Collegiate Cheer and Dance: Deserving of Title IX Protections, or Accessories to Men’s Athletics?

By Kristina Major.

On February 2, 2022 people across the United States celebrated the 36th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day, commemorating Title IX’s 50th anniversary. This year, the day followed weeks of discussions surrounding the fact that many cheer, dance, and spirit programs are not granted the same Title IX protections as other college women’s athletics programs. In January 2022, Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Tiger Girls made headlines after becoming the 2022 Division 1A Hip Hop National Champions at Universal Dance Association (UDA) College Nationals only a year after LSU refused to send them to nationals. In the past few years, both Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Dance Team and the University of Arizona Pom & Dance Line have also competed at UDA Nationals. While cheerleading has previously been thought of as a sport solely involving women cheering on the sidelines at football games, this aspect of the sport has declined since Title IX passed in 1972 and imposed a competition requirement, causing teams to place further emphasis on national competitions and athleticism. In light of Women’s History Month, it is important to evaluate the current state of college cheer and dance, gender dynamics, and the often-overlooked competitive nature of the sports.

Development of Title IX: Women’s Sports

Women’s sports have received increased attention in relation to Title IX protections in recent years. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states that, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In its application to athletics departments, Title IX requires equitable opportunities be provided to both women and men to participate in sports at schools receiving federal funding, that both genders receive participation-proportional athletic scholarship dollars, and that student-athletes receive equal treatment regarding the following: equipment, supplies, game scheduling, practice times, travel, per diem, coaching, locker rooms, practice, competitive facilities, medical, training, housing, dining facilities, publicity, support services, and recruitment. Colleges and universities can demonstrate compliance with the above by meeting one of three prongs: substantial proportionality, continuing practice of program expansion, or effective accommodation of athletic interests and abilities. As a result, colleges must allocate proportional funds to men’s and women’s athletics, support program growth, and provide opportunities for participation in students’ sports of interest.  

            Women’s athletics were transformed beginning in the late 1970s when proponents pushed for applying Title IX to sports. In 2017, over 200,000 college women participated in sports, increasing dramatically from the fewer than 30,000 college women who participated in 1981. However, the push for athletic equity has not ceased. According to a post by Friend of the Court | Women’s Sports Law (@fotc_sports), Title IX suits have been filed in 37 states since 2016.

Excluded from Title IX protection are cheer and dance athletes, including those from LSU, who have spoken out about receiving unequal treatment from their institutions. Friend of the Court | Women’s Sports Law discussed these issues in a post entitled “The Breakdown: Why Spirit Programs Aren’t Protected by Title IX.” These programs are not automatically presumed to be protected in the same ways as other college sports. The Office for Civil Rights has no official position regarding whether competitive cheer and dance are considered sports for Title IX purposes. The NCAA considers STUNT, which removes the crowd-leading aspect of cheerleading, to be an “emerging sport for women.

Due to widespread perception that spirit programs exist primarily to support and promote other sports, like football and basketball, collegiate dance and cheer teams have difficulty satisfying the factors required to be considered Title IX-protected athletes. The Title IX factors include whether the athletics department administrates budget, team staff, and supportive services, eligibility for athletic scholarships, recruitment practices, team schedules, defined seasons, competition recognition, and if the sport’s primary purpose is “to provide athletic competition at the intercollegiate or varsity levels, rather than to support or promote other athletic activities.” However, cheer and dance teams at many colleges participate in national competitions every year, and the skill requirements to make these teams have become even more rigorous in the past decade, as colleges begin recruiting athletes for their teams. Gymnastic abilities are often required now to make these teams, regardless of the college’s competitive division. The jumps, turns, stunts, fast-paced choreography, and underlying body-image ideals place immense pressure on cheerleaders and dancers, resulting in high rates of injury and mental illness. The lack of Title IX protection for these athletes, despite recruitment practices, competition recognition, and defined seasons, results in fewer regulations to protect collegiate cheerleaders and dancers.

The Value of Title IX Protections

When Title IX protections do apply to college dance and cheer teams, safer environments are created for the team members, many of whom perform at competitive levels of skill and expertise. In September of 2021, the University of Southern California’s (USC) Title IX office concluded that the Song Girls’, USC’s official dance team, coach had violated university policies on harassment and created a “hostile and unhealthy” environment for the dancers. The investigation’s findings, alongside the experiences shared by the dancers, support the perspectives of those who advocate for increased respect and protections of dance and cheer athletes. The former Song Girls spoke of the ways in which people had invalidated their experiences over the years, a practice that they claim has allowed toxic issues in dance team environments to persist since the 1990s at USC. These women described harassment regarding their physical appearances that contributed to eating disorders and severe depression. The USC Song Girls are not alone in their experiences with intense dance environments.

This conversation is ongoing. Even USA Cheer has stated that Traditional Cheerleading can be more appropriately governed as a student activity, rather than as a Title IX sport. USA Dance’s website is currently silent on Title IX. Some argue that cheer requirements could evolve to become less sexist with the inclusion of more men, reducing the importance of body image, strict “feminine” etiquette, and lack of protections against sexual harassment. However, women are deserving of these protections regardless of the presence of men on their teams. The long prevalence of severe injuries and mental health issues in collegiate cheer and dance may warrant increased protection of Title IX benefits, as USC’s Song Girls investigation revealed.

"The UCLA Spirit Squad" by Han Shot First is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.