Is cheerleading a sport?
A federal judge has ruled that cheerleading does not qualify as an official sport for colleges to sponsor to meet gender-equity regulations, following a suit against Quinnipiac University, which announced its plans to eliminate its women’s volleyball team and replace it with a competitive cheer squad. As you probably know, the implementation regulations of Title IX require educational establishments receiving federal funding to dedicate comparable funding to men’s and women’s* athletic programs, and to promote and encourage sports participation for men and women in an equal fashion so determining what counts as a sport has pretty substantial ramifications
More or less from the start, there have been multipronged challenges to the sports implications of the implementation of Title IX. People worried that men’s athletics would be eliminated or defunded because not enough women would play sports. People worried that football teams–which are hugely expensive, but also often make a lot of money for the school and other programs–would be dismantled, what with sometimes upwards of 40 or 50 players that would need to be evened out by two or three additional women’s sports (of course, women, for the most part, cannot play football). People worried that maybe girls just shouldn’t be athletes, that we really don’t want to, that we’re not worth the investment.
Of course, this is patently stupid. I was an athlete, for a while. I was actually on a state championship winning basketball team. I think I scored two points that game, which were probably free throws. I rocked at free throws, and also at knocking people down because, despite my sweet demeanor, I am actually a vicious brick wall on legs whenever the opportunity presents itself. I also played golf and softball, and powderpuff football (see the bit about the vicious brick wall again–we were champions two homecomings in a row, if I remember correctly). I’m not sure if my high school was strange in this way, but a lot of our cheerleaders cheered for one sports season, and played the other two. At least two of my basketball teammates were also cheerleaders. Tons of the cheerleaders ran track or played soccer. Tons were stellar students who also participated in arts and academic clubs. And we had a competitive cheer squad that was pretty successful.
Still, if you were to ask the average athlete–or the average student–whether they thought cheerleading were a legitimate sport, on the same level as basketball or football, I doubt that anyone would have answered yes with a straight face.
I’m of two minds about this.
I suppose I have some qualms with cheerleading itself. While I don’t dispute in the slightest that it requires considerable athleticism and hard work to succeed at, at the end of the day, the symbolism troubles me. The idea that there are women (who are typically quite close to the weight and appearance ideals of our society) who are supposed to cheer men on as they compete in sports, who are supposed to stand at the sidelines to “inspire” the crowd, is a concern. Yes, I know that no one forces women to be cheerleaders, and that some women’s sports teams have women cheerleaders as well. But since all women are expected to play a passive, supportive role, rather than an active, aggressive role, isn’t this another way of enforcing that stereotype? Again, this is not to suggest that cheerleading is not active, or not a skill, or not something that requires work and talent; rather, my concern is that it reinforces this belief that men do things, while women only work to support others’ things.
Furthermore, the fact that they give this support in–usually–full make-up (sometimes stage make-up) and outfits that would typically be considered more revealing than is appropriate for the setting, makes me worry that part of the symbolic meaning of the practice of having cheerleaders is a sort of primal, look-at-our-best-women-and-how-they-adore-us kind of masculinity. I don’t like the idea of intentionally putting women’s bodies out there to be objectified as a means of reinforcing a particular ideal of masculinity through sports.
On the other hand, I know plenty of cheerleaders–including a friend from Carleton who cheered professionally–who knew exactly what they were getting into when they agreed to put on the Spanx, and found the physical demands of training to cheer rewarding and exciting. I feel uncomfortable flat-out dismissing the joy they feel from moving their bodies in this way because it has problematic symbolic (and practical) implications. I also want to question for a moment whether cheerleading has historically been overlooked as a legitimate sport because it is so completely woman-dominated. Emphatically, it is athletic. It requires work. Have we considered it a secondary form of athletic work because of our assumptions about women, because it embodies and reinforces a lot of gendered stereotypes? I think this is a particularly important consideration for competitive cheer squads, which do–as indicated–compete, training and preparing according to a set of rules and ideals, and participating for themselves, not in conjunction with or as a support to other programs.
I think the broad question this case inspires is, Does counting cheerleading as a sport contribute to the aim of gender equality in educational and extracurricular programs? Especially in cases like this, when a more traditionally understood sport is being replaced by a cheer squad, I’m not sure that it does, and I worry that it sends the message that providing women with the opportunity to do something traditionally athletic is unimportant, or not worth the investment. But I also worry that the inevitable extension of perpetuating a classificatory scheme that does not consider cheerleading a sport is to dismiss it as frivolous and to diminish the joy, accomplishment, and athleticism that cheerleaders themselves take away from participation.
What do you think?
*The law employs this binary understanding of gender. It would be interesting to hear more from transpeople who were involved in sports in this strictly binary-enforcing athletic culture, so if anyone has any links or would like to share their experiences, please do so!