Recently, a friend of mine reposted a news story on Facebook about a Federal Court ruling that a Connecticut university could not replace a women’s volleyball team with a cheerleading squad for the purposes of Title IX. My friend’s comment regarding the story he linked to was derisive – of course cheerleading wasn’t a sport. I didn’t think much about it at the time, though my general inclination was to agree with him, and to see the university’s actions as somewhat akin to government attempts to categorize ketchup as a vegetable in federal school lunch programs, kind of like, “Haha, yeah, nice try.”
But I’m nothing if not suggestible, so when I read an article on the ruling a couple of days later at Jezebel, I started to think about it some more. Is cheerleading a sport? What makes something a sport – how do you define it?
One of the arguments against including competitive cheerleading in the “sport” category is the same used to decry the inclusion of such sports as ice skating, ice dancing and gymnastics in the Olympic Games: victory is determined by judges’ scoring rather than by actual straight scoring of points as set out by the rules of each game (e.g. get the ball in the net, get the player across home plate, etc.). This adds an element of arbitrariness to the ranking of competitors (at least that’s the perception). Furthermore, the judging in these sports is often based at least partly on artistic elements, which further opens the gulf between these sports and something like football, where a touchdown as a touchdown, no matter how prettily it’s executed.
Looking around the internet at various attempts to define what makes a sport a sport, I was able to cobble together this:
1) A sport involves competition; participants must be competing to win, however the sport defines winning (scoring the most points or crossing the finish line first).
2) A sport requires a set of universally recognized rules. The rules governing most recognized sports are incredibly complex and byzantine, at least at higher levels of competition. I’ve watched baseball and football games where the commentators – supposed experts and often ex-players or coaches – get tripped up by bizarre or unusual plays and need an official ruling before they can tell the viewer just what’s going on.
3) Physical skill is required to be successful at sports – this is what would seem to truly separate “sports” from “games” to me. This one can get hazy though, because “physical skill” doesn’t necessary equal “physical fitness.” Some sports are decried as not being worthy of the name because top players can be, well, fat slobs. I don’t know much about professional bowling, but I doubt it’s a requirement that one be in peak physical condition to succeed. The same is true of golf, though most pro golfers do seem to be generally physical fit and somewhat athletic.
Certainly, by these definitions, gymnasts (even rhythmic gymnasts, though I find it a rather silly sport), divers, ice dancers and the like qualify as athletes. I’m not sure where to put synchronized swimmers. I guess I have to grudgingly consider it a sport, though it makes rhythmic gymnastics look like soccer on the legitimate-sport scale, in my opinion.
What about cheerleading? I definitely think competitive cheerleading does qualify. The routines that cheerleaders do on the sidelines at college football games, not so much. Even if you’re talking about the same cheerleaders, doing the same routines (though do they do the whole pyramid and backflips business at college football games? It seems like it’d be distracting), I don’t think they’d qualify because they aren’t fulfilling rule #1 above (and because they aren’t fulfilling rule #1, they aren’t truly fulfilling rule #2, either – it’s not like there are a set number of elements a cheerleading squad is required to do when they are cheering at games).
I guess there’s a larger issue about men, women, athletics and resources, but I don’t think this court ruling is going to have much effect on that one way or another. The fact is, college football and basketball are big business – as long as that’s the case, I think schools will only divert resources to less lucrative sports if they are forced to by law. Maybe, as some think, Title IX is antiquated and unequal to the job of creating some parity in the resources allotted to high school and college athletics.
What do you think? Do you consider cheerleading a sport? Are there other sports that you believe are unworthy of the name, and why?