HAMDEN, Conn. — They jump, tumble and work the crowd. They also bristle at being called cheerleaders.
"We don't even use that word anymore," said Tori Maynard, a senior on the University of Oregon's competitive cheer team. "It's a stereotype. People don't understand what competitive cheerleading is."
Maynard and others involved in competitive cheer say it is a sport, similar to gymnastics. A smattering of colleges agree, some seeing it as a cheaper way to help comply with Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to offer equal athletic opportunities to men and women.
"You don't chant, you don't yell for any other teams," said Maynard, who hails from Lake Charles, La. "You compete. You do a gymnastics portion, you do a jump portion, you do a team portion. You don't cheer. Other people cheer for you."
Not everyone is cheering the rise of competitive cheer — especially those in the fight to expand women's collegiate sports. They say cheerleading is a support activity, like a marching band, and claim calling it a sport just gives universities an excuse to eliminate more recognized women's teams.
"Right now girls are vastly underrepresented on college rosters," said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an attorney for the Women's Sports Foundation. "I would hate to see viable sports that lead to Olympic possibilities, international opportunities, thwarted in favor of a sport that doesn't lead to any of those."
Quinnipiac University in Connecticut pointed to the recession when it announced a plan this spring to cut three sports, including women's volleyball, an established collegiate and Olympic sport.
But it was volleyball's proposed replacement — elevating the school's cheerleading team to sports status — that launched a campus controversy.
In a federal lawsuit, Quinnipiac volleyball coach Robin Sparks argued that replacing her team with cheer violated the spirit of Title IX and would be a step backward for women in sports. After all, she testified, her grandmother was able to be a cheerleader.
"To me, Title IX is about giving women opportunities beyond that," she said.
Schools have three ways to comply with Title IX: Match the proportionality of female athletes to female students on campus, show a history of increasing sports for women, or prove the school has met the interest and ability of the underrepresented group.
To the schools, the benefit of a competitive cheer team is more athletic opportunities for women at lower cost. Quinnipiac's cheer team includes 40 roster spots and a budget of about $50,000, or $1,250 per roster spot. The volleyball team had a budget of more than $70,000 for 11 players last season, costing the school more than $6,300 for each team member.
During a hearing in the Quinnipiac case, school cheer coach Mary Ann Powers defended her athletes and said most are elite gymnasts.
She also lamented how the issue has turned supporters of women's athletics into adversaries. "I think what offends (cheerleaders) more than anything is other women degrading them and knocking what they do," she testified.
But is cheerleading a sport? Judge Stefan Underhill, who is presiding over the Quinnipiac lawsuit, didn't rule it out. Underhill granted an injunction to keep the school's volleyball team in place and said the team is likely to win its Title IX claim. The lawsuit is in settlement talks.
But his ruling focused more on evidence that Quinnipiac falsely inflated the rosters of other women's teams — and undercounted members of men's teams — to create an illusion of gender equity. Underhill determined that competitive cheer "although not presently an NCAA recognized sport or emerging sport, has all the necessary characteristics of a potentially valid competitive sport."
An activity can be considered a sport under Title IX if it meets specific criteria. It must have coaches, practices, competitions during a defined season, and a governing organization. The activity also must have competition as its primary goal — not merely the support of other athletic teams.
Because the Quinnipiac competitive cheer team would only compete against other teams, it meets that standard. So do the cheer teams at a handful of other schools such as Oregon and Maryland, which in 2003 became the first school to create a separate cheer team for competitions. Maryland officials declined to comment for this story because of the Quinnipiac litigation.
No cheer team can win a NCAA national championship, only one awarded by a group affiliated with a for-profit corporation. The national cheer title is bestowed by the National Cheerleaders Association, which hosts competitions, as does the Universal Cheerleading Association. Both are tied to Varsity Brands Inc., which makes cheerleading apparel and runs camps.
Routines are scored like gymnastics. Teams are judged on tumbling, acrobatic throws and dance.
Over 5,000 cheerleaders participated in this year's NCA collegiate national championships. Quinnipiac finished sixth in their division.
But only six of the 134 competing teams were squads that exist only to compete.
"Most of the participants are sideline cheerleaders," said Bill Boggs, who runs the competitions. "The thing about cheerleading at the collegiate level is that it is so random as far as what they are considered, who they report to. Some of them are under athletics, some are under activities, some are under club sports, some of them even report to the band."
Karen Halterman, a senior vice president of NCA, said even though her group hosts the competitions, it believes cheerleading should remain a support activity.
"This is absolutely a sport for those teams that want to go out and practice their technical skill," she said. "However, cheerleading with just these few exceptions that are out there, always has as its number one responsibility, and still what they do, is support their university and other athletes. That's what we prefer."
Renee Baumgartner, Oregon's executive senior associate athletic director, pushed for cheer at her school, noting its fast growth across the country.
She also acknowledged it is relatively inexpensive.
"In this economic time, it's also perhaps the only sport that administrators can consider adding," she said.
But the NCAA doesn't govern cheerleading, recognize it as a sport or list it as an emerging sport. No school has petitioned to have it considered.
Baumgartner expects that to change in the next few years. In the meantime, Oregon has decided to rename it team stunt and gymnastics.
"We're trying to change the perception of the sports fan, have them understand what this is, and have them respect that," Maynard said.