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According to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, to be counted as a varsity sport for Title IX purposes, a sport must:
By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
A U.S. district court in Connecticut ruled Wednesday that Quinnipiac’s competitive-cheerleading squad cannot be used to meet Title IX requirements. The ruling may affect other NCAA institutions interested in sponsoring competitive cheer as a varsity sport.
In March 2009, Quinnipiac cut women’s volleyball, men’s golf and men’s outdoor track to help balance its budget. To meet Title IX requirements, the school announced it would sponsor competitive cheer as a varsity sport. Five members of the women’s volleyball team and the coach sued the school, arguing that the elimination of women’s volleyball put Quinnipiac out of compliance with Title IX.
U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill ruled that counting the competitive cheerleaders as varsity student-athletes went against gender-equity law because the sport was not conducted according to U.S. Department of Education standards for varsity sports (see accompanying list).
Competitive cheer differs from sideline cheer in that it exists to compete with other squads, not to provide support or entertainment at other varsity sporting events.
Underhill noted that Quinnipiac helped create a cheerleading governing body with seven other institutions, but that body failed to create a consistent scoring system or set of opponents for Quinnipiac’s most recent competitive cheer season. When compared with other varsity teams at the school, Quinnipiac’s competitive cheerleading squad did not have the same quality of opportunities, Underhill ruled.
NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics chair Faith Shearer said the decision and the government’s amicus brief should be evaluated by other schools sponsoring the sport. The NCAA does not recognize competitive cheer as a sport for minimum sports-sponsorship or revenue-distribution purposes.
“The court ruling is not saying that cheerleading can’t be a sport. They’ve just made a determination about whether in the context of that specific case cheerleading was a sport,” said Shearer, an associate athletics director at Elon. “If a school wants competitive cheerleading to be a sport on their campus, and they are willing to do what is outlined in the Office for Civil Rights’ definition of a sport, the road is still open for them to consider counting it as a sport on their campus.”
The NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics has heard some interest from the competitive-cheer community about being added to the emerging-sports list, but not enough to begin the formal process.
That process begins when the women’s athletics committee hears a proposal from a sport community that will address a variety of factors, including participation at all levels (high school, intramurals, club level), potential NCAA structure and rules, opinions of a coach association, interest from conferences and support from the U.S. Olympic Committee, if relevant. The sport community also must demonstrate that at least 20 programs are competing at the collegiate level (in club, varsity, NAIA or other such competition) to prove that there is a core foundation on which the sport can grow.
For the Committee on Women’s Athletics to consider a sport as emerging, 10 university presidents and athletics directors must send letters of support. The letters are valid for one year.
After analyzing the sport’s viability in the NCAA, the Committee on Women’s Athletics makes a recommendation and, similar to the process seen recently with sand volleyball, each division decides if the proposal makes its way through the legislative cycle.
“With sand volleyball, the coaches association took the lead,” Shearer said. “They had a framework sketched out of what the sport might look like to provide the membership with a starting point. We would look for the same type of thing with competitive cheer.”
The competitive-cheer decision at Quinnipiac could affect other schools sponsoring the sport because it sets a precedent that could lead other judges to rule similarly in future cases. The Office for Civil Rights requires any school wanting to include competitive cheer in its varsity gender-equity equation to secure a letter from the agency approving that inclusion.
“Competitive cheer may, sometime in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX,” Underhill wrote. “Today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletics participation for students.”
The competitive-cheer community is counting on the future Underhill described. The nonprofit governing body for competitive cheer is working on changes that could make the sport more viable. USA Cheer acknowledged in a statement on its website that it needs to do more work on the organizational structure of the sport.
“We believe that we are close to establishing an intercollegiate sport with a distinctive new name and competition format,” said USA Cheer Executive Director Bill Seely in the statement. “We believe our plans will meet the requirements of Title IX, work within the college calendar and be structured so that it can have strong participation from schools across the country.”
Seely promised more details in the future.
The Quinnipiac lawsuit also revealed roster-management tactics the school was using to meet gender-equity minimums, including inflating the size of women’s team rosters and minimizing the size of men’s team rosters before filing federal participation documents. The school no longer practices this form of roster management, instead setting “roster targets” based on a number of factors, including NCAA average squad sizes.
Underhill decided setting targets was not itself a Title IX violation, but took issue with the school counting runners who did not have a genuine participation opportunity. In his decision, Underhill wrote that the school’s requirement that female cross country student-athletes participate on both track teams – in addition to the minimal competitive season and coaching staff supported by the school, the lack of financial aid to any track-only competitors and the failure to provide competitors in events that would allow the team to be competitive – nullifies its ability to count redshirted and injured student-athletes as multi-sport participants.
Karen Morrison, NCAA director of gender initiatives, said that the practice of counting multisport athletes as participants in each sport complied with OCR regulations.
“The law hasn’t changed,” Morrison said. “You still count an athlete every time he or she is on a sport’s roster, but you have to make sure they are having a legitimate participation experience.”
Underhill’s decision specifically supported the OCR regulations that allow triple counting of cross country and indoor and outdoor track athletes, but it equated Quinnipiac’s conduct of its indoor and outdoor programs to the roster-inflation issues elsewhere in the program.