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Appeals Court: Cheerleading Not a Sport for Title IX Purposes

Competitive cheerleading is still not a recognized intercollegiate sport, and thus opportunities on a team do not count for the purpose of compliance with Title IX, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, came in a long-running Title IX case against Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., but it appears to have implications for gender equity in high school athletics as well.

Qunnipiac in 2009 dropped its women's volleyball team, along with its men's golf and outdoor track and field teams, while at the same time establishing a competitive cheer team. Members of the volleyball team filed a lawsuit alleging that the university was denying women equal athletic opportunities in violation of Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs.

In 2010, a federal district court issued a permanent injunction barring Quinnipiac from disbanding the volleyball team and ruled that it had artificially increased women's team rosters and decreased men's team rosters to be in compliance with the U.S. Department of Education's rules interpreting Title IX.

The plaintiffs said opportunities on the competitive cheerleading team should not be counted at all toward Title IX compliance because the activity was not considered an intercollegiate varsity sport. The district court agreed, and also ruled for the plaintiffs on issues involving the women's cross country team.

In its Aug. 7 decision in Biediger v. Quinnipiac University, the 2nd Circuit panel upheld the district court. The appeals court described competitive cheerleading as a late-20th-century outgrowth of traditional sideline cheerleading, but with more of a focus on aerial movements, floor tumbling, and balancing activities, often in competitions with other teams.

But both the district court and the appeals court concluded that competitive cheerleading did not yet qualify as a sport. First, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has not recognized it as a sport or as a so-called emerging sport, which would give it a presumption of recognition for Title IX purposes under Education Department rules.

Furthermore, the appeals court said, the Education Department has never said competitive cheerleading could be counted for Title IX compliance. The court cited two letters in 2000 from the department's office for civil rights to the Minnesota State High School League stating that cheerleading, either sideline or competitive, was presumptively not a sport.

The court said Quinnipiac generally treated the competitive cheer team like other varsity sports. But in its first season, in 2009-10, the team faced 10 competitions in which some five different scoring systems were used. It was challenged by "a motley assortment of competitors," the court said, that included nonvarsity college club teams, sideline cheerleading teams, and some "all star" cheer teams that were not affiliated with any academic institution and that may have had high school students as members.

Quoting the district court, the appeals panel said "application of a uniform set of rules for competition and the restriction of competition to contests against other varsity opponents are the touchstones of a varsity sports program. Those features ensure that play is fair in each game, that teams' performances can be compared across a season, and that teams can be distinguished in terms of quality."

"In the end, the balance tips decidedly against finding competitive cheerleading presently to be a 'sport' whose participation opportunities should be counted for purposes of Title IX," the appeals court said. "We do not foreclose the possibility that the activity, with better organization and defined rules, might some day warrant recognition as a varsity sport. But ... we conclude that the record evidence shows that that time has not yet arrived."

[UPDATED Wednesday, Aug. 8, 4:30 p.m.]

Over at Education Week's Schooled in Sports blog, Bryan Toporek also covers the ruling, including an interview with a lawyer from the National Women's Law Center, who confirms that the decision has implications for K-12 education. That is further confirmed by a statement from the National Federation of State High School Associations expressing hope that competitive cheer be allowed to "play a parallel role as a Title IX-countable sport."

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