Alyssa Casamento (left) and Felishia LaPointe (right) are athletes at North Haven High School who compete in cheerleading, something which is considered a sport by many, but is classified as an activity by the CIAC. (Photo by John Vanacore/The Guilford Courier
Lindsay Buckley (left), Tiffany Kaufmann (middle), and Christine Donat (right) are athletes at Hand High School who compete in cheerleading, something which is considered a sport by many, but is classified as an activity by the CIAC. (Photo by John Vanacore/The Guilford Courier
Bring It On: Examining the State of Competitive Cheerleading in Connecticut
Last month, the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that cheerleading cannot be considered a competitive sport. The decision upheld a 2010 ruling by U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill that stemmed from a discrimination case brought by athletes from Quinnipiac University's women's volleyball team. They contended the school discriminated against them by attempting to eliminate the program and supplant it with roster positions in other sports, including 30 new spots on the competitive cheer squad, to meet budget cutbacks. They claimed Quinnipiac's actions violated Title IX-a law that requires schools which receive federal funding to provide equal participation opportunities to females in varsity sports-and thus the Second Circuit's ruling regarding whether competitive cheerleading qualified as a sport under Title IX proved crucial in determining if the school was in violation. The court reinforced Underhill's ruling by stating that the "time has not yet arrived" for cheerleading to be considered a sport, finding that Quinnipiac had violated the law. The Second Circuit's ruling stated: "[W]e acknowledge record evidence showing that competitive cheerleading can be physically challenging, requiring competitors to possess 'strength, agility, and grace.' Similarly, we do not foreclose the possibility that the activity, with better organization and defined rules, might someday warrant recognition as a varsity sport. But, like the district court, we conclude that the record evidence shows that 'that time has not yet arrived.'" ***** Through the last few decades, cheerleading has evolved from lending sideline support into its own entity, one in which participants train to compete against fellow cheerleaders. This has resulted in a more advanced set of necessary athletic abilities, plus an increase in numbers as over 80 percent of U.S. public high schools have cheerleading teams with more than 3.4 million registered cheerleaders, according to isport.com. Still, there is quite a debate as to whether competitive cheerleading is a sport and so we examine that situation as it applies to high schools in Connecticut. ***** Last winter, the Connecticut Student Activities Conference (CSAC) organized state cheerleading championships with 88 teams participating. At the championships-which were contested for the 23rd-straight year-cheerleading squads performed two-and-a-half minute routines that featured an array of complex athletic skills such as stunting, which entails lifting teammates to build pyramids and then throwing them in the air and catching them; tumbling, which features acrobatic gymnastics maneuvers such as back-handsprings (quick back somersaults done in a straight body position); along with jumps, dance steps, and of course, cheers. Each team had one chance to get everything to mesh with pinpoint synchronicity to impress the judges. The judges then tallied the points and places were awarded to every team in each class with the top-scoring squad declared a state champion. In other words: competitors engaged in athletic activity so as to defeat others with the end result being that one team used its athleticism and teamwork most effectively to earn the most points. Typically, this sequence of events is referred to as "sport," and much like cheerleading, many of Connecticut's other athletic endeavors decide their champions in a similar manner. However, much like the Second Circuit, the CIAC does not officially recognize competitive cheerleading as a sport, instead classifying it as an "activity" that is regulated by the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS) and not the CIAC, saying that it "falls in with debate, Student Council, National Honor Society, and all the other student activities," according to Assistant Executive Director Dave Maloney. Maloney said he was "absolutely impressed" with the athleticism he's seen at cheerleading competitions, yet stated that "here in Connecticut we are satisfied with cheerleading being considered a student activity." "The kinds of things [cheerleaders] do transcend into a whole new host of activities. Cheerleaders are involved with pep rallies and sideline cheers and service activities, and amongst all the members of the student body, help with school climate," Maloney said. "I think that is what makes cheerleading unique and that is why it's different and I'm certainly fine with it being classified as an activity and any regulation of how these things take place under the national high school federation guidelines." Indeed, Connecticut adheres to the 2012-13 National Federation of State High School Associations Spirit Rules Book, which states: "Competition should be a secondary consideration for spirit groups unless designated as being a purely competitive team." According to CIAC Cheerleading Tournament Official Coordinator Sherrie Zembrzuski, the sum total of that is: "If Connecticut follows the National Federation and the federation says the primary purpose is to be a support team, that doesn't really mean it's a sport." "The main thing for cheerleaders is to be there to support their school," Zembrzuski said. "The main thing is not competition." ***** Adriana Barbiero and Felishia LaPointe are senior captains on the North Haven cheerleading squad. On Friday nights, they cheer on the Indians' football team. The other days are spent working on the routine they'll perform this winter in preparation for the Southern Connecticut Conference and state championships, two meets at which their team prevailed in 2010. But the work North Haven's cheerleaders put in extends beyond practicing their routine as they first have to ensure they're in tiptop shape to successfully execute their nonstop performance. That means-just like with most cheerleading squads-every practice also involves stretching, sprints, pushups, and squats, exercises which improve one's endurance and strength and are crucial to succeed in athletics. "Just like any other sport we have a strenuous workout. There are days when girls cry, look like they're going to pass out, and then you wake up the next day more sore than anything," said LaPointe. "But pushing yourself so hard makes you strong enough to handle the routine and there's no way we would have won SCCs or states without our conditioning." Naturally, being properly conditioned is imperative to fare well in any athletic competition, including cheerleading, which also requires an elite level of athleticism. For proof, one needn't look further than what Barbiero considers cheerleading's two most difficult maneuvers: stunting and tumbling. "Tumbling is not something anyone can do. You need to be strong and fearless to do a backflip with your hand touching the ground and then spring back up into a straight position. Stunting, too, requires a lot of technical skill when you're lifting someone 10 feet in the air and they're on one leg. You definitely have to be an athlete to do these things," Barbiero says. "This is why my heart breaks when people say that cheerleading is not a sport. I know how hard it is, but a lot of people don't understand that." One person who does side with that sentiment is SCC Commissioner Al Carbone, who said his conference "considers cheerleading a sport." Carbone also said he feels one reason why some feel otherwise is because they focus more on how cheerleaders used to solely root on other teams and don't take into account that they are now one of those teams. "It's an antiquated way of thinking. Cheerleading has evolved and so our thinking as administrators has to move forward," Carbone said. "If you're keeping score in something that requires athletic skill, then it's a sport, and I think cheerleading deserves every bit of respect, commitment, and support statewide." Lindsay Buckley, a senior captain for Hand, feels the same way. "Some people have a narrow idea about cheerleading; they think it's just a group of girls cheering on a team, which is not a sport," said Buckley. "But with what we do now-from our offseason training and practicing three hours a day and competing while using the same skills that gymnasts use-cheerleading is a sport." ***** So that brings up the question of whether cheerleading can one day cross the line from activity to sport as regulated by the CIAC. For that to happen, a letter would have to be written to the CAS Cheerleading Committee by a member school principal, after which that committee, the Student Activities Board, and the CAS Board would have to pass the measure by majority vote. If this happens, cheerleading would have to comply with the rules of current CIAC-regulated sports, meaning the first day teams could practice is when all the other ones start instead of in the weeks prior. However, if you speak with just about any cheerleader or their coach, they'll gladly take that tradeoff simply to own the honor of having their competitive athletic endeavor referred to as a sport. Michelle Kaufmann, head coach of Hand and a member of the cheerleading committee, believes that will one day be the case. "I think we're headed there," Kaufmann said. "Other states have recognized competitive cheerleading as a sport and so I absolutely see us going that way." Conversely, North Haven coach Kathleen Crisafi isn't completely sold that will ever happen. "Honestly, I don't know if in my lifetime we will see everyone come to the same place," Crisafi said. "I think it's always going to be a debatable situation."