February 18, 2010

Va. school: Cheerleading should be sport

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NORFOLK, Va. - The Virginia High School League recognizes cheerleading as a sport, offering district, regional and state competitions.

However, when school districts work to comply with Title IX, the federal legislation that mandates college and high school athletic programs offer equitable opportunity and treatment to both genders, cheerleaders do not count as athletes.

Chesapeake Schools Superintendent W. Randolph Nichols would like to change that.

Nichols lauded the evolving athleticism reflected in contemporary cheerleading, and at last month's School Board retreat, he and others discussed elevating high school cheerleading in order to move the city's schools toward Title IX compliance.

But it's not that simple.

When Title IX was passed in 1972, the concept of organized female athletics was in its infancy. Since then, girls high school participation in sports has grown by more than 900 percent, according to the National Federation of High School Activities Association. Not surprisingly, Chesapeake and surrounding school divisions have struggled to remain in compliance with Title IX's "proportionality test " The test requires athletic participation rates to be within 3 percent of the enrollment for that sex, said Wayne Martin, the city's director of student services.

Since the year 2000, girls have comprised 49.6 percent of the student body in Chesapeake public schools but only 39.4 percent of the athletes. That leaves Chesapeake seven points out of compliance.

"We have to close the gap," Martin said.

Convincing the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that cheerleading is the answer will take some doing.

"Cheerleading follows an atypical format," said Joyce Sisson, assistant commissioner for the VHSL.

Under the present structure, cheerleaders dedicate much of their time to sideline cheer at sporting events, such as football and basketball games. Competitive cheer is one element, but Sisson said the time commitment could be excessive if regular-season cheer meets were added.

"It's difficult to master the execution of these stunts, and you can't just get it right 90 percent of the time," she said. "You have to do it right 100 percent of the time or someone could get seriously injured."

The civil rights office looks at each school on a case-by-case basis and considers several factors, including an activity's structure, administration, team preparation and competition.

Operating budget, support services, coaching staff, practice and competitive opportunities must be consistent with other varsity sports.

Martin said he believes Chesapeake schools are largely in line with the civil rights office requirements except for the competitive aspect. Several board members batted around the idea of offering regular-season competition.

Sisson said scheduling regular dual meets between schools is likely cost prohibitive. A sanctioned competition requires eight certified judges - five for scoring and three for safety.

Judges are typically paid $70 or more, which means judges alone would cost close to $600 for a dual meet that Sisson estimates would last about 15 minutes.

Increasing funds for any high school sport seems unlikely at this time. The proposed 2010-11 school budget is $24 million less than last year's, with a grimmer forecast for 2011-12.

The district's principals plan to discuss cheerleading and Title IX at a meeting this week. Also, they will discuss the idea with administration from three Suffolk schools that join the Chesapeake schools to form the Southeastern District.

A handful of states have taken the steps necessary to make cheerleading numbers count toward Title IX. Rhonda Blanton-Green of Colorado's high school activities association said cheerleading does not have to have an identical setup as other sports to achieve a civil rights office recognition.

"But you must make sure it looks like, acts like, travels like, practices like, budgets like a sport," said Blanton-Green, who said she provides the state's schools a detailed checklist of the criteria they must meet.

Under the civil rights office's definition of sport, the primary purpose of the squad must be competition, not support. The current high school structure does not meet that criterion, and the idea of two separate squads, one for sideline and one for competition, brings up another set of questions.

Many cheerleading associations want cheering at the high school level to remain an activity, rather than a varsity sport. Private cheerleading clubs have created a nearly billion dollar industry; if high school squads evolved into more competitive teams, some girls might choose to forgo the private club route.

Western Branch High School coach Ashley Williamson said the philosophy behind cheerleading almost always ranks support over competition.

"We wouldn't be preparing other athletes for the next level," said Williamson, noting the majority of college cheerleading favors sideline first and competitive cheer second.

The majority of Chesapeake coaches said the logistics of adding regular-season competition would be daunting.

While many of the cheerleaders the Pilot spoke with embraced the idea of more competition, they did not like the thought of having to make a choice if schools offered separate squads.

If the city chooses this direction, it is the civil rights office's opinion that matters most.

"These cases are highly fact specific and vary from grant recipient to grant recipient," said U.S. Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw. "It depends on the situation."

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