Competitive cheerleading is a sport still in its infancy. In the words of federal district judge Stefan Underhill, in a 2010 court decision, "The activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.” But his ruling had more to do with lack of upper-level organization than with athleticism per se. The days of pompoms and hand claps are long over.
There is no question that competitive cheerleading is a physically demanding sport. Teams incorporate elements of dance, tumbling and gymnastics to create performance routines. "Stunting" is a particular cheerleading activity that involves cheerleaders sitting, standing or squatting on others, such as in pyramids and basket tosses. These performance elements require strength, stamina, balance and timing, all clear athletic qualities. An example of the required athletic ability can be seen at the University of Alabama: all cheerleaders, at the very minimum, must to be able to do a standing back handspring and a standing back tuck, which is a flip with no hands.
In order to gain and maintain those athletic qualities, a competitive cheerleader must train as hard as any other athlete. Collegiate-level cheerleaders report spending as much time practicing as their peers in other varsity sports. In addition to attending cheer practice to practice stunting, tumbling, and dancing, cheerleaders must also weight lift and work out several times a week. University of Kentucky cheerleader Maurice Grant, who also played football and ran track in high school, told the "Kentucky Kernel" "I think (cheerleading) is definitely a sport. You work just as hard as anyone else."
Competitive cheerleading is directed by a coach, much as other team sports are directed by a coach or coaching staff. The coach will direct the routines, supervise training and motivate her charges to compete at their highest level. Coaches are trained not only in supervising stunting but in safety as well. Some coaches are highly sought-after; the University of Oregon's Felecia Mulkey, for example, was recruited after a nationwide search.
For an activity to truly be considered a sport, it must involve competition against others. In competitive cheerleading, squads compete against each other in a head-to-head fashion and are evaluated according to a standardized set of rules. This point is the real bone of contention when it comes to questions about cheerleading as a sport. Many squads still primarily exist to support other sports teams. Moreover, there is no one overarching governing body or set of rules for the sport of cheerleading; instead there are several independent organizations that sponsor their own championship tournament. Nonetheless, members of each of these organizations do compete against each other in scheduled, organized matches, just as in other sports.