Why Cheerleading Isn't a Sport, but Croquet Is


Universal Pictures

Arguments aren't fun. Barguments should be. The idea is to passionately debate an utterly trivial question, the way one might at the local saloon. The debate should also be strictly a matter of opinion. "How many Super Bowls did John Elway win?" for instance, isn't much of a bargument, as anyone with Web-equipped phone can find the answer in a few seconds. "Who is the best quarterback to have never won a Super Bowl?," however, could be bargued over for hours wasting huge chunks of an otherwise productive day.

The best barguments, though, have a touch of the absurd. As in, "Which holiday is the most annoying*?" "Who would win a war between New York and LA*?" or "Would you rather be able to fly or to become invisible*?" In fact, you could even bargue over which bargument is best. There is no debate, however, about worst bargument ever. The dreaded "Is it a sport?" dead horse is currently being beaten nationwide courtesy of Quinnipiac University, Title IX, and the Federal Courts.

The short version of the long story is that Quinnipiac administrators wanted to save money and attract more students, so they decided to replace the volleyball program with a competitive cheer squad. The volleyball coach sued, claiming a Title IX violation, in effect arguing that college students have a constitutionally protected right to play volleyball. The judge, quite naturally, was compelled to rule that, according to NCAA and Title IX definitions, volleyball is more of a sport than cheerleading.

The ruling triggered a wholly predictable—but admirably spunky—outcry from the nation's cheer community. Cheerleading's leading cheerleaders noted how very strong the competitors must be, how hard they train, and how often they are injured. All true, but totally irrelevant.

Just as predictably, the "Is Cheerleading a Sport" bargument spread to other sports, inciting debates over NASCAR, golf, bowling, curling, ping-pong, bull-riding, bass-fishing, et cetera, ad nauseum. These discussions almost invariably turn circular and seem to last forever—like a sports version of Sartre's existentialist hell in "No Exit."

But debating whether cheering or any other activity is a sport isn't a bargument at all, because defining a sport isn't the least bit subjective—or at least it shouldn't be. Horseracing to hot dog-eating, every single sport on earth shares three fundamental characteristics: people compete at it, computers can't do it, and aesthetics don't count. Absent any one of these criteria, and it is no sport—no matter what the NCAA and IOC try to sell you.

Take chess, for instance. Obviously, people compete at it. Obviously, artistic merit doesn't count—no panel of judges scores players on how prettily they move the pieces. But chess is a game, not a sport because it doesn't require anything physical. You don't even need to be human. Computers play it—better than we do.

Now look at ballroom dance contests, a la Dancing with the Stars. It's a competition, sure. You need a body—a good one. The physical demands are huge; strength, grace, endurance. And shoe companies tell us it's a sport. But aesthetics count. A lot. DWTS is won by the most visually pleasing dancers, not necessarily the best athletes. It's a competitive theatrical performance—like a Battle of the Bands, or one of those singing contests the Glee kids are always running off to.

Like it or not, there are loads of obscure, semi-sedentary activities like horseshoes and croquet that are unquestionably sports. Conversely, loads of mainstream events demanding world-class athletic skills—including those showcased at the Olympics or offered by universities—aren't actually sports at all. Figure-skating, for instance, is essentially ballroom dancing on ice. Sporty? Sure. Not a sport. Not when panache and flair go into the judging. The same is true of gymnastics, diving, and the deservedly much-maligned synchronized swimming—an event in which competitors are rewarded for their ability to imitate Harpo Marx. Which brings us, very reluctantly, to cheerleading. People compete at it. Machines can't. The physical demands are harrowing, even at the high school level. But is it a sport*? Let's have a beer and bargue about it.

1. Valentine's Day, no question. The risk/reward ratio is terrible. The best you can hope for is a nice dinner. The worst, and far more common scenario, is some sort of relationship meltdown.
2. New York City. LA is much too spread out to defend.
3. Fly, of course. Never trust anyone who says they want to be invisible. That's just creepy.
4. No.