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Lessons from Quinnipiac: Cheer should be an NCAA sport (with a different name), think fresh (don’t whine like the male wrestlers) — and, yes, we still need Title IX

July 28, 2010 – 1:36 PM

By Laura Pappano

When District Judge Stefan Underhill ruled against Quinnipiac University – last year they sought to cut women’s volleyball and add competitive cheer to fulfill Title IX requirements – the 95-page ruling ironically did more to boost competitive cheer than it did for the future of the university women’s volleyball team.

Yes, the university must reinstate volleyball for 2010-2011, but Judge Underhill’s ruling also states that “Quinnipiac is not obligated to continue sponsoring the team beyond that point, however, so long as any decision to eliminate women’s volleyball is accompanied by other changes that will bring the University into compliance with Title IX.”

The crux of his decision – after sifting through problems with how the school counts athletes for Title IX purposes – was that Quinnipiac’s switcheroo of cheer for volleyball didn’t work because cheer was missing key elements of a bona-fide varsity sport.

On the surface, this looks like yet another scenario pitting female athletes against one another. In fact, it offers women’s sport advocates a reminder: Don’t lean on Title IX to keep things how they have been – use it as a tool to build the future. What to take away:

  1. Competitive cheer should be an NCAA sport – but with a different name. There is a reason that the University of Oregon calls it the “competitive stunt and tumbling team.” There is clear divide between cheerleading — that is waving pom-poms on the sidelines and getting the crowd revved up and behind the (usually male) home team – and competitive cheer, which could care less what an audience thinks. Competitive teams have four positions – flyers, back spots and main and support bases – perform six events and don’t use props like pom-poms and megaphones. They don’t wear cute skirts, either. The problem: Cheer right now is a hybrid sport that has some serious teams with group gymnastics-like scoring and competition – and then others that enter competitions in which you are scored on pumping up the crowd and how many Varsity Brand props you cram into a routine. Quinnipiac may be on the serious side, but by entering 10 competitions with five different scoring schemes during the 2009-2010 year, the enterprise lacks varsity-level structure. (For the record, starting the team in March, not recruiting off campus, and adding 16 members of the sideline cheerleading squad to the competitive cheer team just as volleyball was cut doesn’t work, the judge said).
  2. Be willing to change up women’s sport offerings. The viability of Title IX (some argue it’s no longer needed; I think it hasn’t gone far enough) rests partly with the willingness to admit when one sport becomes more popular than another. Male wrestlers love to blame Title IX for their fading sport. Reality is that popularity of sports waxes and wanes. When a sport isn’t attracting participants – whether across the board or in a particular region – be willing to add something else instead. (This is not to say volleyball is a waning sport — actually it’s not and participation is up 17.2 percent since 2007 — but whether Quinnipiac can run a strong program is a separate question. If they wanted to switch, they didn’t do it properly or effectively.)
  3. Think out of the box about sports. This case reminds us of the value of considering new sport opportunities for female athletes – even if they look different than what we are used to. That may be the key to increasing participation. Yes, cultural and familial barriers that keep inner city girls from playing traditional sports must be challenged. But so must strict notions of what counts. New York City schools recently made double Dutch a varsity sport. Who says the high-speed jumping, twisting, and spinning – and between two moving ropes – is any less valid than chucking a ball in a basket?
  4. We still need Title IX. Yes, the law was passed at a time when females had trouble even getting access to top math and physics classes, let alone sports teams. The law has flaws. It’s not well enforced. It’s complicated and hard to spot violations. Big disparities get missed by its particular area of emphasis. But right now it’s all we’ve got and what some think is a ridiculous counting of roster spots is simply the existing vehicle for enforcing fairness. The judge found that the university had over-counted female athletes and undercounted male athletes. Some may call it absurd, but how else do you enforce fair play? (Isn’t counting roster spots – including abiding whatever rules apply – the bedrock of pro sports leagues, too? Like, heck, the NFL?)

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