Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cheerleading on Trial

As Kris mentioned, we were both in the courtroom yesterday for all of Jeff Webb's fascinating testimony about the nature of competitive cheer. Webb is a national expert on college cheerleading, by virtue of his position as CEO of Varsity Brands, which owns and operates all of the major cheer competitions and camps, and his leadership in other governing bodies and associations related to cheerleading. Webb was a witness for the plaintiffs, the members and coach of the Quinnipiac University volleyball team, who are arguing that the university's decision to cut their team violated Title IX because of the resulting imbalance of athletic opportunities. Part of QU's defense is that the newly-added opportunities in competitive cheer help make up for some of that disparity. Which raises the question, is competitive cheer a sport for Title IX purposes?

Webb testified that as it currently exists, cheer is not a sport in the same vein as other, typical college varsity sports. I've heard many times people offer a knee-jerk reaction to competitive cheer by referring to the athleticism apparent in National Cheer Association and Universal Cheer Association competitions, which are often televised on ESPN. But Webb, whose company owns these competitions, pointed out they provide cheer squads one annual opportunity (because you can't enter both) to perform a single, two-minute routine in competition. There are virtually no other competitive venues for competitive cheer. This made me think of the following analogy: imagine that QU formed a volleyball team whose only competition for the entire year was just two minutes long. Should this be considered a sport, comparable to men's hockey, track, and other sports, for purposes of Title IX? I think it would be clear to people that even though the act of playing volleyball in a competitive setting is athletic, to be a "sport" there has to be something more. Specifically, there has to be more of a season.

On this issue, we also heard lots of testimony, some from Webb, and also by the QU Athletic Director Jack McDonald, about the efforts of a handful of colleges and universities to come up with a competitive meet format for cheer, so that squads could compete throughout a season. This testimony largely showed that the sport of competitive cheer, while one of apparent potential, does not currently offer enough competitive opportunities to warrant substituting cheer for volleyball. There are only seven varsity competitive cheer squads in the country. The closest one one geographically to Quinnipiac is at the University of Maryland. This lack of similarly-situated programs makes it difficult to compare competitive cheer to other college sports that have regional conferences and regular competition. Moreover, unlike other sports offered by Quinnipiac, competitive cheer does not have a championship run by the NCAA, nor does competitive cheer bear the NCAA's designation of an official "emerging sport for women" (indicating that schools are adding the sport in sufficient numbers that it will be an NCAA sport after a trial period of several years.) The NCAA has indicated that before it will even consider cheer as an emerging sport, there must be an official determination by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that the sport would count for Title IX purposes. No such determination has been issued, and from McDonald's testimony it was not even clear on whether one had been requested. (FYI, contrary to the New Haven Register's account, "emerging sport" it is the NCAA's designation, not OCR's.)

Sometimes the testimony got confusing because there are many different types of cheerleading, and the lawyers and witnesses always had to carefully explain what type was being referred to in any given context. Varsity competitive cheer programs are those administered by college athletic departments as a sport like any other. They exist only for the purpose of competition and do not perform on the sidelines of other sports. This what Webb was referring to when he said "they do not cheer and they do not lead." (quoted here.) To avoid confusion, Webb said this would ideally be called by another name, one that doesn't use either word. For example, Oregon calls their varsity competitive cheer program "tumble and stunt" and the college administrators who are working to design a competitive program formed the National Competitive Stunt and Tumble Association (NCSTA) earlier this year. Varsity competitive cheer teams are not the same as college-affiliated competitive cheer clubs, which are more numerous than the 7 varsity programs referenced above. Like club sports teams, which are not run by athletic departments, competitive cheer clubs are not properly compared to varsity athletic opportunities for purposes of determining whether the school is equitably distributing athletic opportunities. It's also important to distinguish competitive cheer from traditional sideline cheerleading, which is not a sport because its primary purpose is entertainment and spirit raising.

In sum, I thought the plaintiffs' counsel and their witness, Webb, presented a compelling case that competitive cheer opportunities as they exist right now are too different both in scale and scope from other sports to warrant a fair comparison between opportunities provided to women in cheer and opportunities provided by Quinnipiac's men's sports. This does not foreclose the possibility that competitive cheer could "emerge" into a bona fide sport. But until that happens, a university' decision to substitute it for an existing sport will raise Title IX concerns.

We will of course follow the rest of the trial as it unfolds (no more field trips to Connecticut, I'm afraid, so we'll be reading about it in the Connecticut press) to see how the defendants address this and other issues raised in the plaintiff's case. The trial is scheduled to conclude tomorrow an the judge's decision on the issue will likely take several months.