We were pretty sure that when the story broke about Oregon cutting men's wrestling that the attendant issues would gettsome press as well. It seems like people fairly quickly forgot about the wrestlers and moved on to discussing the merits of adding competitive cheerleading.
Where the previous column I wrote about the other day states that Oregon is in compliance, some of the new press on the issue show that it is not and that it is currently trying to meet prong 2, history and practice of expansion of opportunities for the underrepresented sex. As I mentioned the other day, Oregon has, in the past decade, cut women's sports, so I am not sure how they think they are expanding opportunities when it looks like opportunities for men have grown more than those for women.
Regardless of what is really happening, competitive cheer is being presented by the athletic administration as an indication of expanding opportunities and as a logical and cutting edge, "thinking outside the box" decision. Renee Baumgartner, an associate AD and senior women's administrator, has been the athletic department spokesperson on this issue and the one proclaiming it as forward thinking.
I see two big issues here, even outside of the debate over whether cheerleading is a sport, which I shall save for another time.
The first is that Oregon clearly intends cheerleading to count toward its Title IX compliance just like Maryland did when it brought cheerleading up to varsity status in 2003. Baumgartner is being somewhat misleading when she uses the phrase "emerging sport" and "NCAA sport" in the same sentence. The NCAA has used the term "emerging sport" to indicate sports that count toward minimum sport requirements and financial aid but do not have a national championship. Cheerleading is not on the list.
This means Oregon will have communications (if they haven't already) with the Office of Civil Rights which generally does not consider cheerleading to be a sport but rather an extracurricular activity. They do leave open the possibility of cheerleading achieving varsity status on a case-by-case basis. Oregon will make its case for competitive cheer by providing evidence that it meets the requirements to be a sport. Maryland did the same thing several years ago. The response from OCR to Maryland can be found here. Note that there is no bottom line. OCR does not come out and say "yes, you may count cheerleading toward your Title IX compliance." It evaluates each criteria and says things "it is likely that your institution meets such and such requirement." In other words, it is not a get out of jail free card. Someone could potentially bring a lawsuit or complaint and succeed in proving that cheerleading at a particular institution is not a sport and/or should not count toward Title IX.
Second, where Baumgartner calls the addition of cheerleading "thinking outside the box" I see it as possibly not thinking things through. I suspect universities see it as a quick fix that requires little cash. I hope they have read the studies that show the high rate of catastrophic injuries that occur in cheerleading--no matter its varsity status. A responsible institution would send a team doctor or full-time trainer to each competition. But these people are spread thin already. And, in violation of Title IX, I have heard stories of women's teams repeatedly getting student trainers rather than full-time professionals--even at high-risk events like gymnastics meets. Outside of catastrophic injuries, cheerleaders sustain other injuries. Elevating them to varsity status requires providing them with equal access to treatments and therapies afforded other sports--like football.
In other words, there are issues outside of how much it costs to outfit 35 women and send them to 10 competitions a year. I hope that Oregon, and any other institution considering this move, are thinking inside the box too--all those boxes they should be checking off to prove they are providing equal treatment to all their sports teams.