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Supreme Court: Cheerleading is a contact sport

People love to argue about sports. And lacking something really important to argue about, like a Bears-Packers game, they may turn to more trivial issues. Like whether auto racing is a sport, or just gearheads making a lot of left turns. Or whether snowboarding a real sport, or just hippies playing in the snow.

But if a Wisconsin Supreme Court opinion is to be considered binding precedent for purposes of trivial arguments between friends, those arguments are moot.

On Jan. 27, the Supreme Court held that cheerleading is not only a sport, but a “contact sport,” within the meaning of the state’s recreational immunity statute.

As a result, a high school cheerleader who was allegedly negligent while performing a stunt and the school district are immune from liability for injuries sustained by a fellow cheerleader who was injured as a result of the negligence.

James S. Naugler, of Moen Sheehan Meyer Ltd. in La Crosse, who represented the defendant, hailed the ruling.

“This will allow children to participate in cheerleading without fear of being sued for simple negligence,” Naugler said. “The fact is, cheerleading is a highly dangerous sport, involving tossing bodies in the air over a hard surface, not just pompoms.”

Cheerleading Injury

In 2004, Brittany Noffke fell while practicing a cheerleading stunt without any floor mats. She sued a fellow cheerleader, Kevin Bakke, for not properly spotting her. She also sued the school district, alleging that the coach was negligent by failing to provide a second spotter, and failing to require the use of mats.

The circuit court granted summary judgment to Bakke and the school district, based on recreational immunity, and governmental immunity grounds, respectively.

The Court of Appeals affirmed as to the school district, but reversed as to Bakke, holding that cheerleading is not a contact sport. 2008 WI App 38, 308 Wis.2d 410, 748 N.W.2d 195.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court granted review, and reversed in part, in an opinion by Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler, holding that cheerleading is a contact sport.
The statute at issue, Section 895.525(2), broadly defines “recreational activity” to include many enumerated activities and also “any other sport.”

Subsection (4m)(a) grants immunity to participants in a “recreational activity that includes physical contact between persons in a sport involving amateur teams” unless the participant acted recklessly or with intent to cause injury.

The court found four elements necessary for a defendant to obtain the benefit of immunity: (1) participation in a recreational activity; (2) the recreational activity must include physical contact between persons; (3) the persons must be participating in a sport; and (4) the sport must involve amateur teams.

The parties did not dispute that cheerleading is a recreational activity, but Noffke argued it is not a contact sport involving competitive teams, and thus, was not covered by the statute.

Defining a Sport

Citing general dictionaries, however, the court held that cheerleading is a sport, because it is “An activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs.”

It also held that cheerleaders are members of amateur teams, because a team is “A group organized to work together.”

Finally, it held that cheerleading involves a significant amount of physical contact between participants.

Noffke argued that “physical contact” implicitly means contact between players on opposing teams, but the court disagreed.

The court found that implicit condition contrary to the plain language of the statute.
In addition, the court noted that such an interpretation would deny immunity when a football team practices, and is not in competition with another team, and would only permit immunity for conduct during a game.

“Perhaps such inconsistent applications could be why the legislature specifically chose not to insert a competition requirement into this statute,” Justice Ziegler wrote.

Successful Argument

Naugler agreed the language of the statute dictated the result. The Court of Appeals had held that cheerleading was not a “contact sport,” because dictionary definitions of that term expressly limit its application to sports “between opponents.” 748 N.W.2d at 200.
However, Naugler successfully argued to the court that subsec. (4m)(a) itself provided the definition for “contact sport,” so the dictionary definitions do not apply.

Turning to the liability of the school district, the court held that the cheerleading coach violated no ministerial duties, and thus is immune from liability pursuant to sec. 893.80(4).

Concurrence

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson wrote a concurrence joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, taking issue with the lead opinion’s method of analysis.

Quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Abrahamson quipped that resorting to dictionaries to define terms can be “the equivalent of entering a crowded cocktail party and looking over the heads of the guests for one’s friends.”

Abrahamson cited a definition of “sport” that included the language “often undertaken competitively,” and a definition of team that included, “as in a game.” These definitions, Abrahamson found, plainly imply that competition is an implicit characteristic of team sports.

“Just this last September, a Washington Post article stated that ‘cheerleading is not officially considered a sport at most high schools and universities’ and that ‘cheerleading in most states is not considered a sport; it’s an “activity” such as chess club and debating,’” Abrahamson wrote. “It would be very odd if the high schools, universities, and states that do not consider cheerleading a sport could discover the error of their ways simply by consulting a dictionary.”

Nevertheless, because it would further the purpose of the recreational immunity statute to include cheerleading as a contact sport, Abrahamson concurred in the result.
Naugler also agreed with the concurring justices’ discussion of statutory purpose: “The overall goal and policy is that we want people to be able to participate in recreational amateur sports and assume the risk for simple negligence, while still allowing a cause of action against ‘thugs’ who act recklessly or intentionally.”

Left unresolved in the opinion is whether it will apply to sports in which contact is not an integral part of the sport, but which nevertheless involve risk of contact.

The court wrote, “We encourage the legislature to … consider our interpretation … and how the statute may apply to such school team sports as golf, swimming, or tennis.”
River Falls attorney Tracy N. Tool, who represented Noffke, said the decision could apply to sports such as swimming and skiing.

“Even though they are not traditional ‘contact sports,’ they could be included if there is an inherent risk of contact,” Tool said.

12 comments

  1. cheerleading is a contact sport just ask the girls who are the ones lifting

  2. my friends in school say that cheerleading is not a sport I am a cheerleader.It is really cool

  3. Cheerleading is totally a sport and anyone who says it’s not, I dare you to go out in front of a big group of people with a couple of friends and try to do the things that we do! That’s right I’m a cheerleader and proud of it! Go Warriors!

  4. to all those who do not think cheerleading is not only a sport but a difficult one, i would like to see them perfect stunting tumbling, dancing, yelling running, sqeezing every muscle in your body, and let alone breathing while doing all of these things for two and a half minutes straight with no stopping all while a smile on your face and in sync with others on a competition floor

  5. Just because your in front of a croud doesn’t make cheerleading a sport. Cheerleading is an activity that you do to help the crowd during a sport. I like to think of it as the same thing as marching band. both have talented players both have try outs and both put a lot of time into rehearsal. So I think cherleading is definatly not a sport

  6. College Cheerleader

    Cheerleading, does in fact, fall under the definition of a sport. I made the National Cheerleading Association team. As a matter a fact, cheerleaders DO get paid to do their sport, just as any other athlete does. Let me put a football player in a cheerleaders position. I do not think that they would be able to accomplish much of what cheerleaders do. Same goes for other athetes who feel that cheerleading isn’t a sport. So, for those of you who think cheerleading shouldn’t be considered a sport, take yourself to cheer practice and try it out, then tell us what you think!

  7. allstar cheerleader

    first of all, cheerleading is NOT cheerleading at football games. it is competition. and not even just school teams. Have you ever heard of All-Star Cheerleading? watch it. because i’m pretty sure you do not even speak in it. You compete for yourself and not to cheer on another sport or team because you ARE the team.

  8. cheerleading is a sport! everyone argues about how it is and isn’t, i would say it is a sport. i am a cheerleader and have been since i was four and i think that it is one of the hardest sports i’ve ever done. it’s just as hard as football and other sports.

  9. I agree that cheerleaing is a sport because it involves athleticism, skill, and above all else judging at competition. It is as much a sport as gymnastics and synchronized swimming. In facmore of a sport than say bowling or riflery which involve no athleticism but much skill.
    Now all you cheerleaders need to calm down with the “let’s see you do what we do” comments. You have worked hard to perfect your skill as have football players, wrestlers, soccer players and volleyball players to name a few. The comment is an ad hominem argument and solves nothing. The same could be said to you, let’s see you try a wrestling practice, or compete in a match for 6 minutes while attempting to control your opponent who is attempting to control you.

  10. just because i cant do it doesnt make it a sport. if cheerleading is a sport than the circus is a sport and its not.

  11. contact sports are when your hitting the other not your own team. im not against cheerleading at all just dont call it a sport

  12. I have been a cheerleader for 7 years and the definition of a sport is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment” so i believe that cheerleading is a sport and also the definition of a contact sport is “any sport in which physical contact between players is an accepted part of play” and the amount of times iv been hit have been to many times to count and i have seen many girls on teams get many injuries so please stop telling my my sport is not a sport because if cheerleading is not a sport than football or basketball is not a sport. have a good day.

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