Flying High

Banner after banner adorns the wall in the small room of the Seaton Center that the UK gymnastics team calls home.

Adolph Rupp won four national championships for UK in 40 years with the basketball team. Jomo Thompson, UK’s head cheerleading coach, has won six national championships with UK in less than 10 years.

The only issue is that none of Thompson’s banners are NCAA championships.

According to a court decision handed down last summer, cheerleading is still not considered a sport. But the intensity and dedication that surrounds each cheerleading practice is commensurate with the program’s tradition — UK cheerleaders practice for two-and-a-half hours a day, four times a week.

“Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX,” wrote Judge Stefan R. Underhill of the United States District Court in his decision in July 2010. “Today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.”

Thompson disagrees. He said that because the cheerleading team participates regularly in competitions that require a high degree of athleticism, it can be considered a sport. The controversy comes when you include what the cheerleading team does on the sidelines of games. Thompson doesn’t consider that aspect of what they do a sport.

“I think (cheerleading) is definitely a sport,” said Maurice Grant, a history senior and a member of the cheerleading team. He also played football and ran track in high school. “You work just as hard as anyone else. Technically, the rules of the sport are having competition and having rules.”

As Underhill referenced, though, cheerleading is still disorganized. There are plenty of governing bodies that regulate cheerleading and hold competitions, but because there are so many, it can lead to a significant amount of confusion.

UK has won 18 national cheerleading championships by the Universal Cheerleaders Association since 1985, but that’s just one of the myriad governing bodies. The Cheerleaders of America is another. USA Cheer is leading the charge to qualify cheerleading for “emerging sport” status in the NCAA, and holds its own championship.

Meanwhile, the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association has six member schools, including Maryland and Oregon, that compete against each other in head-to-head competitions. These teams are held to standards similar to those that an NCAA team would be held to, including GPA standards and recruiting regulations. The NCATA also crowns its own national champion, separate from USA Cheer, and considers gaining NCAA sanctioning for cheerleading one of its primary goals.

For their part, Thompson and the UK athletic department don’t feel like they need to be taking a major role in advancing cheerleading as a sport.

“We’ve got a very good cheerleading program and a very good dance program and I don’t see any reason to change that,” UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart said. He said UK wouldn’t try and lead a movement to gain NCAA support for cheerleading.

But change could be coming soon anyway. USA Cheer plans to present its championship to the NCAA in June for consideration as an “emerging sport.” Emerging sports are defined by the NCAA as “an institutional activity involving physical exertion with the purpose of competition versus other teams or individuals within a collegiate competition structure.”

To gain the status as an emerging sport, the NCAA must receive at least 10 letters from universities in which their presidents and athletic directors support the activity as an emerging sport.

But until cheerleading gains NCAA sanctioning, Thompson and his team don’t feel like they need to validate cheerleading as a sport to anyone. Dietetics senior and cheerleading team member Ashley Phillips said she understands why some people don’t consider cheerleading a sport, but her passion for cheerleading leads her to think differently.

“In my mind, you think of a sport and you think of an athlete and you think of an athlete who’s purely dedicated to what they do,” she said. “And I am. I come in here and I train, and I dedicate myself and my time to this. I spend so much of my time doing this and I love it. I might think in my mind I’m going to do ‘my sport,’ but if you write down the rules, I wouldn’t classify it as a sport.”

Thompson said he believes that the competition aspect of cheerleading will likely be considered a sport within the next five to 10 years. One of the major obstacles, he said, is the stigma that surrounds the name ‘cheerleading.’ He thinks a new name might be necessary for it to be recognized as a sport.

“If you call the competitive part cheerleading, it’s not, because they’re not leading anybody,” he said. “They’re doing a series of stunts, tumbling, baskets, those sorts of things. Cheerleading is what we do on the sideline.”

If the NCAA does sanction cheerleading, it would mean major changes for Thompson and his team. There would be limits on practice time and regulations surrounding recruiting. Now, Thompson is free to communicate with recruits on Facebook as he pleases, and doesn’t have to worry about scheduling official visits.

Perhaps most significantly, it could change the primary focus of the cheerleading team. To be an NCAA sport, the main focus of cheerleading teams would have to shift from supporting other teams in the athletic department to competition with other programs.

“Our main focus is not the competition, our main focus is to support football, men’s and women’s basketball, and volleyball,” Thompson said.

NCAA status would mean that could no longer be the case. The gray area over whether cheerleading is a sport would be gone, but so would the compromise between competition and supporting the athletic department. It would create a major split between the two, though in some cases, that split has already begun.

Oregon’s acrobatics & tumbling team is part of the NCATA, but it has a separate cheerleading team that cheers at games and makes appearances for the university.

UK’s cheerleaders, like Phillips, are still in the middle ground where they can compete and support the athletic department. She said she likes the arrangement the team has now, and doesn’t know which side of cheerleading she would pick if forced to choose.

“People look at our cheerleading program and say, ‘That’s how you should do it,’” Barnhart said.

If cheerleading becomes an NCAA sport, that would all change. UK’s tradition won’t be lost, but the role of the program will shift dramatically. For cheerleading to become a sport, it could be forced to surrender not only the most public aspect of what cheerleaders do, but also their roots.

“The happy medium is what we have right now. We have the best of both worlds. We compete, and we get to cheer at games,” Thompson said. “I guess I’m a little apprehensive about the split that’s coming, but that’s just because this is what I’ve known. But if it does become a sport and the school does adopt it, we’re going to be right there on the cutting edge. We’re going to take that same tradition that we have … ramp it up even more … continue to put more banners up there. The only difference is that those banners will say NCAA.”