Court Holds Competitive Cheerleading is Not a Varsity “Sport” Under Title IX
In a 95-page decision, a Connecticut federal judge recently ruled that competitive cheerleading is not a varsity college sport for purposes of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The court did not foreclose the possibility that competitive cheer could be recognized as a varsity sport for Title IX purposes under some circumstances. However, because competitive cheer is currently not formally organized or recognized by the NCAA as an emerging sport the effective result of the ruling is to increase the risk of legal challenges for any institution that considers competitive cheer to be a varsity sport under Title IX.
In Biediger v. Quinnipiac University, the school calculated the number of varsity female athletes to include members of the competitive cheer program at the school. Competitive cheerleading is distinct from traditional sideline cheerleading, in that it is a purely competitive endeavor (rather than a support activity for other collegiate teams) and incorporates sophisticated gymnastic elements such as aerial maneuvers, floor tumbling and balancing exercises that are not necessarily used in traditional cheerleading.
When the University decided to eliminate the women’s volleyball team, the coach and five members of the team filed suit arguing that cutting the team would result in unequal athletic opportunities for women in varsity sports. The lawsuit alleged, among other things, that Quinnipiac’s competitive cheerleaders could not be counted as female varsity athletes because competitive cheer is not “a legitimate intercollegiate varsity sport” for Title IX purposes. The court agreed, citing the inability of competitive cheer coaches to recruit off campus, the team’s inconsistent regular season and the lack of a legitimate post-season.
As a result of this case, higher education institutions should take care before considering participants of a competitive cheer team as varsity athletes for Title IX purposes, at least until it is better organized and defined and/or recognized by the NCAA as an emerging sport.