“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.
Water polo was primarily a West Coast sport, not contested in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Cheer was in its infancy, with no established competitive format, no standardized scoring and not enough participating universities to stage credible meets.
Then, in 2010, a U.S. district judge ruled that Quinnipiac University’s competitive cheer team failed to meet the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of a varsity sport. Though the ruling was specific to Quinnipiac, which had replaced its women’s volleyball team with a cheer squad as part of a cost-cutting effort, other universities took notice.
“Broadly speaking, that case sent a message to other schools that were counting cheer for Title IX purposes and suggested they take a close look at their programs,” said Chaudhry, of the National Women’s Law Center. “ ‘We’re not there yet’ is what the judge effectively said.”
No one seemed to care about the sport’s legal status earlier this month at Comcast Center’s Pavilion, where the stands were packed for the acrobatics and tumbling squad’s final home meet.
Is cheerleading a sport?
None of the 40 women on Maryland’s acro team, as it’s known, cheers at football or basketball games. (The Terps’ sideline cheerleaders, known as the Spirit Squad, are a separate group.) With an annual budget of $629,686 and 11.3 full scholarships to split, the acro team trains solely to compete against other teams.