Faced with a growing gender imbalance on its playing fields, the University of Maryland proclaimed itself a pioneer when it added competitive cheerleading as a varsity sport in 2003, predicting that other Division I schools would follow the Terrapins’ lead.
To date, only five have. The NCAA doesn’t recognize cheerleading as a sport. And the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t count it toward compliance with Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunity in education for both sexes.
This year, faced with a multimillion-dollar deficit in athletics, Maryland plans to drop the team after investing more than $4 million in it over the past nine years. The university will eliminate competitive cheerleading — which was recently renamed “acrobatics and tumbling” — along with seven other varsity sports.
The death of competitive cheerleading in College Park coincides with the 40th anniversary of Title IX, enacted by Congress on June 23, 1972. And the team’s short-lived tenure calls attention to some of the shortcomings of the landmark civil rights legislation, which has been responsible for tremendous strides in the achievements of girls and women in the arenas of sports, academics and business.
Since Title IX was enacted, the number of girls playing high school sports has increased tenfold, from roughly 294,000 in 1971-72 to more than 3.1 million in 2010. And the number of women playing NCAA varsity sports increased more than six times, from fewer than 30,000 to more than 191,000 today.
The potential benefits extend far beyond trophies and varsity letters. Studies have shown that girls who play sports get better grades, graduate at higher rates, exhibit more confidence and self-esteem, and are less likely to have unwanted pregnancies.
Manipulating Title IX
But 40 years after Title IX’s passage, its work is far from complete. College athletic administrators have manipulated the intent and spirit of the law by artificially inflating their number of female athletes — counting one female runner three times, for example, if she competes for the cross country, indoor and outdoor track teams. They have offered inexpensive teams for women that are little more than glorified clubs despite demand for more established and costly sports, such as crew and ice hockey.
Enforcement of the law has been lax. Because the federal government can’t investigate every school, athletic departments are deemed in violation only after a formal complaint is filed, which puts the financial burden of a lawsuit on the shortchanged female athlete or team.
“What we see across the country are a real lack of opportunities for women and girls 40 years after Title IX was passed,” said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “There is a lot of room to add [women’s sports] in terms of interest that’s not being accommodated.”
Maryland’s foray into what it dubbed competitive cheer was fraught with controversy from the start, pitting advocates of women’s sports against one another in a debate over exactly what is a sport and what were Maryland’s motives in granting it varsity status.
While it was presented as an effort to give female athletes more opportunity to compete at the highest level, critics perceived it as an end-run around Title IX — designed to give the appearance of opportunity at the lowest possible cost.
The postmortem on Maryland’s acrobatics and tumbling team is equally thorny. Was it a failed experiment? A short-lived success? An idea ahead of its time?
“It was an ill-conceived notion, done for the wrong reason at the wrong time,” said Donna Lopiano, former chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation and an early skeptic.
Maryland Coach Laura Chiriaco disagrees.
“I have a hard time thinking why anyone would be opposed to something that could provide so many opportunities for female athletes,” said Chiriaco, a veteran of the team’s first recruiting class. “We still have a lot of work to do, as far as overcoming stereotypes. But we were on the cusp of this really taking off.”
Maryland added competitive cheer and water polo after officials determined they were in danger of falling out of compliance with Title IX. But there was a second goal, according to former associate athletic director Dave Haglund. By adding opportunities for female athletes, Maryland could increase scholarships for several underfunded men’s teams that were struggling — baseball and wrestling among them — without skewing its gender balance.
Four women’s sports were considered: Crew, ice hockey, water polo and cheer. The latter two were chosen, Haglund said, because Maryland already had club teams that had lobbied for varsity status and because they were the least expensive.
They were peculiar choices.