Is Cheerleading A Sport?

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Category: Sports & Law, Wisconsin Law & Legal System, Wisconsin Supreme Court
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Brittany Noffke, a ninth-grade student at Holmen High School, fell while practicing a three-person cheerleading stunt and suffered a severe head injury.  She sued Kevin Bakke, another cheerleader, for alleged negligence in failing to properly spot her during the stunt. Bakke defended on the ground he is immune from negligence liability under Wisconsin Stat. § 895.525(4m)(a).  This statute provides that a participant “in a recreational activity that includes physical contact between persons in a sport involving amateur teams” is liable only for causing injury to another participant by acting “recklessly or with intent to cause injury.”

In Noffke v. Bakke, 308 Wis.2d 410, 748 N.W.2d 195 (Wis. App. 2008), a Wisconsin appellate court held that cheerleading is not a “contact sport” for purposes of this statute.  The court initially assumed, without deciding, that cheerleading is an amateur team sport.  Finding that the statutory  meaning of “physical contact” is ambiguous, the court relied on the title of the statute (“Liability of contact sports participants”) and a dictionary definition of “contact sport” (“any sport that necessarily involves physical contact between opponents”) to define this term.  It concluded that, although “the risks and the athleticism involved in cheerleading are comparable to those in contact sports,” cheerleading is not a “contact sport” because “it does not involve physical contact between opponents.”  Therefore, Wisconsin Stat. § 895.525(4m)(a) does not bar Noffke’s negligence claim against Bakke.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court granted Bakke’s petition to appeal this ruling, and the case is awaiting decision after oral argument last fall.  

An important, potentially dispositive issue, which was not decided by the Court of Appeals, is whether cheerleading is a “sport.”  It is interesting to note that the National Federation of State High School Associations, a national association that coordinates rather than regulates its members’ extracurricular activities for students, lists “spirit,” which encompasses cheerleading, as a sport.  However, cheerleading currently is not recognized as a sport by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association or most other state high school sports governing bodies.  The Wisconsin Court of Appeals assumed that cheerleading is a sport, yet it recognized that competition among opponents is a necessary characteristic of sport (which is perhaps why cheerleading historically has not been considered to be a sport). The Supreme Court’s forthcoming Noffke decision will define the standard for co-participant tort liability arising out of cheerleading injuries in Wisconsin.  It also will decide whether cheerleading currently has the characteristics of a sport (e.g., is it a competitive endeavor?), which has potentially significant future implications regarding how to achieve Title IX gender equity in high school athletics.

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9 Responses to “Is Cheerleading A Sport?”

  1. There are cheerleading competitions — see e.g. here: http://www.cheerwca.com/ . So at least some people consider it a competitive endeavor, although I suspect there are regional variations here.

    Without reading the opinion, I’m intrigued by the decision that “physical contact” is ambiguous. I suspect the intent of the legislature was centered on physical contact between opponents, but “physical contact” does not by itself strike me as ambiguous. This seems like a “no vehicles in the park” type of case.

  2. Howard Wasserman Says:

    But lots of what would (or at least should) be considered “sports” under the statute do not involve direct physical contact with opponents, although there might be contact with an object thrown or hit by an opponent (a pitched or batted baseball, a struck tennis or golf ball). So if a HS tennis player is injured by a negligently struck ball during the match, would the statute apply? It seems to me the legislative intent would be that it would, but is there physical contact?

  3. Howard Wasserman Says:
  4. Aaron Matthews Says:

    I’m not sure, but I believe that in Wisconsin, boys aren’t allowed to participate on teams designated as girls teams. So, if it’s a sport, he shouldn’t have been allowed to be there in the first place.

    There was a case a few years ago where a male wanted to be with the gymnastics team, and his school said okay, but the State Association said that equal rights under Title IX didn’t apply to them, and it was upheld by the courts.

  5. Three points:

    1 – I’m so surprised this is the first case encountering this controversy. It has been 15 to 20 years since the “cheerleading” role has evolved to represent the sport-within-a-sport activity. This is made clear as no longer do words of the cheers directly correlate with the direct need on the field or court (i.e., “push’em back, push’em back, way back”[fb] or “take-it away”[bb]), nor are the vocal cheers responded to by a “pep club” as in earlier years. Instead, we see short acrobatic stunts, choreographed dance routines which implement some of the old NCA (National Cheerleading Assn.) concepts, but with much more in the way of jazz, modern dance steps (some frankly with more sexually suggestive motion than belong in any school district), and not to leave out much emphasis in gymnastic floor and climbing acts. These characteristics are what give them a sense of clout and respect, in a way, today, as many are very, very good at what they do.

    2 – If cheerleading is not a sport today, then I am shocked school districts have not been forced to eliminate either the title/name of “cheerleader” (because that title is really no longer appropriate), or the venue in which they perform.

    3 – I suggest you contact school district after school district, and find out what kind of rules and regulations they have been utilizing. The liability factor is huge today, and it is absurd to imagine that the education system lacks clarification on this topic.

    4 – Last comment: Even though I may sound negative on the cheerleader, I must give credit to local supporters and parents of cheerleaders. Some school districts have several squads that rotate among the traditional sports, making a connection with all teams from 9th to 12th grades. I have witnessed an acceptance of sizes and varying capabilities academically and physically that represent a non-discriminating stance toward the sport. I have to recognize that many students that would not otherwise be involved in anything are encouraged to belong and become a part of this “movement”.

    I tried to look up any articles on the injured girl to see what the extent of her injury was, and the nearest explanation was a cliche phrase to be found at the tail end of any physician’s bio . . . (roughly) that “her quality of life is not what it should be”. Also, it was not mentioned whether the boy was being intentionally careless or vicious in the action, or non-action as the case may be.
    Even without those two features explained, it is shocking to me that a Supreme Court case has fallen short of clarity due to the lack of an appropriate definition for cheerleading within our public schools. Ultimately, rather than stew over inappropriate or inept regulations, we must be able to see our present failure and get our books in order. IF LAWS DO NOT SERVE PURPOSES WITH TRUE INTENT AND INTEGRITY, THEN CHANGE THEM.

  6. The Supreme Court has issued its answer: cheerleading is a contact sport.

    http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2009/01/27/no-no-says-wisc-high-court-cheerleading-is-a-contact-sport/

  7. Ms. Pruss,

    Here is an article about Ms. Noffke’s injuries.

    http://www.courierlifenews.com/articles/2009/01/29/thisjustin/09acheerleader.txt

  8. I understand the ambiguity regarding whether or not cheerleading should be deemed a contact sport, but this decision at least clarifies the matter.

    We are the ones that are going to have to change our perception of just what constitutes a sport, and that contact in sport does not equate to collisions only, as in football.

    My heart goes out to the young lady who was injured, however.

  9. Tina Kropelin Says:

    I am the mother of Brittany Noffke. This case has become so far blown out of proportion. It was never our (my family’s) intention to “go after Kevin Bakke” as some have said. The whole intent of this lawsuit was to force stricter guidelines for safety and to ensure that there was an emergency protocol in place and that it was practiced and followed each and every time.

    When Brittany had her accident, she came crashing to the floor from approximately 10 feet in the air. She was bleeding from her head (which would certainly indicate a head injury) and the trainer and coach got her up and moved her to a chair. What really upsets me in this is that knowing full well that there was at the minimum some sort of head trauma, and not knowing if there was back or neck injuries, the first thing they should have done was to call 911, do not move victim! If this would have been a football player injured with suspected head or neck injury that is exactly how that athlete would have been treated. This was not a frivolous lawsuit as some have claimed. It was our way of trying force uniform standards in athlete safety.

    Sorry to rant, but I just wanted the facts to be represented accurately.

    Thank you

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