(WOMENSENEWS)– When cheerleaders take the national spotlight this week on ESPN’s Pop Warner National Dance and Cheer Championships they are sure to wow viewers with their flips, turns and other feats of sheer athleticism.
“There is a lot of physical activity in cheer,” said Sabrina Zuniga, a cheerleader at Ursuline Academy, a high school in Dallas, in an email interview, “including dancing, stunting (lifting people in the air), jumping and tumbling (flipping).”
Brigid Brewer, another high school cheerleader from Ursuline, agreed. “Many people underestimate the hard work, strength, ability and endurance that go into cheer.”
“Everything we do has to be perfect, and we do some of the hardest stunts over and over again, just to get them right,” added their fellow cheerleader Faith Cicardo.
But does any of that make cheerleading an activity that the National Collegiate Athletic Association should label a sport?
It’s an important question because without the NCAA sports label over 120,000 female cheerleaders and almost 3,000 male cheerleaders in the U.S., according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, miss out on additional funding from their schools, more scholarships and increased safety measures.
The American Medical Association thinks, in the name of safety, the activity should be considered a sport. Cheerleading accounts for 65 percent of all direct catastrophic injuries to girl athletes at the high school level and almost 71 percent at the college level, according to a 2012 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
More than 30 states, meanwhile, already consider cheerleading a sport.
But the NCAA, like some other groups, says it’s not a real sport due to its supportive, noncompetitive role in galvanizing fans to cheer on other athletes.
However, earlier this year the NCAA also turned down the application for emerging sport status by a cheer program called STUNT that was strictly competitive–not focused on sports fans–created by the advocacy group USA Cheer, based in Bartlett, Tenn.
The committee decided that USA Cheer’s STUNT program was not among “appropriate choices for NCAA championships,” Gail Dent, associate director of public and media relations of the NCAA, said in an email interview.
Against Sports Status
Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, based in Memphis, Tenn., does not support the NCAA granting sports status for cheering. He says the only way cheerleading could become an NCAA sport is if cheerleaders left the fans behind and began focusing on competing against other teams. “I think that would be a tragedy for cheerleading and the college game atmosphere,” Lord said in an email interview.
Ashley Douglas, a cheerleading coach at Jesuit College Preparatory School in Dallas, knows that NCAA sports classification could mean better facilities and equipment, more funding for coaches and chances at college scholarship money.
Nonetheless, Douglas doesn’t like the idea since it could mean longer practices, more regulation and, in her case, more certification. In an interview at a Starbucks across from the high school’s field, she said her team spends six to eight hours at practices and games per week, but that time commitment would grow since some NCAA college sports teams practice as much as 20 hours a week.
Douglas said that already the NCAA restricts cheer teams from performing certain stunts during basketball games due to the hard surface of the court. She said the NCAA would enforce even more rules if it recognized cheerleading as a sport and coaches would lose a lot of control over the activity.
These changes would be consistent with the changes that occurred with women’s rowing after it became an NCAA sponsored sport in 1981 and the NCAA began to exert tighter control over competitions and rules, according to an article by Gary Brown for NCAA.com.
Bill Seely, president of USA Cheer, doubts NCAA recognition would increase regulation. As he said in an email, cheerleading is a “unique activity that encompasses more than just the athletic nature, which completely sets it apart from other NCAA sports.”
The NCAA’s Dent couldn’t offer any comment on the possibility of more regulation, saying the group “can’t speculate on what it would look like or what changes to anticipate since it is not an NCAA championship at this time.”
The Women’s Sports Foundation is among the groups that does not deem cheerleading a sport. To be a sport, the New York City-based group says, an activity must include “propelling a mass through space or overcoming the resistance of mass, a contest or competition against or with an opponent, [rules for how] a winner is declared, [and] the acknowledged primary purpose [must be a] competition.”
Hope for Improvements
When the American Medical Association reclassified cheerleading as a sport last spring it hoped that change in status could help attract better trained coaches, additional funding and decreased injuries.
Its statement came shortly after a unanimous vote by New York State’s Board of Regents to approve competitive cheerleading for sport status in order to better regulate safety and coaches’ certifications.
NCAA recognition could also open up a big new pool of funding for cheerleading since the NCAA currently reserves money for athletes who play the sports they recognize at Division I or Division II schools.
Currently a few scholarships are available for high school cheerleaders, but usually only for those who participate in both a school squad and a competitive squad.
Scholarships mainly come from the cheerleader’s university with amounts varying by school. Douglas said most schools give stipends to cheerleaders, but some larger schools can give as much as $10,000 to $15,000. Others, such as the University of Hawaii, cover all of a student’s tuition.
NCAA sports designation could also bring cheerleaders under the support of Title IX, the gender-equity law for schools that receive public funding.
In the 2010 case Biediger v. Quinnipiac, U.S. District Court judges ruled that cheerleading did not count as a Title IX sport. The ruling came after Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., tried to count its cheer squad as a sport under Title IX so it could cut its women’s volleyball team. The ruling said a Title IX sport must include competitions during a regular competing season and this competition must be the main goal of the sport. That ruling was affirmed in an appeal.
Since cheerleading does not count as a Title IX sport, some universities, such as the University of Maryland, have cut cheerleading due to lack of funding. Conversely, NCAA recognition could increase the number of colleges willing to offer cheerleading.
Many cheerleaders and coaches say a major benefit of NCAA sports status would be the recognition that participants are athletes.
Linda Coffin is a dance coach from Jesuit College Preparatory School in Dallas. “Right now,” she said, “people think they’re just a bunch of cute girls shaking pom-poms.”