John Chidley A blog about reading, writing, pop culture and sports.


What’s in a sport?

Bring It On: All or NothingLast week an old chestnut of an argument reared its head when a judge ruled that according to NCAA and Title IX rules competitive cheerleading is not a sport.

Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut had cancelled their women’s volleyball program in favour of the seemingly more lucrative cheerleading team.  The volleyball team’s coach sued on the grounds that cheerleading doesn’t meet NCAA rules or the Title IX law.

Using those standards the judge ruled that volleyball is more of a sport than its peppy replacement.

Almost immediately there was an outcry from the cheerleading community, crying foul and defending the honour of their beloved athletic pursuit. This brings us to that previously mentioned chestnut: what constitutes a sport?

Hampton Stevens wrote a well-considered response to the debate for the Atlantic’s website today. He argues that cheerleading is not a sport because the winners are decided by a subjective judging system.

In Stevens’ mind there are three qualities to a sport:

  1. People compete at it.
  2. Computers can't do it.
  3. Aesthetics don't count.

He cites examples too. Chess is not a sport because computers can play it. Croquet is a sport though, because there is a clear objective measure of the winner.

I agree with Stevens in principle. In fact, a source of much acrimony in my household this winter was my ongoing criticism of several of the “non-sports” at the Vancouver Olympics.

Like Stevens, I place a great deal of importance on the objectivity of the activity. As soon as judges are holding up signs with scores, I lose interest. However, even I can see a glaring omission in Stevens’ argument: boxing and other combat sports regularly go to a judges’ decision.

If there’s a close match, the judges have to decide the bout based on who dominated the fight, particularly which boxer landed the most head shots on their opponent. In other words, they have to decide how well each pugilist boxed. They have to judge the match on the aesthetics of each fighter’s strategy and style.

Judges miss landed blows and there’s often some interpretation of what is and isn’t a head shot. Also, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought boxing judges were not corrupt or biased.

I’m not saying that boxing is as subjective as cheerleading or figure skating, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that all sports have a certain aesthetic aspect to them – even in the most cut-and-dry sports like sprinting judging can play a significant role in false starts and photo finishes.

That said, Stevens and the Connecticut judge are both right: cheerleading is far too subjective to be considered a sport.

Twitter buzz - While writing this article I posed the question to my Twitter followers:

@jchidleyhill Is cheerleading a sport? What constitutes a sport?

I got a few responses from my followers, including:

@rubedawg83 - Competition based on participants using BOTH physical and mental tools. Cheerleading - Yes, Chess & Fishing – No

@ToryBachmann - [...] Yes cheerleading is a sport

@Novinarwriting - Hmm Hard to take 'sports' shows like pool/darts/poker seriously

@twharry - Any sort of athletic activity where you can legitimately pull a groin while competing is a sport.