Defining "Sport"

Athletic Management, 16.2, February/March 2004,

By Kristina Sowder, April Hennefer, Dr. Cynthia Lee Pemberton, and Debra Easterly

Kristina Sowder and April Hennefer have received Master's degrees from Idaho State University, where Cynthia Lee Pemberton is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Debra Easterly is a Assistant Director in the Office of Sponsored Programs. Pemberton is also a former athletic administrator and swim coach at Linfield College.

The history of educational sports begins as the history of sports for boys. Early on, school sports were seen as a panacea that would reduce the dropout problem, provide an energy outlet for unruly boys, and give schools a public relations bonanza.

Historically, sports for women and girls did not follow the men's model, but instead were rooted in philosophies of participation, cooperation, and play. The female sports culture emphasized enjoyment and social competition with the ultimate contest goals being those of self-development and teamwork, as opposed to winning and individual achievement.

As sports opportunities continue to evolve for girls and women, they have grown closer to the traditional male model. However, looking at the history of women's sports allows us to see that there is more than one way to define athletics. In fact, research on women athletes over the past two decades indicates that at least some value sports more for traditionally "female" values, such as the chance to be on a team and work collectively toward a goal, than they do for competition and winning.

At both the high school and college levels, schools are looking to increase athletic opportunities for women. Team handball, equestrian, and synchronized swimming, for example, have all been designated "emerging sports" for NCAA institutions. Girls' lacrosse, bowling, and golf are growing at the high school level.

However, the sport which has grown the most in the past five years is cheerleading. According to the latest NFHS participation survey (2002-03), "For the third consecutive year, the biggest gain among girls was in competitive spirit squads, which saw an increase of 16,556 participants. This brought the number of total participants to 111,191, making it the ninth-most popular girls' program." Currently, more than 20 state high school associations identify cheerleading as a sport and Minnesota offers state championships in competitive dance.

At the college level, research conducted by the NCAA in 2000 found that the women's sport that has experienced the most growth has been the competitive spirit squad. In addition, nearly 200 colleges offer cheerleading scholarships.

In 2003-04, the National Dance Association and the National Cheerleaders Association are conducting 17 different organized dance and cheerleading competitions, some of which will be televised on ESPN, as well as regionals in 23 states. Yet, despite popularity and an increasingly competitive focus, dance and cheerleading are not uniformly recognized as sports by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the NCAA, the NFHS, or the Women's Sports Foundation.

Competition, in particular, has been a key element of sport recognition and designation by the OCR and the NCAA. According to the OCR, an activity is a sport if: selection for the team is based upon objective factors related primarily to athletic ability; the activity is limited to a defined season; the team prepares for or engages in competition in the same way as other teams in the athletic program with respect to coaching, recruitment, budget, tryouts and eligibility, and length and number of practice sessions and competitive opportunities; the activity is administered by the athletic department; and the primary purpose of the activity is athletic competition and not the support or promotion of other events.

The NCAA's definition of sport includes an institutionalized activity involving physical exertion with the primary purpose being competition versus other teams or individuals within a collegiate competition structure. The NCAA further defines sport as including structure (standardized rules approved by official regulatory agencies and governing bodies), regularly scheduled competitions, and a defined competitive season consisting of five or more competitions per year.

For these organizations, the defining elements of sport may be more closely linked to the history, traditions, and culture of the male sports experience than that of the female sports experience. The question arises, then: Why should we have such a limited definition of sports? If we want to get more females involved in sports, and we want to reach a population that might not otherwise be involved in sports, why be so rigid in our categorization? Why not call an activity that is physical, requires teamwork, includes both practice and performance, and is a part of the athletic department a sport? Why can't a team that both performs and competes be classified as a sport?

Logistically, there are many good reasons to consider making cheerleading and dance sports: It won't take years to introduce the sports, neither requires expensive facilities or equipment, and both have already proven to attract large numbers of participants. Both also have the support of a contingent of administrators. Consider the following research:

During the 2001-02 academic year, we initiated a nationwide study to investigate the prevalence of dance and cheerleading programs among NCAA D-I schools. We mailed a survey to 312 institutions and received 289 individual responses from 217 schools. The responding participants included 34 presidents (12%), 86 athletic directors (30%), 89 senior women administrators (31%), and 80 dance/cheerleading coaches (27%). Here are some of the findings:

o 98% of the institutions indicated they sponsored competitive cheerleading teams.

o 89% of the institutions indicated they sponsored competitive dance.

o 37% of the schools provide partial scholarships for cheer team members; 16% do so for dance.

o The athletic department funded cheer at 46% of the schools; 30% did so for dance.

o The average team size was 22 for cheer and 17 for dance.

o 60 percent of respondents said they had adequate facilities for practice and competition for these two sports.

The vast majority of respondents indicated that dance and cheerleading (81% and 86%) were characterized by fitness, and a strong majority identified the physical elements that typically define sport (endurance, strength, power, agility, flexibility) as inherent in dance and cheerleading. The majority also identified structure, organization, and competition as defining aspects of dance and cheerleading. Almost half of the respondents identified rules and judging criteria as defining elements of dance, and over half identified them as requisite for cheerleading.

Of the respondents, 41 percent agreed that dance could be developed as an emerging sport and 55 percent agreed that cheerleading could. Approximately a third indicated they would like to see dance become a NCAA emerging sport, and nearly half indicated they would like to see cheerleading become a NCAA emerging sport.

Achieving OCR sport recognition and NCAA emerging sport status for competitive dance and cheerleading will require a paradigm shift. Long-standing socio-cultural perceptions must be put aside, and a broadened definition of sports, which values both male and female sport histories, must emerge. Including competitive dance and cheerleading as part of a growing sports participation menu for women and girls does not take away from existing sports participation experiences, but adds to them, allowing women and girls who have chosen to express their athleticism through dance and cheerleading the status, recognition, and benefits of their peers.