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.