While cheerleading evokes images of pompoms and pleated skirts, it has relied on increasingly athletic feats of grace and strength in recent years. As participants have perfected their basket tosses and pyramids, and mounted ambitious floor routines, a complicated and emotional question has arisen: has cheerleading become a true sport?
For many women, especially those who worked at the forefront of the push for equality in college sports, the answer for a long time was no. They feared that calling it a sport sent the wrong message to women — endorsing an embarrassing holdover from a time when girls in tight-fitting outfits were expected to do little more than yell support for boys. Those women were also skeptical of high schools and universities that counted female cheerleaders as athletes as a way to evade their obligation to provide opportunities for women in more traditional sports, like softball and soccer.
But other women bristled at what felt like an insult. Why should cheerleading not be considered a sport when it required a complex set of technical skills, physical fitness and real guts?
Now, in a development that may settle the debate, two groups are asking the National Collegiate Athletic Association
to recognize a new version of cheerleading as an “emerging sport” for women, a precursor to full status as a championship sport. If successful, dozens of athletic programs could begin to fully finance cheerleading teams, recruit scholarship athletes and send them to a national championship.
The implications go beyond giving cheerleading a stamp of legitimacy. If this more athletic form of cheerleading — technically known as competitive cheer — evolves into a sport with rigorous competitions and standards, college athletics programs will be able to count the new teams for the purposes of complying with Title IX, the federal law banning gender discrimination in education.