When President Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments Act in 1972, the new law’s Title IX codified gender equality in education as a civil right. Though the words “sports” or “athletics” were never mentioned in Title IX, it became pivotal in boosting women’s involvement in sports. But it also launched a complicated conversation — one inextricable from the sports world, but also often left out of conversations around athletes even today.
“It’s hard to ignore the fact that Title IX and cheerleading — their stories are intertwined,” Natalie Adams, a professor at the University of Alabama and the co-author of the forthcoming book “Cheer: An American Obsession,” told The 19th. “The mantra of Title IX was moving girls from the sidelines to the playing field and it was clear what they meant by that — it meant cheerleading. Cheerleading became an easy target for derision.”
To be in compliance with Title IX — which turns 50 this month — a school must ensure that the same number of chances to participate in sports are available for students of all genders proportional to enrollment. But just what was considered a sport has been up for debate. As competition cheerleading has continued to evolve, a complicated dynamic has emerged, with varying opinions on whether gaining Title IX recognition would be in the sport’s best interest or not. The debate over whether cheerleading should have that recognition, and official status under the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), does not divide neatly, with all schools or all coaches or all cheerleaders on one side or the other.
A lot of it, though, stems from the cultural associations formed at the time of Title IX’s origins. Cheerleading’s deep history as a promotional tool for college athletics departments continues to shape public perception of the sport, even as it has evolved into its contemporary competitive form, heavily reliant on tightly synced choreography, elaborate stunts, and intricate tumbling combinations executed by both all-women and co-ed teams.
“Cheerleading presented a dilemma — how were women supposed to be taking the field when we still have female cheerleaders on the sidelines? Cheerleading could not be seen as being an empowering women’s sport, even as the decades have gone by and the sport has changed dramatically,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports media at Ithaca College and an expert on Title IX and college sports, told The 19th.
What it means to be a sport
In 1975, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a memorandum specifying that cheer was to be classified as an extracurricular activity — which also meant it could not be used as part of the head count in tallying Title IX opportunities for women athletes. As competition cheerleading began to emerge in the 1990s and continued to evolve in the early 2000s, this classification was increasingly questioned by college cheerleading coaches. Many wanted equal recognition, equal funding and more opportunities to compete. But in 2010, a federal judge ruled that cheerleading does not “count” as a sport under Title IX.
The majority of college cheerleaders, then, are in their schools’ athletic departments but outside the NCAA, college athletics’ governing body. All sports that count toward Title IX are governed by the NCAA, and the NCAA must comply with Title IX. But there is a kind of regulatory gap for athletic programs not governed by the NCAA.
The NCAA regulates how many hours a day officially designated student-athletes may spend in practices and training (no more than four hours a day and 20 hours a week in-season and no more than eight hours a week out-of-season). It also requires that student athletes have one guaranteed day off a week in-season, and two days a week off in the off-season. Starting in 2014, the NCAA has also required their sports programs to report all “catastrophic” injuries — which result in a fatality, a permanent disability or another serious injury.
Research has found that cheerleading has the second-highest rate of catastrophic injuries in both college and high school athletics, regardless of gender; only football results in more direct, severe injuries. For some elite college cheer programs, not being beholden to limits on hours of training and practice and reporting injuries is a benefit, not a drawback. But many who feel like it’s time for NCAA recognition for cheer feel like this is an essential measure to protect these athletes and their health.
“One of the leading reasons for declaring cheerleading a sport is that advocates say this is the best thing for the athletes themselves,” Adams said.
Double the responsibilities, half the recognition
Daniel Nester, the outgoing head coach of Georgia Tech’s cheerleading team, has been an integral part of lobbying the NCAA to grant status to collegiate competition cheer through his work on the ACC head coaches board.
“Most of us are set up, have a team, have a full-time coach, have a trainer — if it became an NCAA sport, it would be an easy transition,” Nester told The 19th. “Every time I talk to my [athletic director] and I have talked to Clemson’s athletic director and Syracuse’s athletic director, I say, ‘It’s easy — we’re already there, nothing changes, it would help our numbers and it’s doing the right thing in empowering women in sports.’”
Nester, who is leaving his coaching position to transition to a non-athletics-department role at the university this summer, said cheerleaders are treated differently than other student-athletes on campus — namely because without NCAA and Title IX recognition, they aren’t technically classified as student-athletes.
“We don’t ask the basketball team to play basketball one day and then be student ambassadors the next day,” Nester said. He thinks these “traditional” elements of cheerleading are part of what’s holding the sport back.
“I don’t think people understand what training is actually required and what part is athleticism and what part is performance. If we could move away from cheering at football games, we might have to be called something different. But schools still want cheerleaders waving pom-poms at football games,” he said.
Irelyn Brady, who cheered for two years at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, and will be joining the co-ed competition cheer team at the University of Alabama this fall, said she wishes schools with competition cheer programs would create separate, game-day-only programs, letting competition cheerleaders focus on their training.
“Competitive cheerleaders should practice for competitions — hopefully, more than just one a year in the future. And then for people who enjoy game day material more, they could have their own game day squad,” Brady said.
But some of the schools — and some cheerleaders themselves — aren’t clamoring for NCAA recognition because it would also restrict the community ambassadorship aspect.
At these schools, “those cheerleaders play such a big role in the traditional aspects of cheerleading — being an ambassador, fundraising, attending alumni events, presenting at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, participating in parades. And so many of these traditional things are what those cheerleaders say provides networking opportunities that translate into jobs and opportunities in the future. There’s not a big push from them to get rid of that,” Adams said.
When being ‘more than a sport’ limits how you compete
The perception of cheerleading as sideline entertainment and community morale boosters even extend to the largest organizations supporting it. Currently, competition squads participate each year in one of two annual national championships, hosted by either the National Cheerleading Association (NCA) or the Universal Cheerleading Association (UCA), both divisions of a company called Varsity. Varsity states on its own website that cheerleading is not a sport by Title IX standards because it’s “more than a sport.” The lack of official recognition means Varsity, a privately held athletic wear company, remains all but the sole outlet for cheer competitions.
Nester said it is unfair to these athletes to be given only one chance a year to compete. A move into the NCAA would allow cheerleading teams to compete multiple times a year, following the same structure of other collegiate sports with invitationals, conferences and national titles. Nester helped create an ACC conference cheer championship two years ago. In its first year, 12 of the 16 ACC schools competed in it. Last year, 11 sent teams. Georgia Tech took first place both years — but they still aren’t technically conference title holders. Although the competition was open to all ACC schools, without NCAA status, it is not an official ACC event.
Collegiate competitive cheer teams train almost year-round. Brady told The 19th that she will begin training for the upcoming year starting in July. She will attend practice for three hours a day Monday through Friday, with double training sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All of this work leads up to one single competition that takes place at the end of April. Even in the off-season, she has mandatory workouts and camps she must do as part of her training.
“We put in almost a year’s worth of work for one competition that’s not even recognized by the NCAA,” Brady said. “People don’t even see us as athletes. They think we’re just some kind of club.”
Fewer scholarships, smaller salaries
Lack of NCAA status also means that cheer coaches earn significantly less than their peers who coach sports that count under Title IX. As head coach at Georgia Tech, Nester was the highest-paid head cheer coach in the ACC. He earned $51,000 last year and was the team’s only full-time coach, overseeing over 100 athletes as Georgia Tech’s spirit coordinator, which put him over multiple cheer squads, the dance team and the mascot. The next lowest-paid head coach at Georgia Tech earned $102,000 last year and has only seven athletes in their program. For a sport whose head coaching roles are often filled by women and LGBTQ+ people, the lack of Title IX recognition has in turn yielded a major wage gap.
That trickles down to the amount of scholarship money available to cheerleaders, as non-Title IX and non-NCAA sports do not have the same access to and ability to fund scholarships for team members as their peers with recognized status do. Brady said that at Navarro, the community college made famous by “Cheer,” and an unmatched NCA championship title holder, cheerleaders get scholarship funds of $500 per semester if they live off campus and $1,000 a semester if they live on campus.
“I think a lot of cheerleaders aren’t able to go to college because they’re not funded,” Brady said. “If we had known this when we were younger and starting off, maybe we would have switched to gymnastics or tried to pick up a different sport that could help us get into college. All of the work we do seems pointless when we’re awarded a couple hundred bucks to go to a $25,000-a-year school.”
Title IX’s goals and a history of optics
“If you go back to the 1970s, cheerleading was viewed as part of the pageantry associated with men’s sports,” Staurowsky said. “If you go back to look at some of the sports administration texts from that time for the things needed to run a football game, under promotional items it would be ‘band’ and ‘cheerleaders.’ You don’t see that kind of discussion with any other women’s sport.”
But some colleges did want to count cheerleading as a sport — but many for questionable reasons. Linda Correia, a civil rights attorney who specializes in Title IX athletics cases, said schools have tried to use their cheerleading programs — including programs that are game-day-only and do not participate in UCA or NCA competitions — to help bolster their Title IX numbers. One such case prompted the 2010 ruling that cheer was not a sport.
Correia added that those who oppose cheerleading garnering NCAA and Title IX recognition believe that schools would use it to avoid investing in new opportunities for women in sports — cheer or otherwise.
“Some schools have great athletics programs for women and some don’t,” Correia said. “The problem is on the margins, where the numbers are out of whack because a school is promoting and funding the male athletic programs more than they are paying attention to a woman athlete who wants better facilities, wants to be in a better program that will draw better recruits, wants a better field to play on, have all the bells and whistles that men’s teams have.”
She said that as Title IX gained teeth and more and more higher education institutions were called out for their lack of investment in women’s athletics, more people began advocating for bringing cheer under the NCAA and qualifying for Title IX numbers, joining the cheerleading advocates who wanted the recognition.
“It was then that people started saying, ‘But cheer is an athletic competition,’” she said.
Staurowsky just completed a report for the Women’s Sports Foundation that found that large swaths of colleges and universities are still not complying with Title IX when it comes to athletics.
“One of the things I think has plagued cheerleading is the motive behind why schools want to move in the direction of bringing it on as a varsity sport,” she said. She points to the 2010 ruling in the case involving Quinnipiac as an example. Because cheerleading requires very little in terms of facilities and equipment other than a floor and mats, schools can say they are investing in women’s sports by counting cheer towards their Title IX numbers without actually having to devote actual dollars to a program that provides spots for women athletes.
Reinforcing the gender binary in sports
Staurowsky said that historically, starting with high school athletics programs, the biggest opportunities for women’s advancement in sports have been in basketball — and then cheerleading. Though cheerleading was athletics-adjacent in the 1970s, it was still “seen as an accessory rather than as a central part of a male-dominated sports system.” As a result, she said, this created a “gendered division of labor” when it came to college athletics during the time that Title IX first went into effect: “Cheerleading was the anchor for maintaining a gender binary: Men played on the field and women were on the sidelines.”
“Frankly, I think that narrative has certainly affected the sport over the past few decades, even as [cheerleading] has evolved and changed drastically,” Staurowsky continued. “I think that has been part of the reason why some portion of the women’s sports community has so resisted cheerleading over time.”
Correia adds that when it comes to Title IX, there is often a “false narrative” perpetuated by the law’s opponents that an inherent tension exists between men’s and women’s sports within university athletics departments, a belief that the creation of a new women’s sport program necessitates the elimination of a men’s sport. That’s simply untrue, though, she said.
“It is really about resources and the allocation of resources. If a football team has 50 players, then you have to have 50 opportunities for female athletes because presumably 50 women are not playing football. It doesn’t mean nix men’s sports — it just means make more opportunities for female athletes,” she said.
Rewriting the future
Nester also believes that cheer has a language problem. “We call them cheer competitions, but we should move to matches and meets, like other sports.” This language problem extends to the deeply gendered nature of the sport, too. Cheer teams are currently classified as “all-girl” or “co-ed.”
“In the collegiate world, we don’t call it all-girl basketball. We say women’s basketball. So why do we say ‘all-girl’ in cheer?” he said.
Nester said the athletes want the recognition. Brady, the Navarro cheerleader, agreed.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that a female volleyball player or a female soccer player are getting recognized and counted as athletes under Title IX. But when I tell someone I’m a college cheerleader, they say, ‘Oh well that’s not really a sport. Do you do anything else?’ It’s degrading to know that a lot of the hard work we put in for years on end ultimately means nothing in the end.”
“Most women who are on collegiate cheerleading teams have been training since the age of 5. Most high schools consider cheerleading a sport. It’s a rude awakening,” Nester said, when these longtime athletes are told they aren’t technically athletes.
“It’s super frustrating for these kids because nothing has changed for them,” Nester said. “They’re still training for a national championship competition held under Varsity, but they’re not in the NCAA so their university says to them, ‘No, we will treat you differently.’”
Nester continued: “These athletes have trained their whole lives and they continue to train every day. What’s the difference between a track and field athlete and a cheerleader? History and pom-poms — and that’s what is standing in our way.”