Several volleyball players and their coach had sued Quinnipiac University after it announced in March 2009 that it would eliminate the team for budgetary reasons and replace it with a competitive cheer squad.
The school contended the cheer squad and other moves kept it in compliance with Title IX, the 1972 federal law that mandates equal opportunities for men and women in education and athletics. But U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill disagreed in a ruling that those involved say was the first time the cheerleading issue has been decided by a judge.
"Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX," Underhill wrote. "Today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students."
Quinnipiac has 60 days to come up with a plan to keep the volleyball team through next season and comply with gender rules.
"The athletes all look forward to getting back on the volleyball court for preseason in three weeks," coach Robin Sparks said. "As their coach, I feel fortunate to be able to work with such strong young women who are not afraid to stand up for their principles. It will be a joy to be back in the gym with them this fall."
School officials responded to the ruling by saying they would start a women's rugby team, but they refused to answer any questions, discuss the future of other athletic teams or say whether they would continue offering scholarships to competitive cheerleaders.
An activity can be considered a sport under Title IX if it meets specific criteria. It must have coaches, practices, competitions during a defined season and a governing organization. The activity also must have competition as its primary goal - not merely the support of other athletic teams.
Quinnipiac and seven other schools recently formed a governing body, the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, to govern and develop competitive cheer as a college sport.
Previously, competitive cheerleading championships were put on by two private organizations with ties to Varsity Brands Inc., which makes cheerleading apparel and runs camps.
Bill Seely, the executive director of USA Cheer, a national governing body for both sideline and competitive cheerleading, said he believes the ruling represents only a minor setback for the efforts to make cheer an intercollegiate sport.
"It's an opportunity to look at what hasn't worked and find what will work, so we are creating more opportunities for young women and not affecting other female sports," he said. "It's an opportunity to tweak some things."
During the weeklong trial last month, Quinnipiac had argued that if it could not count competitive cheerleading as a sport it might be forced to shut the program down, eliminating 36 positions on the squad.
Quinnipiac spokeswoman Lynn Bushnell said the school was disappointed its cheer team will lose varsity status.
"We will continue to press for competitive cheer to become an officially recognized varsity sport in the future," Bushnell said in a statement. "Consistent with our long-standing plans to expand opportunities in women's athletics, the university intends to add women's rugby as a varsity sport beginning in the 2011-2012 academic year."
The cheerleading issue was one of several Underhill was asked to decide as he considered whether the school had improperly manipulated it rosters.
He also found the school was underreporting the participation opportunities for its male athletes and overstating the opportunities for women.
Evidence presented to support an injunction a year ago showed the men's baseball and lacrosse teams would drop players before reporting data to the Department of Education and reinstate them after the reports were submitted. Conversely, the women's softball team would add players before the reporting date, knowing the additional players would not be on the team in the spring.
School officials have said any improper manipulation of the rosters has stopped. Underhill said things have gotten better, but the school "is still continuing to deflate the size of its men's rosters and inflate the size of it's women's rosters."
Underhill also agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that female runners who participate on school's indoor, outdoor and cross country track teams should be counted just once for Title IX purposes. The men have just a cross country team.
He said the women's indoor and outdoor track teams were "in essence, an adjunct of the cross-country team."
The judge had made the case a class action for all female athletes at the school, and the plaintiffs attorneys said it would have an impact far beyond Quinnipiac.
"This is a victory not only for the student athletes and their coach, but for women's collegiate sports generally," attorney Jon Orleans said. "We look forward to discussing with Quinnipiac its plan for compliance with the court's ruling."
Shawn Ladda, the president of the National Association of Girls and Women in Sports, said the ruling should send a message to schools across the nation that Title IX is not about matching numbers on a tally sheet.
"It's about the spirit of the law and it's about providing real opportunities for women," she said. "Fairness is fairness and manipulating numbers is not going to be tolerated. We need more decisions like this to push institutions to do the right thing."