Connecticut Trial to Determine If Cheerleading is a Sport

Opening arguments began today in a case that could determine whether universities can consider cheerleading a sport under a federal law that requires gender equality in athletics programs.

Five members of the Quinnipiac University women's volleyball team, and the team's coach, have sued the school for dismantling the team to use the money for a cheerleading squad.

The players argue that cheerleading does not meet federally defined standards for a "sport" under Title IX, the groundbreaking civil rights law that requires schools to allocate resources equally to men's and women's sports teams.

VIDEO: Is Cheerleading a Sport?Play

The judge will also determine whether the university doctored its team rosters, undercounting men and overcounting women, in an effort to skirt Title IX requirements.

"The outcome of this case could have a chilling effect on women's athletics programs if cheerleading is deemed a sport," said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Girls and Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota and a Title IX expert unaffiliated with the case.

"No one wants to denigrate cheerleading, but should it be considered sport at the expense of legitimate women's competitive team sports? It's a question of equality," Kane said. "How would people react if the school cut a men's sport like baseball or lacrosse and used those funds for a male cheerleading squad?"

VIDEO: Diverse Cheerleading Squads UnitePlay

The women volleyball players say a men's team would never lose funding in favor of cheerleading and the players are the subjects of sex discrimination.

"The Student Plaintiffs allege that Defendant's ongoing sex discrimination in the operation of its varsity athletic program violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972," the students said in their lawsuit.

Though Quinnipiac, located in Hamden, Conn. and known more for its political polling than its athletics programs, is a private school, it receives some federal funding and is therefore subject to Title IX requirements.

"Because QU receives federal financial assistance, its athletic program is subject to Title IX and QU must comply with its requirements," the volleyball players said in their suit.

The school says cheerleading is a competitive, athletic activity that creates more opportunities for women than volleyball. It says it has adequately complied with the law.

"The university believes that it has complied with all aspects of Title IX legislation and will continue to do so. Given that this is a matter awaiting adjudication, we will not comment further," said Lynn Bushnell, vice president for public affairs, in a statement.

The lawyer for the players said he "can't comment while the trial is on" but previously told the Associated Press that the trial was the first of its kind in the country.

"What makes this case significant is that, as far as I know, this will be the first time any court has been asked to rule whether competitive cheer is a sport for Title IX purposes," said attorney Jon Orleans, who represents the volleyball players.

In order to be considered a sport under Title IX, an activity must meet certain criteria, said Neena Chaudhry, senior council at the National Women's Law Center.

"The Department of Education has issued letters in the past on how sports are defined. Do they prepare for competition in the way other teams do? Do they have coaches? Do they recruit? What's the length of their season and the number of practices? Is there a national governing body? The bottom line is whether their primary purpose is competition or just support from the sidelines," Chaudhry said.

The school argues that cheerleading has changed significantly since Title IX was passed in 1972. The cheers have become significantly more athletic, incorporating throws, tumbles and flips. It has also became more competitive, with squads competing against each other rather than just rooting for teams from the sidelines.

During last year's hearing, school cheer coach Mary Ann Powers defended competitive cheer as a legitimate sport, saying her team is made of athletes, most of them elite gymnasts.

Additionally, the university and seven other schools recently formed a governing body, the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, to govern and develop competitive cheer as a sport.

Competitive cheerleading championships previously were decided by two organizations — the National Cheerleaders Association and the Universal Cheerleading Association. Both are tied to Varsity Brands Inc., a for-profit company that makes cheerleading apparel and runs camps.

School officials testified in last year's hearing that the benefit of a competitive cheer team is more athletic opportunities for women at lower cost. Quinnipiac's cheerleading team cost the school about $1,250 per roster spot, the school testified last year. The team currently has 30 members. The volleyball team cost more than $6,300 per team member with 11 players in 2008-09 and a budget of more than $70,000, according to the testimony.

The volleyball players say the university has a pattern of discriminating against women athletes and manipulating rosters to appear to be in compliance with Title IX.

The school, they claim in the suit, overcounts its female runners. Women who run track, they claim, are counted on the rosters for indoor track, outdoor track and cross country, even though all those sports are essentially one team.

In order to make it look as if it had eliminated men's teams to balance the total number of opportunities available, the school eliminated men's outdoor and indoor track, but kept the same number of male runners, competing for a single track team.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.