The evolution of cheerleading was at issue Wednesday before a federal judge in Connecticut, who ruled that it might have come a long way from the sidelines of other competitive sports, but it doesn't yet qualify as a competitive sport itself.
U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill made his decision in the matter involving Quinnipiac University's attempt to eliminate its women's volleyball team and replace it with a competitive cheer squad in order to meet federal gender-equity requirements.
"Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX," Judge Underhill wrote. "Today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students."
Competitive cheer squads differ from traditional cheerleading in that the participants -- most of whom are women -- don't chant support for teams and urge fans to do the same. Instead, they silently perform their 21/2-minute routines of choreographed steps, dances, lifts and dismounts, and jumps and tumbles to music before judges.
The judge's decision generated both boos and cheers.
"Our primary goal was to protect traditional cheerleading," said John Newby, executive vice president of Varsity, a Memphis cheerleading supply company whose CEO, Jeff Webb, testified in the case. "We're excited to see cheerleading evolve, and we have some ideas on how we can help this new sport grow and become a competitive sport in the future. The court's decision gives the cheerleading community a chance to regroup and move forward in a positive way.
"But if a new sport is going to emerge, there are changes and distinctions that need to be made. And it needs an entire new name."
The ruling isn't expected to be wide-reaching because while many universities have competitive cheer teams, few count them as a reason to eliminate other athletic activities.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association does not administer cheerleading as a varsity sport, said Melissa Mertz, PIAA assistant executive director.
"The only cheerleading that we've been involved in is on the sidelines," she said.
Ms. Mertz said the PIAA has not sought to administer cheerleading because its membership has not asked for that to happen.
The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission recognizes cheerleading as a sport that competes in the fall. Officials were not available for comment Wednesday afternoon.
The ruling, however, touches upon a sore spot with people who are passionate about cheerleading and sensitive to seeing it treated with disrespect.
"Cheerleading now is not the high kicks and the pompoms," said Kyle Likens, 32, of Jefferson Hills, a cheerleading coach with Pittsburgh Pride All-Stars in Canonsburg. The girls he coaches enter cheer competitions with teams from as far away as Columbus, Detroit and Indianapolis.
"The girls are thrown into the air, two-and-a-half people high. They hit the ground," he said. "The girls are pure athletes. They can lift more than some of the guys. There are bloody noses just as much as you'll see at football practice.
"You have to have brains, you have to count, and you have to have coordination, all the while you're working with a partner."
Mr. Likens, who was a member of the nationally ranked cheerleading teams at Slippery Rock University, said he wondered if the judge ever watched competitive cheer teams and how he might explain his decision to one of the participants.
"How are you going to tell a girl that it isn't a competitive sport?" he asked. "Those cheerleaders probably could outrun the volleyball players. Put them up to an athletic challenge.
"And how are you going to tell me it's underdeveloped? It's everywhere in 40 countries. American football is not a sport in every country. Volleyball is not a sport in every country."
Lindsay Turcovsky, 28, of Cranberry, has been a coach for Pittsburgh Pride All-Stars since it was started 11 years ago. Before that, she was a cheerleader at Keystone Oaks High School and Robert Morris University.
"We had mandatory conditioning, we had to go to the gym and team practices," she said. "It's a huge commitment. We'd go to camp, like football players. We'd go away for a week at a time, learn skills from other cheerleaders. We'd compete for best jumps, best dance.
"You try out, you practice all year round. It's harder than a sport. You're not only supporting yourself, you're supporting others."
Ms. Turcovsky said the precision of the teams' floor movements make it much like gymnastics, which is universally recognized as a competitive sport.
Mr. Likens said people involved in cheerleading are used to others looking down their noses at them.
"At first, you get the attitude from other athletes and people who don't respect it," he said. "But once they see me throwing girls above my head and catching them with one hand, it changes the way they look at it."
Michael Sanserino contributed. Dan Majors: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456.