Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Competitive Cheerleading is Not a Title IX Eligible Sport

At least it isn't according to U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill, who held today in Biediger v. Quinnipiac University that Quinnipiac must keep it's women's volleyball team in order to comply with Title IX, a federal law that commands gender equity in sports. The judge, who President Clinton nominated to the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in 1999 and who teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, rejected Quinnipiac's attempt to count cheerleaders for purposes of Title IX. Like Juge Underhill, the NCAA does not recognize competitive cheer as a Title IX eligible sport.

Here's Judge Underhill:
"Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX. Today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students."
In Judge Underhill's view, a key witness in the case was Jeff Webb, CEO of the cheerleading organization Varsity Spirit and something of a pioneer in competitive cheerleading. Webb testified that competitive cheerleading is not a sport in part because of its original design: it was designed to generate publicity and to provide support to other groups (e.g., sports teams; companies); it was not designed for the engagement of authentic athletic competition. From Judge Underhill:
Jeff Webb, who testified at trial, is at the center of competitive cheer’s history and maturation. Webb is the president of Varsity Brands, Inc., an athletic equipment manufacturer that caters to cheerleading teams. Through its subsidiary organizations . . . Varsity Brands also holds competitions among scholastic cheerleading teams and private, “all-star” cheerleading teams. Webb’s involvement with the sport of cheerleading began in the early 1970s, when he was a student cheerleader at the University of Oklahoma. Shortly after graduating, he started UCA, which would eventually turn into Varsity Brands, with the intent of creating a business that would sell cheerleading equipment and offer training camps for cheerleaders. To help promote his business, Webb began holding competitions for cheerleaders, the first of which took place in 1980. Soon, those competitions began to be televised, and cheerleading began to be recognized as a form of competition. Webb testified, however, that he never imagined that his competitions would establish a new sport; rather, he understood his competitions as a publicity vehicle for his startup business.
Another factor hurting Quinnipiac, in Judge Underhill's view, is that cheerleading competitions vary widely in the institutional affiliations and types of opponents, as well as in the presence and types of scoring systems used in competitive cheer:
. . . over the course of its season, the competitive cheer team competed against a variety of opponents and according to scoring systems promulgated by a host of organizations. Quinnipiac competed against other collegiate competitive cheer teams, including varsity and club teams; collegiate sideline cheer teams that competed occasionally; private allstar teams with players of varying ages; and even, at one event, high school teams. Only two of its meets were scored according to the NCSTA scoring rules. The rest of the events were subject to different scoring systems . . .
Judge Underhill's decision is important because it offers a first-impression opinion by a federal judge that cheerleading is not a sport. It means that schools using cheerleading for purposes of Title IX should reconsider their policies or, if in Connecticut, change them. Keep in mind, though, other judges in other jurisdictions could reach different determinations, and given the lack of other precedent on this issue and given that cheerleading could become more formalized in the years ahead, it is certainly possibly that other judges, if faced with the same question, will conclude that competitive cheer is a Title IX eligible sport.

Update: For an excellent analysis of this decision, see Professor Erin Buzuvis's piece on Title IX Blog. See also Dan Fitzgerald's extensive and insightful commentary of the case on Connecticut Sports Law.