On a Friday night in February, 2,000 fans start filing into the University of Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena for a cheerleading contest. But if you are expecting pom-poms and megaphone yells, this is not your event. These are female athletes, not sideline supporters. At least that's what they want the NCAA to acknowledge, and there are legal implications for all college athletic programs. The new event is called acro, as in acrobatics and tumbling, and even if it has roots in traditional rah-rah cheerleading, its organizers have rebranded it to shield it from stereotypes like makeup and bare midriffs. Acro teams keep the more athletic aspects of cheerleading--the tosses, the pyramids--and ditch the go-team-go stuff. The cheers are for them, not by them.
Three schools--the University of Oregon, Azusa Pacific University and Quinnipiac University--are here to compete head to head to head. Judges score the event and pick a winner after the acro teams complete a series of gymnastics-like twists, tucks and dismounts.
With its dedicated teams, competitive format and de-emphasis of traditional measures of cheerleading success, acrobatics and tumbling, which is finishing just its second season on the college level, can comfortably call itself a women's sport. Still, acro exists on the fringe of college athletics: the three schools at the Oregon meet account for half the nation's college acro teams.
The fledgling sport's size, however, belies its importance, given that acro has reignited the debate about equal access to college athletic teams decreed by Title IX, the landmark gender-equity law celebrating its 40th anniversary this June. If acrobatics and tumbling and another new sport with roots in cheerleading called stunt can be recognized under Title IX, these new forms of competitive cheer may explode as a college sport.
Since 1972, Title IX has spawned great progress for women's athletics. Still, women don't enjoy equal access to athletic opportunities: 252,946 men competed in NCAA sports on all levels in 2011, compared with 191,131 women. If cash-crunched athletic departments want to create additional opportunities for women, acro and stunt would seem to be an easy choice. All you really need is a mat.
It won't be quite that easy, given that acro and stunt can't agree on a set of rules and the courts have not fully endorsed them as Title IX sports. To make the push for Title IX recognition, Oregon joined forces with five other schools, renamed competitive cheer "acrobatics and tumbling" and aligned itself with USA Gymnastics. The governing body for cheerleading, USA Cheer, created stunt and has signed up 22 schools.
Acro is clearly more formalized. In the six acro schools, the sport is run out of the athletic department as a varsity sport. Acro is a full-time obligation. At this point, most stunt athletes are sideline cheerleaders who compete, on average, in just three regular-season stunt events. (ESPN occasionally televises a more traditional competitive-cheer event that involves the rah-rah routines.) "We're sideline cheerleaders first, competitive cheerleaders second," says Kristen Pirie, a cheerleader and stunt athlete at Georgia Southern University. In competition, one major difference between the two cheer versions is that stunt teams perform side by side, while acro teams perform sequentially.