Is cheerleading a sport?

In the seminar that I teach that deals with scientific revolutions, one of the difficult questions that we grapple with is how to distinguish science from non-science. In other words, if we have two boxes, one labeled ‘science’ and the other ‘non-science’, can we establish some criteria that will enable us to take any given theory and determine which of the two boxes it should be put into? To be able to do so requires us to establish the existence of both necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be considered science.

If we have only necessary conditions, then any theory that does NOT meet those criteria is definitely not science so it goes into the non-science box. But if it does meet just necessary criteria, all we can say about it is that it may or may not be science. i.e., we do not know which box to put it into. So for example, the commonly accepted idea that scientific theories are materialistic and generate predictions that can be tested are necessary conditions. This is why any theories involving supernatural entities or that are untestable tend to be immediately classified as non-science. But all theories that are materialistic and testable may not be science. For example, the idea that soccer fans are intrinsically rowdier than football fans is not a scientific theory (in the usual sense we use the words) although the methods of scientific investigations (such as statistical analysis and correlations) may be used in seeing if it is in fact a true statement.

Similarly, if we have criteria for sufficiency and a theory meets those criteria, then it goes into the box marked science. But if it does not meet the criteria, it may or may not be science, so again we do not know which box to put it into. As an example, if we say that a theory is science if it has been cited as the reason why its inventors were awarded a Nobel prize, then quantum theory would be scientific without a doubt. But what about the theory of relativity? It has not been cited in Nobel awards so by our rules we cannot definitely say if it is or is not science.

This is why we need BOTH necessary and sufficient conditions to be able to make unambiguous statements that theory A is science while theory B is not science..

One would think that it might be easy to simply make a list of necessary conditions and say that if a theory meets ALL of those necessary conditions, then that is sufficient. But it is not that simple. What complicates things is that any demarcation criterion that tries to distinguish science from non-science would have to be such that all theories that are commonly accepted as science (such as Newton’s laws of motion) would meet the criteria and be included while those that are commonly thought to not be science (say astrology) are excluded. Trying to ensure that existing theories go into the correct boxes is where the difficulty arises because there are always difficult marginal cases.

Finding necessary and sufficient conditions for science has been so difficult that some have declared this problem to be either insoluble or not worth the effort to solve it.

In teaching these somewhat abstract concepts of necessary and scientific conditions, I try to give my students a more down-to-earth parallel by posing to them the question: Is cheerleading a sport? This usually generates a lively discussion and they soon realize that in order to answer this question, they need to arrive at necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes something a sport or non-sport and they quickly discover that it is hard, if not impossible, to do so. And the difficulty is exactly the same as that confronting demarcation criteria for science. While it is possible to make prescriptive lists of conditions for what constitutes a sport, what complicates things is that whatever conditions we arrive at should also be such that things that are commonly accepted as sports (say tennis and soccer) and those that are not (drinking a beer or taking a nap on the couch) fall, using those criteria, into the correct boxes. And there are some tough marginal cases, not just cheerleading. Is chess a sport? Is the card game bridge a sport? (Both have applied to be part of the Olympic games.) How about video games?

It turns out that my classroom discussion question of whether cheerleading is a sport is not a purely academic exercise. It is actually being argued before a federal judge in Connecticut. The reason is that Quinnipiac University has been accused of subverting the requirements of Title IX, the federal legislation that requires colleges to provide some level of equity in support of women’s athletics. The university cut costs by classifying the high-numbers, low-cost, women-dominated cheerleading as a sport, enabling them to eliminate other women’s sports (such a volleyball) that cost more per student. The women’s volleyball team has challenged the university’s classification of cheerleading as a sport and this is what has led to the lawsuit.

In arguing the case, we see the same necessary and sufficient arguments surfacing.

While physical effort and ability are a given for many of the high-level gymnasts who cheer, Title IX has specific criteria for what counts as a sport when it comes to equity in athletics: a program must have a defined season, a governing organization, and feature competition as its primary goal. Competitive cheer is not recognized by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) as a sport. Nor does it have a governing body: two versions of organizations that have filled the role have been associated with Varsity Brands, Inc., a for-profit company that sells cheerleading gear and hosts up to 60 “national championships” a year. To amplify its case that competitive cheer can indeed count as a varsity sport, Quinnipiac has joined with seven other schools to form the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, which is intended to be a new governing body for the sport. Four more schools need to sign on for it to be recognized as a legitimate governing body, and the sport itself to be seen as “emerging.”

It looks like what Title IX has tried to specify are just necessary conditions which, as we have seen, can only definitely say if cheerleading is not a sport. It is not clear if it says that if an activity meets ALL the necessary conditions, then that is sufficient to make it a sport.

Whatever the outcome, Quinnipiac University should be ashamed of itself for trying to subvert the spirit of Title IX and eliminating women’s volleyball.

But what I am really curious about is how the judge is going to arrive at a verdict. Will he be able to specify necessary and sufficient conditions and thus arrive at demarcation criteria, something that has so far eluded my students and me? If so, I will gladly say that you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

POST SCRIPT: Who is an atheist?


  1. Robert Allen says

    The tomato is historically and commonly referred to as a vegetable, even though it is a fruit, so if we required our definitions to accommodate all common conceptions, we’d be stuck with no clear way to define “fruit” and “vegatable.” The answer to this dilemma, and to the cheer-leading dilemma, is to pick a consistent definition, and deal with the fact that historical categorizations are sometimes wrong. I would say a sport has the following necessary characterizations:
    1. competitive, with winners and losers.
    2. demanding at least one of the following: physical strength, endurance, agility, or coordination.
    3. having well-defined rules of play.

    I get hung up on knitting. You could make a sport where you race to knit a scarf or something. It does require manual dexterity and coordination, but I don’t like it being a sport.

  2. Alex says

    The definition of sport is a favorite topic on the Sports Law Blog. I think they have a pretty good definition.

    1) Large motor skills.
    2) Simple machines only.
    3) Objective scoring or at least the possibility of determining a winner by something other than subjective judging.
    4) Competition among contestants.

    Cheerleading is disqualified by #3.

    See more here:

  3. says


    That looks like a good definition to me. #3 is going to be the one people challenge, For example, you may get complaints from divers, gymnasts, and figure skaters who will also be eliminated.

  4. says

    Again, your article gives a very good starter for debate!
    In my opinion, Kuhn developped the most accurate concept of science as a practice. Science involves both sociology and material “criteria”. But those two things are evolving with time : Science doesn’t exist, there are only sciences (founded on the acceptance by a scientific community). Alchemy was a science at the time, just as Astrology could be one in the future, for example if we could observe a direct physical influence of planets upon organisms or upon their relationships.

    About cheerleading and your opposition to Alex: I disagree. Divers, gymnasts and figure skaters also competes, get scores and eliminated. One more criterium could be implied: the acknowledgement of an entitled community to determine what is a sport and what is not.

    Let’s consider thumb wrestling. It involves all of the criteria cited. But it lacks a “social” acknowledgement. If one day this “social” acknowledgement is provided, then thumb wrestling would be a “sport”. Eventually, it’s exactly the same thing with what Thomas Khun says about science!

  5. says


    I wasn’t actually opposing Alex. I thought his criteria were good but that it would eliminate diving, gymnastics, and figure skating. I have no problem with that but others might.

    I do agree with you (and Kuhn) that ultimately we usually end up with a specific group with expertise (the ‘entitled community’ in your words) in the area to make the judgment about what belongs and what does not.

    The catch again is that people may not be willing to give that group the right.

  6. says

    Cheerleading was begun a century ago as a pep league of men who jumped around singing songs to cheer on their college’s football team. These days, it’s morphed into something all its own: cheerleaders spending as much time (if not much more) with national and international tumbling competitions as well as the usual cheering for men’s teams.

  7. says


    Thanks for your answer – I don’t always get 100% of English’s subtilities ;). But then again, I don’t think those disciplines would be eliminated by Alex’s criteria since there are competitions in diving, gymnastics and figure skating. That’s why I was proposing to add an “official acknowledgement” in his criteria… Maybe, in the end, that’s the only thing that can determine what is a sport and what isn’t. That kind of leads us to relativism: sport is just a word, a concept covering various practices, but nothing ontologic or existing by itself. (And, yes, who are these “official institutions or communities” entitled to define something a sport and another activity a simple “physical training”? How are they legitimate? Good questions!)

    Anyway, your analogy between defining of sport and science is excellent: we could go on and on like that for a long time… just the same thing as epistemologists do with defining science!

  8. says


    Yes, searching for demarcation criteria can be difficult if not impossible. The problem with diving, etc. is not the existence of competitions, it is the absence of objective criteria (#3 in Alex’s list). As I understand it, this means that the scores should be determined (for the most part) by measuring instruments (clocks, rulers, etc.) or other measures (like goals) that do not depend on judges. This is not the case in figure skating, where a judge’s verdict is everything.

  9. says


    Your history of cheerleading was interesting. American organized cheerleading was something new to me. In Sri Lanka, at sporting events, a ‘cheerleader’ was usually a spectator who had had a lot to drink and decided to rouse the fans by starting chants. Such persons usually were a source of amusement or annoyance.

  10. Kirth Gersen says

    It would seem that, even with the requirement of objective measures, diving would easily qualify as a sport with some adjustments in the judging methods. For example, the angle at which the diver enters the water could be measured using a camera arrangement, and the height of the splash could be similarly measured. Yes, it would be a pain in the neck, but it would be objective as well.

  11. says


    Are you suggesting that we do away with judges and artistic merit scores entirely? That would serve to satisfy criterion #3 but I wonder if that might make diving quite a different activity from what we have now.

  12. Corey Maley says

    Ah semantics!

    It seems like everything we discuss, ponder, and experience can come down to some linguistic battle over definition and classification. What I’d truly like to ponder is what is the importance of such defining? Is this purely for the sake of legalities? We assume that perfecting terminology will allow for a smooth legal system but is this truly the case or are we just locking ourselves into an endless cycle of linguistic argument that is always at the mercy of rhetoric?

    Still I find always find myself lured by such discussions…I can’t help but to feel they are important from a philosophical perspective.

  13. Robert Allen says

    Gymnastics is not an innately subjective performance. There are pre-defined moves and theoretically there is a “perfect” way or ways to do each one. For example, you could imagine gymnasts being required to wear motion capture suits. A computer could then analyze the relative motion of all limbs and calculate a score based on the degree to which each “move” of a routine matched a predefined template of, say, sticking a landing after a floor routine. The computer could also calculate such factors as smoothness, consistency, and timing.

  14. says


    While I think it may be possible to do video analysis to arrive at scores for diving, gymnastics, figure skating and the like, I wonder what it will do to them Their appeal seems to come from aesthetics and shifting the evaluation to specific movements might change their nature entirely.

    It is kind of like evaluating musicians. I am sure we could do analysis of sound waves to determine which performer came closest to fidelity to some standard, but would it change the way they perform in undesirable ways?

  15. says


    Apart from legal concerns, I think the intellectual appeal of this kind of exercise is that it seems to be so tantalizingly doable. We have the instinct that it should be possible to arrive at criteria that should unambiguously tell us which boxes to put stuff into.

    I think it is part of the pattern seeking behavior that humans are so prone to.

  16. Robert Allen says

    Play-fighting was the evolutionary precursor to sports, so I think a big part of the definition of “sport” has to incorporate the ideas of offense and defense and the zero-sum nature of victory and defeat. Otherwise, all you’re doing is comparing isolated individual performance on some arbitrary physical task, like doing a back flip or hitting a ball into a hole. I think there is a major categorical distinction there that our language should reflect.

  17. Robert Allen says

    Regarding scoring of gymnastics and the like:
    >shifting the evaluation to specific movements might change their nature entirely

    In gymnastics, the scoring is already based on specific moves. For each move, there are also specific agreed upon break-downs for points. For example, if you land with feet apart instead of together, or land and have to bounce once, or bend over too far, you lose points. The subjective component is not categorically different than the subjective component in calling a pitch a strike in baseball. Camera replays are now used to verify certain calls in baseball and football (I think) and it hasn’t adversely affected the fun of the game, or the entertainment for the fans.

  18. Robert Allen says

    I play the violin, and there is a lot more room for personal expression with such an instrument than there is for something like gymnastics. Even so, it is limited in algorithmically describable ways. I might play a piece more playfully than someone else, for example, but if I did so, I would need to be consistent about it, and a computer could grade that, in theory. However, it is up to a human audience to decide if a particular style is appropriate or pleasing in the first place.

  19. says

    I think a lot of this discussion is driven by what old timers like me traditionally consider “sport” and a resistance to flexing with the changing times. If an activity meets all of the terms and conditions set down by title IX and we still don’t agree, the only sensible solution is to accept it or go back to the drawing board and redefine the rules.

  20. says

    Cheer leading can be likened to Sports Aerobics or synchronized swimming, all involving the necessary criteria to be judged a sport but popular in very few countries in the world. I suppose the Olympic committee have the overarching decision of whether something has the right to be determined as a recognized sport.

  21. says


    for me, this post is very interesting, because in Europe, I´m from Austria, we don´t have cheerleaders. I know them from the TV and for me it is a form of sport. It´s naturally not a kind of high-performance sport, but it seems to be a good kind of exercise.

    Greetings from Vienna,


  22. says

    I found this blog to be thought provoking. I’m sure the cheerleaders feel that cheerleading most certainly is a sport. Those people need to be in shape for it, and after a long practice I’m sure they are tired. I am a lifelong horse person and I can’t stand it when someone says that riding is not a sport. I challenge anyone who thinks that to take some lessons (not just go on an easy trail ride). After they are sore for 2 days afterwards they will rethink that one does not use muscles when riding.

  23. says

    Professor –

    I love your approach in teaching a concept by using another point of reference. What seems like difficult, high level theory (science vs non-science) becomes an easily charged debate using another perspective. Brilliant!

    I have found the same is true coaching soccer. In order to teach how to find time and space on a soccer field (abstract), I have the kids play football. Somehow, they easily understand “getting open” for a pass in football, which we are then able to quickly translate into putting the ball on the ground and better utilizing time and space.

    I wish when I was in college I had professors committed to thinking and teaching in unique ways; the learning would have been more effective and more enjoyable.

    The Coach

  24. says

    The word “sport” doesn’t describe anything specific so that’s why it’s so open to interpretation. Really I think anything that requires some sort of skill can be interpreted as a sport. Besides have you ever seen those cheer leading competitions on T.V.? It’s gymnastics, dance choreography, and a circus act all rolled into one.

    There might be different levels of sport, but that would require some specificity. Otherwise it’s like comparing football to rock skimping. Oh yeah, and don’t forget about chess 🙂

  25. says

    I found this blog to be thought provoking. I’m sure the cheerleaders feel that cheerleading most certainly is a sport. Those people need to be in shape for it, and after a long practice I’m sure they are tired.

  26. says

    Indeed, it is very difficult to define science… I’d like to assist one of your course one time! I that, with your examples, it is intersting and quite fun. 🙂

  27. says

    Great article. At first I thought no way is cheerleading a sport as they are on the sidelines like fans, but then they have to try out, can enter competitions and have to practice their routines.
    My conclusion is that cheerleading is an activity, along with dance, Chess is a hobby or pastime and sports would have to come under an olympic or other such sporting body.

  28. says

    This ruling has nothing to do with whether Cheerleading is “a sport,” but whether you can remove an organized and governed athletic competition with on that is not organized or regulated. This is about protecting Title XI requirements not denying the validity of the athleticism of those who perform cheerleading routines. If there’s enough interest, they should add Cheerleading and and another organized competitive athletic activity.

  29. says

    I definitely think its a sport, I was a male cheerleader for a few year in college and it was tough..

    I’ve also played rugby for years and find that for fitness requirements they are close…

  30. says

    Alex made a really good point in his remark about sports laws disqualifying cheerleading (see law #3). But … as Mano said, that would disqualify a bunch of activities that are OBVIOUSLY sports.

    So I say go ahead and call cheerleading a sport!

    It’s funny, I was hearing a talk show debate about this just the other day.

  31. says

    If it’s not a sport, then what is it a game? To me, cheerleading is a team version of gymnastics, which is an olympic sport.

    A debate I’m contantly having with my friends is whether or not golf is considered a sport or game.

  32. says

    Ok Chad, but if you look back up the comments at the Sports Law Blog rules for defining a sport then golf satisfies all of them. Surely the skill developed to be able to perform a repeatable accurate golf swing and the mental toughness and competitive spirit required to perform under the pressure of competition makes this as much a sport as many of the Olympic sports.

  33. says

    I’m with Chad on this. It’s a sport.

    The trick is as Mano says about the science issue …

    You ultimately “need BOTH necessary and sufficient conditions to be able to make unambiguous statements” about sport versus non-sport.

    And I like how he used this as an example about his actual discussion about science.

  34. says

    I am with Donelle. If synchronized swimming is a sport, why not cheerleading?

    I would think that with continued support and passion for competitive cheerleading, it will one day be recognized as a sport.

  35. says

    I am an avid Scuba Diver and for as long as I can remember people have referred to Scuba Diving as a sport. It’s clearly a hobby… Cheerleading competitions on the other hand I think, would qualify as a sport…

  36. says

    Hehe your article gives a very good starter for debate!
    Alex has made an excellent point in his remark about sports laws disqualifying cheerleading (see law #3). But … as Mano said, that would disqualify a bunch of activities that are OBVIOUSLY sports.

    So I say go ahead and call cheerleading a sport!

  37. says

    Without question cheerleading requires a great deal of conditioning and athleticism, but that doesn’t make it a sport anymore than push-ups, sit-ups or squats. Competition is the key in my view as you have to have a winner and a loser, regardless if that victory was the result of being judged to be superior than your competitor.

    Cheerleaders are not in competition with anyone when they root for their team. If cheerleading was a sport, wouldn’t they have cheerleaders rooting them on?

  38. says

    Cheerleading should definetly be considered a sport !!
    Is chess a sport? Is the card game Poker a sport? (Both have applied to be part of the Olympic games.) How about video games?

    Let the higher ups decide ,I will play online poker

  39. says

    Well, definitelly there are points to considered on this matter. Cheerleading takes out stress makes our body healthy, also requires a great deal of conditioning and athleticism. They even have some competition spirit, but some people consider it not a sport because tehre is not a training looking for victory and if there is, some people would consider that a dancing. Well, for me it would not be considered a sport but for sure brings positive aspects for cheerleaders.

  40. says

    I think it’s ridiculous that we’re still asking this question. Of course cheerleading is a sport. Cheerleaders go through the same..if not more…conditioning as other athletes. A better question is “why ISN’T cheerleading considered a sport.”

    Golf is a sport! Maybe cheerleading isn’t considered a sport because they don’t have balls.

  41. says

    Well a science has a definite set of procedures, that when carried out, produce a known and finite result. I do’t think chearleading fits that :-/

  42. says

    I do think cheerleaders are definitely “athletes”. I don’t agree that it is a sport but when looking up the definition on it does fit the definition. Why I don’t think it’s a sport is that there is nothing but subjectivity in relation to whether who wins or loses. That loses the sport definition with me.

  43. says

    My daugther does traveling cheerleading and I can tell you from watching those girls, it takes alot of physical ability and demands a decent degree of fitness and strength. The crazy thing is that they call “poker” and “pro-wrestling” sports. Wouldn’t cheerleading qualify since it requires skill and athletisism, even as much or more as wrestling?