By John Celock
A New Jersey Senate committee voted Thursday to advance legislation that would establish cheerleading as an interscholastic sport in the state, over the objections of the group that regulates school sports.
The Senate Education Committee voted 4-1 to approve a bill that would mandate that cheerleading be considered an interscholastic sport under the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, along with mandating new safety requirements for gyms with cheerleaders as members. The committee action came over the objections of the NJSIAA, which said they would prefer cheerleading be made a sport through their member driven process rather than by legislative decree.
“At first blush we don’t believe it is not consistent with the state constitution. It gives a certain org by name powers and we believe that is a violation of Article IV. We believe that can be overcome,” NJSIAA legislative affairs special counsel Paul Anzano told the committee. “We currently have a mechanism where the organization can review a sport or activity on whether it warrants regulation by the NJSSIA. We have never had a mandate from the Legislature to provide a certain sport.”
Anzano said that the organization believes they can work with the Legislature on the bill but would prefer to stick with their own administrative process. He said that the NJSIAA has not received any petition to make cheerleading a sport in the state.
Under questioning from the committee, Anzano said that other states have designated cheerleading as a sport but said it was done under the process used by the state’s interscholastic sports association and not through state law. Anzano stressed the group is only interested in the process not the policy.
“We are not opposed to making cheerleading a sport,” he said.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) said that cheerleading needs to be made a sport in order to address the issues of concussions and other injuries that have come up in terms of cheerleaders. The bill contains provisions for the drafting of concussion prevention guidelines and training for cheerleading coaches and programs in the state, along with other high school sports. In addition the bill would mandate that any health club that has six or more cheerleaders as members have a safety harness installed for the use of the cheerleaders.
The New Jersey Legislature has been focused on concussion prevention in recent months. Earlier this year the state Assembly Women and Children Committee passed a series of concussion prevention bills.
“It is becoming a sport that requires a great degree of skillset,” Ruiz said on Thursday.
The New Jersey cheerleading bill is sponsored by Sen. Brian Stack (D-Union City) in the Senate. Stack did not present testimony to the committee on Thursday. The bill is supported by the New Jersey Supervisors and Principals Association and other education related groups.
Sen. Diane Allen (R-Edgewater Park Township) told the committee about her recent trip to Topeka, Kan. where she toured sites surrounding the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. She said that her trip to Kansas led to her becoming more committed to equality and noted that the cheerleading bill is in line with equality issues.
Allen said that she favors the bill and that she wants to see more respect given to cheerleaders. She called on the NJSIAA to take a “positive approach” to the bill, but noted that there are some items that needed to be addressed in the legislation.
“For a long time cheerleaders were looked down upon,” Allen said. “In many cases they are in much better physical shape than those they are cheering for.”
Allen also said that she wants to see cheerleading competitions being developed in New Jersey as part of the sports designation.
Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Washington Township), the only senator to vote no in the committee, said that he does not believe there was any “degrading” of cheerleaders when he was in high school in the 1970s. Doherty, one of the most conservative senators in New Jersey, said that he does not believe the bill should be taken up as a legislative issue but rather through the NJSIAA.
“Cheerleaders were not looked down upon,” he said. “I played a lot of basketball and the cheerleaders were great. They were in the programs. You had the pictures of the basketball players and pictures of the cheerleaders and that was nice to look at.”
Sen. Jim Beach (D-Voorhees Township), a former high school athletic coach, spoke in favor of the bill noting that from his background he believes it is a sport.
“Being a high school coach for a number of years, I can assure you cheerleading is a high school sport,” he said.