme Court and adopt their contact sport rule, cheerleaders may need to take out insurance policies to guard themselves against future injuries.[57]

III.   Cheerleading is Big Business

          It would be to the largest cheerleading governing institutions’ detriment for cheerleading to be classified as a sport under Title IX.[58]  These associations make their money from merchandise sales, cheer camps and privately run competitions.[59] “Cheerleading is big, serious business, right down to the network of state, regional and national cheerleading competitions the two big companies hold each year.”[60]  If educational institutions were given the power to govern cheerleading, these private for-profit organizations would lose a lot of money.[61]  Varsity Spirit, the largest cheerleading company, made almost 150 million dollars in revenue in 2001.[62]  Recent movies such as Bring it On have heightened interest in cheerleading, along with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders reality television show series.[63]  Privately owned institutions have no reason to push for cheerleading to be classified as a sport if it’s going to cut into their revenues.[64]      

IV.   Conclusion 

          Whether cheerleading should be classified as a sport should vary on a case-by-case basis for those squads that deem competitions more important than “raising school unity through leading the crowd at athletic functions.”[65]  It is possible for cheerleaders to fulfill the qualifications of commonly used and accepted “sport” definitions, but it’s unclear whether cheerleaders themselves actually want this to happen. If more educational institutions qualify their cheerleading squads for sport status, the cheerleaders themselves would be better regulated under safety guidelines,[66] injuries would most likely decrease,[67] and women would have a greater chance to compete participate in a varsity sport at their respective institutions.[68] Although these are important concerns for cheerleaders nationwide, the for-profit cheerleading governing institutions have too much influence over the cheerleading world for there to be a push towards a more school-regulated sport classification for cheerleading.



[1] Laura Grindstaff,  Emily West. (2006). Cheerleading and the Gendered Politics of SportSocial Problems, 53(4), 500-518.  Retrieved April 23, 2009, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 1180194901).
[2]Is Cheerleading a Sport?, About.com, http://cheerleading.about.com/gi/pages/poll.htm?linkback=&poll_id=5769754306&poll=3&submit1=Submit+Vote (last visited Sept. 16, 2009).

[3]  Lauren Elizabeth White, Cheerleading: Is it a Sport?, April 4, 2005, http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/944/cheerleading_is_it_a_sport.html?cat=14.

[4]  Cheerleading as a Sport, American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators,

http://www.aacca.org/content.aspx?item=Resources/Test.xml (last visited Sept. 16, 2009)..

[5] Marc Edelman, Sports and the Law: Can Sports ‘Cheer’ Their Way into Title IX Compliance?, Above the Law, Feb. 4, 2009, http://www.abovethelaw.com/2009/02/sports_and_the_law_making_chee.php
[6] Rebecca Boyce, Cheerleading in the Context of Title IX and Gendering in Sport, United States Sports Academy, 2009, available at http://www.thesportjournal.org/article/cheerleading-context-title-ix-and-gendering-sport.
[7]Cheerleading: Controversy and Competition, About.com, http://cheerleading.about.com/od/cheerinjuries/l/aa103102a.htm (last visited Sept. 16, 2009).
[8]Cheerleading as a Sport, supra note 4.
[9]David Moltz, But I’m an Athlete, Inside Higher Ed, June 30, 2009, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/06/30/cheer.
[10]17 J. Legal Aspects Of Sport 213, Mary Virginia Moore Johnson & Beth A. Easter, Legal Liability for Cheerleading Injuries: Implications for Universities and Coaches.

[11] Boyce, supra note 6.

[12] Sanctioned Team Sports Play, SGMA, Oct. 2, 2008,

http://www.sgma.com/press/93_Sanctioned-Team-Sports-Play-In-the-US-Remains-Strong,-But...

[13] Dennis Dodd, Colleges giving cheerleading a sporting chance, CBS Sports, June 11, 2004,

http://www.cbssports.com/print/collegefootball/story/7412313.

[14] Gless M. Wong, Essentials of Amateur Sports Law 547, Second Edition (1994).

[15] Id.

[16] Edelman, supra note 5.

[17] Id. at 2.

[18] April Hennefer, Dance and Cheerleading as Competitive Sports: Making a Case for OCR Sport Recognition and NCAA Emerging Sport Designation, Aug. 2003, available at

http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/1b/51/91.pdf.

[19] Id.

[20] Hennefer, supra note 18.

[21] Steven E. Rhoads, Sports, Sex, at Title IX, 2004, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0377/is_154/ai_n6062432/pg_5/.

[22] Hennefer, supra note 18.

[23] Boyce, supra note 6.

[24] Hennefer, supra note 18.

[25] American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, CBS Story Deceives the Public, ,

http://www.aacca.org/content.aspx?item=News/Featured%20Test3.xml (last visited Sept. 16, 2009).

[26] Boyce, supra note 6.

[27] 108 Penn St. L. Rev. 525, J. Brad Reich, All the [Athletes] Are Equal, but Some Are More Equal than Others: An Objective Evaluation of Title IX's Past, Present, and Recommendations for Its Future.

[28] Edelman, supra note 5.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Beth Rosenberg, Competitive cheerleaders stand up and holler to be varsity, NCAA, Oct. 27, 2003,

http://ncaa-wcmrun.ncaa.org:9081/wps/wcm/connect/NCAA/NCAA+News/NCAA+News+Online /2003/Association-wide/Competitive+cheerleaders+stand+up+and+holler+to+be+varsity+-+10-27-03.

[32] Grindstaff, supra note 1 at 6.

[33] Dodd, supra note 13.

[34] Jennifer Allen, The Athlete on the Sidelines, National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators, Feb. 20, 2004,  http://www.nacwaa.org/rc/rc_articlepr_sidelines.php.

[35] How to Be a College Cheerleader, College Sports Scholarships, http://www.collegesportsscholarships.com/scholarship-news-cheerleading.htm (last visited Sept. 16, 2009)..

[36] Allen, supra note 34.

[37] Annotation, Liability of school or school personnel for injury to student resulting from cheerleader activities, 25 A.L.R.5th 784, 3a (2009).

[38] 17 J. Legal Aspects Of Sport 214, Mary Virginia Moore Johnson & Beth A. Easter, Legal Liability for Cheerleading Injuries: Implications for Universities and Coaches.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. at 213.

[41] Frederick O. Mueller, Cheerleading and the Law: Risk Management Strategies, 431 (2008)

[42] Brenda J. Shields, Cheerleading-Related Injuries to Children 5 to 18 Years of Age: United States, 1990-2002, Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Jan. 2006, available at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/short/117/1/122.

[43] 17 J. Legal Aspects Of Sport 213, Mary Virginia Moore Johnson & Beth A. Easter, Legal Liability for Cheerleading Injuries: Implications for Universities and Coaches.

[44] Annotation, Liability of school or school personnel for injury to student resulting from cheerleader activities, 25 A.L.R.5th 784, 3a (2009).

[45] Fisher v Northwestern State Univ. ) 624 So 2d 1308 ( La App. 3d Cir. 1993).

[46] 17 J. Legal Aspects Of Sport 216, Mary Virginia Moore Johnson & Beth A. Easter, Legal Liability for Cheerleading Injuries: Implications for Universities and Coaches.

[47] Walter Champion, Fundamentals of Sports Law, 13 (2008).

[48] Id.

[49] Annotation, Liability of school or school personnel for injury to student resulting from cheerleader activities, 25 A.L.R.5th 784, 3a (2009).

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Wis. Stat. § 895.525.  

[53] Noffke v. Bakke, No. 2006AP1886, 2009 WI 10 (Wis. 2009).

[54] Id.

[55] Cheerleading is a Contact Sport, Wisc. Court rules, NBC Sports, Jan. 27, 2009, http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/28879229/print/1/displaymode/1098.

[56] Wisconsin Court: Cheerleading a Contact Sport, Participants Can’t Be Sued for Accidental Injury, Fox News,  Jan. 27, 2009, available at http://foxnews.com/printer_friendly_story/0,3566,483704,00.html.

[57] Id.

[58] Moltz, supra note 9.

[59] Id.

[60] Sonja Steptoe, Cheerleading has become a big and serious business, which isn't anything to cheer about, Sports Illustrated, Dec. 30, 1991, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1140041/1/index.htm.

[61] Moltz, supra note 9.

[62] Eric Brady, Cheerleading in the USA: A Sport and an Industry, USA Today, April 26, 2002, http://www.usatoday.com/sports/_stories/2002-04-26-cheerleading-cover.htm,

[63] Orlan Ree, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Bid Farewell To 2008 Season, Dallascowboyscheerleaders.com, May 20, 2009. http://www.dallascowboyscheerleaders.com/news/news_detail.cfm?id=5EF24DED-DC7B-296A-617E59FC27D41427.

[64] Moltz, supra note 9.

[65] Cheerleading as a Sport, supra note 4.

[66] Cheerleading Truth Hurts, The Doctors, Jan. 14, 2009, http://www.thedoctorstv.com/forums/85-January-14-2-9-Cheer-Dangers/topics/2949?page=1.

[67] Barbara Pytel, How to Reduce Cheerleading Injuries; This High School Activity Has Little to no Regulation, Suite 101, Dec. 26, 2008, http://student-health-issues.suite101.com/article.cfm/how_to_reduce_cheerleading_injuries.

[68] Doug Bonham, Ducks pushing the envelope with cheer, Daily Emerald, July 18, 2007, http://www.dailyemerald.com/home/index.cfm?event=displayArticle&ustory_id=2bba867d-e101-472c-abfd-b2299c577572.

 

 

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