TAMPA — On the surface, cheerleading and football seem naturally bonded.
Touchdowns and cheers go together like quarterbacks and the pom squad.
A gender equity group doesn't think so, not when the Florida High School Athletic Association wants to call football and cheerleading equal sports.
The clash began in April after football and cheerleading were exempt from FHSAA scheduling cuts, which the FHSAA thought would comply with Title IX. But Florida Parents for Athletic Equity argued there were far fewer cheerleading competitions and competitors, thus disparate treatment.
Numbers released Thursday by the FHSAA show opportunities for girls (5,522 for cheerleading) were far fewer than those for boys (40,456 for football). Eight girls played football in 2008, an increase from three the previous year. Meanwhile, 115 boys participated in cheerleading, which fell by almost half from the previous year.
"I have no idea why they (FHSAA) picked cheerleading," said Leslie Goller, a member of the legal team representing the parents group. "Someone gave them bad advice or no advice. The numbers don't add up.
"Cheerleading can be a sport. The problem is the way it's treated in Florida it can't function as a sport."
Varsity football is a sanctioned sport and considered by many to be a revenue trough to nourish other programs. Cheerleading is a recognized sport, which basically means less regulation.
FHSAA spokeswoman Cristina Alvarez wrote in an e-mail that the plan for cheerleading in the next few years "is to have 'playoffs' just like the other sports (regional semis, quarters and finals)."
The only true competition for cheerleading now is the state championship. In Hillsborough County, cheerleaders also have a conference competition. Additional competitions must be approved by the county and the FHSAA.
Fighting for more chances to be heard
The FHSAA season begins in the fall with sideline cheering at football games. None of those events is competitive, but squads get coveted practice time. Teams become eligible for the state competition by participating in four sideline events.
After football season, focus turns toward practicing competitive routines for conference and state.
In comparison, football teams get 10 regular-season contests plus as many as five postseason games. They also get a preseason game and spring jamborees.
And in some counties such as Hillsborough, there's a participation disparity between football and volleyball making those sports incomparable. Varsity cheerleading squads are limited to 20 athletes to dress and just 12 for JV. Varsity and JV football teams can dress 60 athletes each per contest. Counties across the state vary participation, including some with no limitations on participation.
"We don't have as many opportunities to compete," Bloomingdale coach Tracy DiPrima said. "And what we do outside of state we pay for out of pocket through fundraising. … Football gets to play 10 games and the playoffs. Cheerleading is on the sidelines, but that's not competitive. We go right into state without having those other games."
DiPrima said the state is on track with plans to implement a true postseason system. But adding regular-season contests would be difficult because of the demands on cheerleaders.
From September through February, most squads participate in sideline events such as basketball, which can sometimes be three nights a week. And the state competition is in February.
"I think adding those qualifying rounds in would definitely help," DiPrima said. "It takes so long to put a routine together to the competitive point. It's not like they'd be ready to perform in October. They would have to push it (state) to a date where they could fulfill their school duties and compete."
Few fans of state contest format
After just two seasons, the state competition has been criticized for everything from how it scores meets to its inclusion of basically every team.
Comparatively, all-star cheerleading at private clubs across the state is privately funded and involves more than 10 competitions throughout the fall and winter months. Teams can basically attend any competition they choose except Worlds, for which teams must qualify.
"Every year it's getting a little bit better, but the way that they run it and the places they have it don't compare to a state competition that's run by just a regular cheerleading organization," Indian Rocks Christian coach Christina Bohler said. "In their defense, they don't really know what they're doing. … I'm excited that we have it, but it has to grow. They have to learn how to run it the way you would run state for football or basketball."
In an emergency meeting Wednesday, FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing will ask board members to rescind the two-year change in scheduling policy.
Regardless of that vote, the equity fight will move to a Jacksonville federal courtroom Friday, and a judge will rule on the parents group's injunction request. The group plans to follow through to ensure the schedules return to last year's allotment. If granted, schools could begin scheduling additional games immediately. The FHSAA has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that members of the parents group filed.
"Even if they treated cheerleading as a true sport as they should do … and had competitions during the season, the numbers aren't enough to have disparate treatment," Goller said. "The FHSAA took nine months to determine what color a referee's hat should be. It took forever. Yet, something as momentous as cutting sports for kids was done in a two-month period."
Izzy Gould can be reached at [email protected]