Other Sports

"Competitive" Cheerleading is a Sham, and Violates Title IX

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Everyone knows a sham and scam. For years certain colleges have sought to turn cheerleading squads into competitive "teams" to rescue the schools from serious Title IX issues. When Quinnipiac College cut women's volleyball and replaced it with cheer squads, the courts yelled NO. Seriously, cut volleyball and expand cheerleading. Think about it.

The desire to shift to cheerleader squads could save money, avoid expanding the number of women's teams and keep government scrutiny at bay. A desire to turn cheerleading into a recognized NCAA sport has rumbled around in the south for years for cultural and economic reasons. The recent court decision states that cheerleading squads do not meet NCAA or reasonable competitive standards to qualify as Title IX counters. This is clear, but the decision should be applauded for another reason. Pretending cheerleading squads qualify as competitive sport violates the entire cultural intent of Title IX.

First, competitive cheerleading keeps the social order intact. Attractive, self-selected, somewhat athletic cliques jump, leap, cheer and get tossed around by larger males. High school reality and myth reinforce a very strong hierarchy of pseudo social values about who counts and who does not or what it means to be a desired or successful girl. The alluring and revealing outfits emphasize traditional notions of value and status so much so that the sexuality and traditional femininity override the athleticism. Just think Kirsten Dunst, Gabrielle Union and fellow travelers in Bring it On  (now in its fourth iteration) and you get the picture. Better yet just look at this picture from deadspin of college cheerleaders practicing outside their hotel reveals a chief attribute of cheerleading.

Second, cheerleaders stand on the side cheering on the largely male dominated teams. Its origins signify the hierarchy of women supporting men's sports, women's customary place. The whole culture of cheerleading and competitions resembles the culture of beauty queen pageants. The path feels similar to gymnastics except gymnastics grows from deep roots and is far more rigorous, disciplined, demanding, rule bound and does not replicate what values should determine who is at the top of the social hierarchy.

Third, moving cheerleading into a competitive center transposes the stunning emergence of powerful athletic women dominating and claiming sports as their own as in basketball, softball, soccer, lacrosse or running. The growth of women's sports has accompanied and amplified a growth in conceptions of what women can be. Cheerleading would displace this expansion with an activity that simply reinforces traditional valuations of women around narrow notions of beauty, body shape, strength and their relation to men. It feels eminently safe much as early women's college swimming did because it grew from images of Esther Williams and ideals of beauty, not competitive athleticism (thanks to Courtney Beyer for this insight).

The battles over Title IX will not go away. They are going to get worse with the reality of 60 percent female undergraduate populations. They will get worse as long as football dominates the budgets and numbers of scholarships and as long as football and men's basketball generate so much money.

These battles, however, are not just about numbers and budget; they are about culture and women's possibilities.