Last week the New Mexico Activities Association member-institutions voted to make spirit (cheerleading and dance) a sport. Officials quoted in the news reports about the vote were pretty clear that the primary purpose of this change was to help schools attain compliance with Title IX’s proportionality prong. For example, one high school official stated, “Cheer and dance at Silver High has about 50 students, and we can get these to be athletes. That would definitely help us with our participation numbers for girls.” This quote seems to typify the officials’ concerns — not whether spirit activities really are (or can become) athletic in nature, only that they count as such. For another example, consider the official who, in acknowledging that unlike other sports, cheer currently has no competitions other than the state tournament, expressed only “hope” that the NMAA “can work on adding something like that in the mix.”
Speaking of hope, I hope NMAA plans to ensure that its cheerleading is sport in more than name only. Otherwise, its member institutions could still have legal trouble if they rely on proportionality to comply with Title IX, and rely on cheer participation to get acheive proportionality. The Office for Civil Rights does not defer to high schools or high school athletic associations’ labels of what is a sport — OCR actually compares whether the activity is being treated comparably to other athletic opportunities. For example, I recently read a decision letter issued by OCR following its investigation of Tukwila School District in Washington. OCR refused to count cheerleading as athletic opportunities, even though the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association allows its member institutions to offer cheerleading as a sport. OCR compared cheerleading program at Tukwila’s Foster High School to athletic programs, and determined that cheer not comparable. Relevant differences included the fact that cheerleaders, but not athletes, had to pay ($600) to participate, cheerleading’s mission statement focused on performance and spirit raising and did not mention competition, and the squad does not compete in league competition and has limited competitive opportunities.
Hopefully schools in New Mexico will see the NMAA’s decision as an opportunity not just to change the label of cheerleading from activity to sport, but to ensure that cheerleading called sport actually functions and is treated like a sport. If schools don’t, OCR will.