Cheerleading is not a sport. At least not at GW, where it falls under the classification of a student activity. But at the University of Maryland, cheerleading became a varsity sport last month, as the school created one squad to cheer at games and one to attend competitions while providing a total of 12 new scholarships.
GW’s cheerleading team has fared well in annual national competitions and is one of the top-ranked squads in the country. But despite this success, University officials said GW has no plan to follow Maryland’s lead.
Director of Athletics Jack Kvancz said he respects Maryland’s decision but said there would be too many logistical problems involved for GW to make a similar change.
“I don’t know how you’re going to compete because cheerleading isn’t an NCAA-sponsored sport,” he said. “Is it a fall sport? Is it a winter sport? A spring sport? Since it isn’t an NCAA sport, you don’t know. What are the rules for recruiting? I guess you can make them up.”
The National Cheerleading Association does provide detailed guidelines for cheering team divisions, performances, routine requirements, safety, stunts and fundamentals. But by making it a varsity sport, cheerleading would fall under the NCAA’s jurisdiction.
“It makes sense to spend scholarship dollars,” Kvancz said. “But if you’re going to count it as a sport, you now have to abide by every single one of the rules and regulations of the NCAA.”
That could be problematic, GW head spirit coach Nicole Macchione said.
“Training camp is in the summer, and NCAA regulations could take away from that or take away from national competitions,” she said. “There would be some kinks to work out, so it would take a while.”
Dave Haglund, Maryland’s associate athletic director, said cheerleading’s increasing popularity was a big reason for the status change and that he is not concerned about logistical problems.
“When we were reviewing the decision, the cheerleading coaches said they’d have no problem recruiting,” Haglund said. “Since the status change was announced, we’ve received between 30 and 50 e-mails, phone calls and letters from prospective student-athletes.”
According to Haglund, competitive cheering is the ninth most popular sport among high school girls. Haglund also said Maryland, to his knowledge, is the first school to make cheerleading a varsity sport. No other schools have followed Maryland’s lead yet, but Haglund said he has spoken to a Southeastern Conference school about the possibility of a varsity cheer team in the future.
Skeptics have criticized Maryland’s elevation of its cheerleading program as a decision to benefit men’s sports more than the cheerleading program. In an Associated Press article last month, some accused Maryland of skirting Title IX – the 1972 law that forces schools to equalize opportunities and funding for men’s and women’s sports – by funding cheerleading instead of an additional women’s sport.
“It seems like they’re looking for the easiest way out, that their intent is to conform to the letter of the law, but not necessarily the spirit,” Donna Lopiano, chief executive of the Women’s Sports foundation, told the AP.
But Haglund made no apologies for the decision, saying his university is complying with Title IX by necessarily addressing the need to match athletic participation with UMD’s increasing female undergraduate population.
Women’s water polo was also upgraded from a club to a varsity sport at Maryland this year, and Haglund said both cheerleading and water polo have petitioned for varsity status many times over the past 10 to 12 years.
“We looked out on the horizon, and it was in our best interest to make both competitive cheer and water polo varsity sports this year,” Haglund said. “We’ve created significantly more opportunities in these areas, and there has been a very positive response. Everybody is in favor of opportunity, and we’re proud of that.”
At GW, Macchione said she is perfectly happy with her squad’s status as a non-varsity sport. The University currently pays for uniforms, shoes and other equipment, although the cheerleaders usually raise money to fund trips to competitions around the country.
And GW seems to be doing well in those events, regardless of its status as a sport. Last spring, the team received national exposure when it placed fifth in the nation for Division I schools at the National College Cheer and Dance Team Championships, which was broadcast on Fox Sports Network.
“I’m really happy the way we are now,” Macchione said. “We fall under the Student Activities Center, and they are very supportive and open to new ideas to expand our program. If we became a varsity sport, we’d end up losing more than gaining.”