USA Cheer’s Position Paper on Cheer Safety & Title IX

I. Introduction

USA Cheer is responsible for the growth and oversight of all disciplines of Cheer within the United States. Cheer has evolved as a highly skilled athletic activity, and in the case of STUNT, to the level of varsity interscholastic and intercollegiate sport being played in high schools and colleges across the country. USA Cheer recognizes the importance of sportsmanship and the impact that Cheer has in building “spirit” at games, within schools and in the community. Schools have adopted various forms of Cheer to uniquely support the needs of sports and activities within their schools.

The emergence of different disciplines of Cheer has created confusion across the country of how to regulate Cheer (as a sport or school activity) and whether different disciplines of Cheer can be counted for Title IX compliance efforts. This position paper clarifies those issues.

II. Background

What are the different disciplines of Cheer?
Cheer is an athletic activity governed by its national governing body USA Cheer, which includes the following distinct and separate disciplines in the Scholastic and Non-Scholastic sectors:

  • Scholastic
    • Traditional Cheerleading – An organized cheerleading group sponsored by public or private schools as a student activity focused on enhancing the “game day experience,” promoting school spirit, student leadership, community service, and supporting other school sports teams. While not their primary focus, Traditional Cheerleading teams can also compete at regional, state and national competitions in a format that reflects their role and responsibilities at their schools.
    • STUNT – the interscholastic sport discipline of Cheer that is exclusively focused on competition in a head-to-head, four quarter format. It is a spring sport, and it is the only discipline designed to meet the OCR legal sport requirements of Title IX for schools in the U.S.
  • Non-Scholastic
    • Club Cheer – Cheer teams from private gyms (also known in the U.S. as “all-star” teams) whose primary focus is to compete against cheer teams from other private gyms in a routine format specific to club cheer.
    • STUNT – Discipline of Cheer that is exclusively focused on competition in a head-to-head, four quarter format between private gyms.
    • Recreational Cheerleading – Non-school based cheerleading teams who support other non-school based athletic teams.  These cheerleading teams may also compete.

III. Cheer Safety

What current standards are in place to ensure cheer safety?
All disciplines of Cheer are already highly regulated to ensure safety. USA Cheer, through our member organization the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA), leads the safety efforts for the Cheer community. This work includes:

  • Safety Rules – AACCA developed the first and only Cheer safety manual in 1987, and included the first rules for Cheer, which are reviewed and updated annually. It is the standard of care most often cited in Cheer safety cases. Rule changes are made based on expert input and recommendations in conjunction with available safety data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) injury studies and the National Catastrophic Injury Research Center.
  • Safety Education – A safety education and injury minimization course was developed from the manual which is used to train Cheer coaches and officials throughout the US and even around the world. AACCA administered 5,297 safety courses last year.
  • Partnership with NFHS – AACCA works with the National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) Coaches Education Program, and the AACCA Safety Course is one of the main components of the NFHS credentialing program for Traditional Cheerleading coaches.
  • Partnership with NCAA – The NCAA uses AACCA safety rules for all NCAA hosted sports tournaments.
  • Partnership with CDC HEADS UP – AACCA, USA Cheer and CDC partnered to develop the CDC’s HEADS UP Cheerleading Safety Awareness poster.

Is it necessary to designate Traditional Cheerleading as a school sport to improve safety?
No. Traditional Cheerleading is already a highly-regulated activity to ensure safety. There is no empirical data that demonstrates the designation of Traditional Cheerleading as an interscholastic or intercollegiate sport makes it any safer for the student athletes. Currently, Traditional Cheerleading is the 4th safest athletic activity amongst the 20 ranked by the NFHS.  There are 15 other “sports” with higher injury rates.

Changing Traditional Cheerleading from a student activity to an interscholastic or intercollegiate sport changes the emphasis of the role of Traditional Cheerleading programs in schools, from the leadership and school spirit focus, to a competition focus. USA Cheer created STUNT to fulfill that competition focus for schools and athletes.

How can Cheer safety be improved in schools?
USA Cheer recommends the NCAA and state high school athletic associations require Traditional Cheerleading coaches to obtain safety certification nationally, such as that recommended by the NFHS and AACCA.

IV. Cheer & Title IX Status

What does it mean for a sport to receive Title IX status?
In September 2008, the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Dear Colleague Letter: Athletic Activities Counted for Title IX Compliance document that outlined several factors to consider on a case-by-case basis of whether an activity can be counted as an intercollegiate or interscholastic sport for the purpose of Title IX compliance. These factors include an activity’s structure, administration, team preparation, and competition.1

Should Traditional Cheerleading be considered a school Title IX sport?
No. It is the position of USA Cheer that Traditional Cheerleading is most appropriately governed as a student activity, not an interscholastic varsity sport. The majority of High School Athletic Associations across the US classify cheerleading as a student activity, not an interscholastic sport.  Research indicates that when Traditional Cheerleading focuses solely on competition, the leadership and school spirit elements that are vital to the activity are removed to the detriment to the school.

The Office for Civil Rights within the US Department of Education and the US Department of Justice have made it clear that Traditional Cheerleading, (sometimes called “Competitive Cheer” by schools), as an interscholastic sport does not count for Title IX purposes.

In a brief of Amicus Curiae in BIEDIGER v. QUINNIPIAC UNIVERSITY, OCR stated that it “has not recognized cheerleading or competitive cheer as a sport” under the 2008 Letter. 2  In fact, at the college level, OCR prohibits schools from counting Traditional Cheerleading on its federal Title IX reporting data forms. Schools must first receive a letter from OCR certifying that Traditional Cheerleading is a varsity sport at that institution. According to OCR, to date, no college or university has ever received a letter certifying Scholastic (or competitive) Cheer counts as a varsity sport under Title IX.3 Therefore, requiring schools to support it as such would put those schools at risk for Title IX violations and lawsuits.

At the high school level, OCR has not certified Traditional Cheerleading as counting as an interscholastic sport under Title IX in any state. In fact, several states have been subject to litigation over this issue for falsifying their Title IX participation numbers by counting Traditional Cheerleading as a varsity sport without OCR approval (even when termed “Competitive Cheer”).

Should STUNT be considered a school Title IX sport?
Yes. USA Cheer recognizes that in the school setting, STUNT is the only discipline of Cheer that could meet the Title IX legal standards for an interscholastic and intercollegiate sport.

STUNT is a competitive team sport that removes the crowd-leading and focuses on the technical and athletic components of cheer in a four-quarter head-to-head game format including Partner Stunts, Pyramids & Tosses, Group Jumps & Tumbling, and Team Performance. USA Cheer designed STUNT to meet the OCR definitions of a Title IX sport.

STUNT received endorsements from the National Federation of State High School Associations, National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Associations, and the Women’s Sports Foundation for its ability to serve as a varsity and intercollegiate sport that can meet Title IX compliance standards and grow participation opportunities for female student-athletes.  STUNT is currently sponsored nationwide at 50 colleges and universities and 10 state athletic associations.

About USA Cheer
The USA Federation for Sport Cheering is a not-for-profit national governing body for all disciplines of Cheer (including Traditional Cheerleading, STUNT, and Club Cheer/All Star). USA Cheer has three primary objectives: promote safety and safety education for cheer in the United States; help grow and develop interest and participation in cheer throughout the United States; and represent the United States of America in international cheer competitions.

  1. Office for Civil Rights “Dear Colleague Letter” Athletic Activities Counted for Title IX Compliance September 17, 2008.
  2. See Brief of Amicus Curiae from OCR in BIEDIGER v. QUINNIPIAC UNIVERSITY (6/21/10).

“OCR has not recognized cheerleading or competitive cheer as a sport.”