Competitive cheerleading is not an official sport that colleges can use to meet gender-equity requirements, a federal judge ruled Wednesday in ordering a Connecticut school to keep its women's volleyball team.
The volleyball players had sued Quinnipiac University after it announced last year that it would eliminate the team for budgetary reasons and replace it with a competitive cheer squad.
The school contended the cheer squad keeps it in compliance with Title IX, the 1972 federal law that mandates equal opportunities for men and women in athletics.
"Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX," U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill wrote in his decision. "Today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students."
Quinnipiac has 60 days to come up with a plan to keep the volleyball team and comply with gender rules.
An activity can be considered a sport under Title IX if it meets specific criteria. It must have coaches, practices, competitions during a defined season and a governing organization. The activity also must have competition as its primary goal -- not merely the support of other athletic teams.
Quinnipiac and seven other schools recently formed a governing body, the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, to govern and develop competitive cheer as a sport.
Previously, competitive cheerleading championships were decided by two organizations -- the National Cheerleaders Association and the Universal Cheerleading Association. Both are tied to Varsity Brands Inc., which makes cheerleading apparel and runs camps.
Quinnipiac had argued that if it could not count competitive cheerleading as a sport it might be forced to shut that program down, eliminating 36 positions on the squad.
School officials responded to the ruling by saying they would start a women's rugby team, but they refused to answer any questions, discuss the future of other athletic teams or say whether they would continue offering scholarships to competitive cheerleaders.
"We will continue to press for competitive cheer to become an officially recognized varsity sport in the future," Quinnipiac spokeswoman Lynn Bushnell said in a statement. "Consistent with our long-standing plans to expand opportunities in women's athletics, the university intends to add women's rugby as a varsity sport beginning in the 2011-2012 academic year."
Attorneys for the volleyball players did not immediately return calls for comment.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which assisted the volleyball players in bringing the lawsuit, said the decision gives force to Title IX.
"Today's ruling directs Quinnipiac University to stop playing games with the important principle of equal opportunity for women," the organization said in a statement.
The cheerleading issue was one of several Underhill was asked to decide as he considered whether the school had improperly manipulated it rosters.
He also found the school was underreporting the participation opportunities for its male athletes and overstating the opportunities for women.
Evidence showed the men's baseball and lacrosse teams, for example, would drop players before reporting data to the Department of Education and reinstate them after the reports were submitted. Conversely, the women's softball team would add players before the reporting date, knowing the additional players would not be on the team in the spring.
School officials have said any improper manipulation of the rosters has stopped.
Underhill also agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that female runners who participate on school's indoor, outdoor and cross country track teams should be counted just once for Title IX purposes. The men have just a cross country team.
"Quinnipiac's practice of requiring women cross-country runners to participate on the indoor and outdoor track teams, and its treatment of the indoor and outdoor track teams as, in essence, an adjunct of the cross-country team, are sufficient to show that some cross-country runners who participate on the indoor and outdoor track teams should not be counted under Title IX," he wrote.