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.

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.

There’s no doubt these women are athletes. They form towering human pyramids with flipping dismounts. They perform jaw-dropping tumbling passes, with multiple acrobats reeling off synchronized back handsprings and back flips with uncanny precision. And they end with a 21 / 2-minute routine that combines their tumbling and aerial skills with hip-hop dance moves.

But it’s evident the sport still struggles with its identity — particularly as it relates to cheerleading. While pompoms aren’t part of the routines, the head judge raises a silver pompom to signal it’s time for the next event. And each routine ends with clap of hands and spirited shout of “Terps!”

But to distinguish themselves from cheerleaders, acro athletes compete in volleyball-style shorts, rather than skirts, and wear shirts with numbers on the back.

The squad members at West Virginia’s Fairmont State go one step further, competing with eye-black smeared on their cheekbones. And at California’s Azusa Pacific, acro athletes wear weightlifting-style gloves. The Terps, however, make no visual apology for their cheerleading heritage, sporting bows in their hair.

“Every team has their own thing,” says senior Lauren Shannon, an all-American from Silver Spring. “A lot of teams are trying to move away from cheerleading, but we are what we are. We are still cheerleaders, and we will always wear hair bows!”

That’s hardly the only divide in the sport, which has worked hard the last two years to prove it deserves NCAA recognition, adding rigor to its competition format and adopting an objective, gymnastics-based scoring system.

There are now two sports derived from cheerleading — acrobatics and tumbling (the branch Maryland started) and stunt (backed by USA Cheer) — seeking the NCAA’s endorsement. It’s unclear whether either will succeed. But should cheerleading by any name blossom into a major college sport, Maryland, a onetime pioneer, will watch from the sidelines.

In Haglund’s view, that’s not because competitive cheer failed. Rather, it’s because Maryland’s insolvent athletics department simply can’t fund 27 varsity teams. Debbie Yow, Maryland’s athletic director when competitive cheer was added and now the athletic director at North Carolina State, declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate given that she has left the university.

In addition to competitive cheer, Maryland has targeted seven other teams for elimination: all three men’s track teams, men’s swimming and diving, women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and women’s water polo.

Like the others, acro was told by the Terps’ current athletic director, Kevin Anderson, that it could save itself by raising eight years of operating costs by June 30. That’s $5.28 million — “just an astronomical number,” said Chiriaco, whose athletes have thrown themselves into the task nonetheless.

So far, they have raised $5,221 — or 0.1 percent of the goal. But they’re still trying, determined to stay together next season even if it’s as a dues-paying club.

“We have built this family, and it’s disappointing to see that it’s going to end,” said Shannon, 22. “But we can look back and say we did accomplish something and we did make a statement for women’s sports. We did something great.”