Remember when high school and college cheerleaders dressed in short skirts used to stand on the sidelines of sporting events, waving their pom poms and shouting words of encouragement?

Those were your mothers’ cheerleaders.

Today’s cheerleading squad is more likely to include gymnasts who can execute a series of tumbling moves across a gymnasium floor and throw a team member high into the air.

That’s what the cheerleading squad from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring did at a recent competitive cheer competition. A group of cheerleaders lifted another squad member and tossed her several feet straight up, where she executed a toe-touch, stretching her legs into a near mid-air split to reach her outstretched fingers. Then the girl leaned back into a prone position and fell into the waiting arms of her teammates.

As a crowd cheered, the team moved into a series of choreographed dance steps including cartwheels, handsprings and other tumbling.

Amazing feats of athleticism, but is this a sport? Should it be?

That’s the question that two groups are asking the National Collegiate Athletic Association to decide. The National Collegiate Athletics and Tumbling Association and USA Cheer want the association to recognize “competitive cheer”—a more athletic version of cheerleading—as an “emerging sport” for women, according to a recent New York Times story.

“The implications go beyond giving cheerleading a stamp of legitimacy. If this more athletic form of cheerleading—technically known as competitive cheer—evolves into a sport with rigorous competitions and standards, college athletics programs will be able to count the new teams for the purposes of complying with Title IX, the federal law banning gender discrimination in education,” the story says.

The groups were spurred to push for an N.C.C.A. decision after a federal judge ruled last July that competitive cheerleading is not an official sport that colleges can use to meet the federal law’s gender equity requirements. That decision came in a case against Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., which was sued by members of its volleyball team and their coach. The team was protesting the university’s decision to replace it with a competitive cheer squad for budgetary reasons.

So does Montgomery County Public Schools consider cheerleading to be a sport?

That’s a “loaded question,” says Dr. William “Duke” Beattie, director of system-wide athletics for MCPS.

Beattie notes that federal law does not allow MCPS to technically classify cheerleading as a female sport like it would classify football as a male sport.

That’s because, before Title Nine was passed in 1972, schools used to count their traditional cheerleading squads as equal to, say, boys soccer, to show that they were supposedly providing athletic opportunities for girls. But even though MCPS can’t technically call cheerleading a sport, Beattie says that the school system recognizes the athleticism of cheerleading squads and pays their coaches as it does for other sports.

“In Montgomery County, we consider they’re a sport because we count them as a sport as far as gender equity goes,” he says. “Cheerleading is one of the very important opportunities that we offer in school athletics. We have treated it the same as other athletics.”

At Blair High School, Roxanne Fus, co-coach of the cheerleading squad, says the coaches would like cheerleading to be considered an official sport. “We don’t like that it isn’t a sport. We exert as much energy as most sports,” she says.

But there is one advantage. The cheer squad is not bound by MCPS sports rules to wait until August to hold tryouts, which would leave little time to learn cheers and have uniforms made before fall sports begin, she says. Team tryout are held in May and the team practices until school ends. This year, 67 students, including a half-dozen boys, tried out for a handful of open spots on the team of 30 or so.

Blair team captain Sally Barth has no doubt that her squad’s routines, which include numerous stunts, should qualify as a sport like any other.

“I feel like it’s a sport if it’s competitive cheerleading,” she says. “If you’re just standing on the sides cheering, it’s not a sport.”

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com