COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Cheerleading is now a varsity sport at the University of Maryland, a move critics say is designed to sidestep federal sex discrimination law.
The university and the federal Office of Civil Rights say it is the first instance of a school seeking to use cheerleading scholarships to comply with Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting sex discrimination by any school that receives federal money.
Four cheerleaders now receive partial scholarships, and a total of 12 cheerleading scholarships are to be phased in within three years. Cheerleaders on scholarship will attend cheering competitions, but will not perform at games.
Critics say the move is intended to skirt the law so Maryland can increase funding for men's programs. Title IX calls on schools to make their percentage of female athletes proportionate to female enrollment, or to demonstrate that they are meeting demand for women's sports programs.
"It seems like they're looking for the easiest way out, that their intent is to conform to the letter of the law, but not necessarily the spirit," said Donna Lopiano, chief executive of the Women's Sports Foundation.
Cheerleading is not recognized as a sport by the NCAA, and the Department of Education says cheerleaders who perform at other teams' events cannot be considered members of athletic programs for the purpose of complying with Title IX.
Lopiano questioned the university's choice of cheerleading when Maryland club teams have sought varsity status, but Lipitz said cheerleading and water polo, which was granted eight scholarships, were the only teams that sought the status this year.