It’s funny — in the sad way — how so many adults leading college sports these days engage in the kind of dubious behavior that they’d never tolerate from their own players. Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, for example, is firmly in the hot seat — for good reason — because he covered up the misdeeds of his players to NCAA watchdogs. Next season, the man who led the University of Connecticut to the men’s basketball title, Jim Calhoun, will serve a five-game suspension because of recruiting violations committed under his watch. On April 26, we found out that 9 of the 11 members of an NCAA panel that will help decide the fate of the Fiesta Bowl, among many excesses, paid the strip-club bill of its CEO, attended a retreat sponsored by the bowl that included free meals, resort rooms and golf outings.
And also this week, the New York Times ran a front-page story exposing some of the tricks that schools play to appear compliant with Title IX, the landmark law intended to insure gender equity in college sports. In order to satisfy one of the three Title IX requirements — that the proportion of athletic opportunities offered to both men and woman mirrors that of the overall student body; that a school demonstrate a continual expansion of athletic opportunities for an underrepresented sex, usually women; or that the athletic interests and abilities of women are accommodated — schools often count men who practice with women’s teams, for example, as women athletes. Or schools sometimes put women’s names down on a team, even though they have little to do with that team; the Timespiece pointed to a few women who were officially on the University of South Florida’s cross-country squad but were unaware they were even part of the team. The practice is known as roster management. “It’s distasteful,” says Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and public relations for the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
It’s also unnecessary. In fact, there’s a much easier way for colleges to comply with Title IX without resorting to such absurd mischief. The adults who run college sports need to show some common sense and recognize a fast-growing, legitimate women’s sport right in front of their eyes. They need to count cheerleading as a sport.
We’re not talking about cheerleading as you may envision it, featuring smiling young ladies waving pom-poms for the boys. This type of cheerleading doesn’t involve much cheering at all. We’re talking about what’s variously known as competitive cheerleading, or stunts, or acrobatics and tumbling. Some big-name schools across the country, such as the University of Oregon, the University of Maryland and the University of Louisville, take part in competitions that strip out some of the stereotypes of cheerleading — “Go, team, go!” — and leave in the amazing athleticism: the flips, the strength required to support one of those pyramids, the balance. Judges score on the strength of execution, and the best team wins. They are essentially gymnastics events, combined with some traces of traditional cheerleading. To help shed the stereotypes, two organizations that help run these college competitions have even dumped cheerleading from the name of this emerging sport. One calls it stunts. Another dubs it acrobatics and tumbling.
No matter what you call it, it’s hard not to call those competitive cheerleaders athletes, and their game a full-fledged sport. “Very few people in the world can do what these people do,” says Felicia Mulkey, coach of Oregon’s acrobatics and tumbling team, which defeated Maryland for the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association title on April 10. “I do this sport because I love competition,” says Chelsea White, a junior at Oregon. “You get that adrenaline. You are not judged on what you look like. You’re judged by your talent on the floor.”
The NCAA, however, currently does not recognize competitive cheerleading as a sport. So under Title IX, White is not counted as a female athlete. That’s shortsighted. Schools seeking to pass the Title IX proportionality test will sometimes resort to roster management because football teams are so bloated. Some have over 100 players, so budget-strapped athletic departments need to find a similar number of spots on women’s teams. Those 10 dudes who practice with the women’s hoops team surely help. So instead of resorting to such trickery, why not offer a genuine athletic opportunity to 30 or so young women on a competitive-cheering team? There will surely be demand for competitive cheering at many schools. Many schools already field traditional “sideline” cheering teams whose acrobatics pump up the crowd. Why wouldn’t many of them want to test their skills in competition?
The movement to recognize competitive cheering is gaining some momentum. Both the Women’s Sports Foundation and the AAUW, longtime advocacy organizations which would likely be loath to support competitive cheerleading unless they felt it offered genuine athletic opportunities for women, have both just penned letters to the NCAA supporting stunts as an emerging sport that could help fulfill the mission of Title IX. “We’re not cheering on the sidelines,” says White. “People are cheering for us.” And if this sport can knock some sense into college athletics, everyone will be cheering.