Two Sides: Athlete ID

CheerProfessional explores both sides of the debate on the USASF’s Athlete ID verification and membership system.

With the USASF’s implementation of Athlete ID, this year marks the first season that gym owners can print and present a verified roster at USASF-sanctioned events rather than having to show birth certificates as proof of age. Along with the aim of deterring cheating and falsification of athletes’ ages, the new system is also geared at simplifying the registration process.

Yet not all gym owners are on board with Athlete ID—for reasons ranging from logistical issues to privacy concerns. We spoke with USASF’s Karen Wilson and Prime Tyme Athletics’ Sarah Smith to explore both sides of the issue.

Editor’s Note: Please note that the views expressed in this article are expressly those of our sources and not those of CheerProfessional.

Sarah Smith,
Prime Tyme Athletics,

On her initial reaction: I like the idea of athlete membership in theory much better than in practice, at least at this point. Many years ago, when the USASF was brand-new, they had a form of athlete membership which involved credentialing. We flew a USASF rep to the gym to watch our kids perform various skills and they would get these little Chevron patches. It took forever—we didn’t even get through half of our Worlds team that year. We didn’t get the Chevrons until halfway through the next season, and we had to harass people even for that.

Since we had a bad experience with the original version, I’m very wary [of Athlete ID]. We as a program have chosen not to register our athletes this year, even though it’s free and highly encouraged. (Only for Worlds, because it’s required.) Time is money, and I don’t want to spend my or others’ time entering all this information to register athletes when the people I’m going to compete against don’t have to do it either.

On privacy concerns: One of our biggest concerns is for the safety of the athletes. The parents are wary to give out birth certificates—it seems really extreme, especially without knowing who is privy to the information.

Also, I don’t believe that USASF is a separate, independent governing body, which spills over into the athlete membership issue. Since we are located near Nashville, most of our competitor gyms are owned by Varsity, so turning over our confidential client information adds another layer of personal concern. Who says they can’t use that information to turn around and directly market for the competitor gyms? I’m not saying they’re going to do that, but it’s a very valid concern. Varsity owns gyms in many other states, so there are gym owners around the country dealing with this exact problem. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Varsity owns 11 Premier Athletics locations in six states.] I’m pro-Varsity competitions, but I’m anti-conflict of interest.

Lots of youth sports use third-party organizations that are stored in a secure database that wouldn’t be accessible by vendors and direct competitors. It might also help the parents feel safer when sharing their athlete’s information. Overall, this is proprietary information that should be safeguarded. [EDITOR’S NOTE: USASF’s Lynn Singer says that the Athlete ID information is stored by a third party.]

On enforceability: Even if registering athletes was mandatory, who will enforce it? There isn’t a USASF rep at every competition checking IDs. What if a 3-year-old on Tiny doesn’t have her Athlete ID—will they tell her she can’t participate? The problem is that it spirals back to the fact that USASF is controlled by some of the people who profit off our industry. The event producers actually hold the power. If they were to choose to enforce the athlete membership, they would have to turn away some of their own customers.

On logistics: What happens if you’re at CheerSport nationals with your all-star teams and someone gets hurt in the warm-up room Friday night? If you need to replace and register a new athlete, will USASF be open 24/7 for you to be able to do so? How can we prove every athlete is registered? We don’t have a bench full of athletes waiting to hop in should someone get injured; we have to rearrange, and that sometimes means using one of your own athletes from a school team.

If we ever got to a system where a Level 5 athlete isn’t also allowed to be on Level 1 or 2 team, it would be great to track such things and athlete membership would be a way to do that. But does that cross the lines of what a governing body should do in a free market economy? It’s a lot to consider.

On cost: If they do decide to charge, it will be another barrier to entry in our sport. Before athletes even pay a month of tuition to me, they will have to pay $25 [or another set amount] to a governing body that’s not really doing anything other than stating standards? If athlete membership is truly the most pressing issue for USASF, all resources should be allocated to making sure it’s done effectively and affordably.

On whether it will deter cheating: I do believe it could deter cheating, but cheating is something that never goes away. If people cheat in the Olympics with all of their safeguards, people who are going to cheat [in all-star cheerleading] will find a way. But [Athlete ID] is another hoop to jump through, which could help prevent cheating on some level.

On the silver lining: I’ve heard many people say we need a way to track things like injuries, participation and cheating. I do believe some form of athlete membership could legitimize our sport in those aspects; most youth sports do have some sort of membership. It would be great to have actual numbers of participants in our sport, so that when someone comes up with injury reports and way underestimates the total amount of cheerleaders, we’d have our own document to counter some of those things for the positive PR of our sport. But in practice, I don’t think that we’re ready for that yet. I don’t think the system is ready to achieve the goals it is set up for.

The bottom line: I can see how some people would like to have rules in place that are tracked by athlete membership, but I’m not sure more governing power is what we really need. Until it is enforceable, affordable and an independent third party stores the membership information, I think there are lots of other ways to legitimize our sport other than athlete membership.

Karen Wilson,
USASF West Coast Regional Director

On the introduction of Athlete ID: The idea was brought forward through the NACCC as a way of bringing about legitimacy. We’ve done a great job of creating and implementing the rules at USASF events, but there was still quite a bit of uncertainty as to whether athletes were truly of age and matching up with the age grid. Every event producer had their own process, so it was very confusing to parents and athletes and gym owners. We obviously have had this system in place for Level 5 for Worlds; it’s just now been strengthened [for all athletes].

On the response: We have more than 70,000 athletes in the system, which is a testament to how much coaches want this. The one roadblock has been that, like anything new, it’s time-consuming. [Gym owners and coaches] have to gather the information and educate parents and athletes about the system. It’s a lot of work on behalf of the gym owners, and for them to be doing this much is again a testament to the demand.

On privacy and confidentiality: Storing information securely through our system is much safer than bringing birth certificates to events. For a long time, it has been required that every gym owner has proof of age at a USASF event. They were literally carrying them around at events, which was what drove coaches to say that we need a system [like Athlete ID]. Once the information is uploaded and verified by a small handful of USASF staff, it is digitally destroyed and shredded; these documents are not housed anywhere. Also, we don’t ask for social security numbers, and birth certificates are a matter of public record.

On whether it will deter cheating: As a Regional Director, I get more calls about age issues than anything else. When an athlete leaves a gym owner’s program and that owner sees them on another team, they have the birth certificate so they know if they’re not eligible. What is the process for verifying beyond that? Regardless of how many people are cheating, we have an obligation as the governing body to minimize [cheating] even further. We have to make sure it’s a level playing field and everyone is playing by the same rules.

On enforcement: Enforcement is not the objective this year; education and communication is. We’ve been working with event producers on getting the word out. When gyms and athletes go to a USASF-sanctioned event, they don’t necessarily have to be members. The problem is that if there is a violation they can’t be held accountable because they’re not members—that’s problematic. By having the Athlete ID required, it brings us back to a level playing field.

I can communicate to and educate my members, but I have no resources to educate those non-members. The only one who does is the event producer through registration; they have the opportunity to provide that education, and that’s what we’re encouraging event producers to do. That drives people to find out more about membership and join—they want to be part of doing things right. This year, the Regional Directors are working very closely with event producers to provide any resources or assistance that we can.

Enforcement is not on the agenda for event producers at this point; it’s not a case of people not enforcing Athlete ID. We’re finding that when the event producers do provide education beforehand, we have a huge rate of compliance. [Gym owners] are thrilled when they can print the roster and manage their program through the USASF profile. The ones who are doing it are loving it. It’s a collaborative effort between the Regional Directors and the event producers, and we’re seeing big successes.

On logistics: If there is a challenge, it would go through that event’s protocol; the event producer would look at it and see. Ultimately we’ll have cards with their photos and the matching ID and birth certificate—we’re just not there yet. It’s got a long timeline. In the meantime, I think we’ll be able to minimize a huge majority of issues.

On cost:  Currently there is no cost for Athlete ID. Our research shows almost every youth organization has an entry fee. We are a not for profit organization, and Athlete ID is not a profit-making endeavor at this point. Our objective is to ensure that the kids are safe and that we can provide a level playing field for our members. If and when there is a cost, it won’t be exorbitant.

The bottom line: This is the springboard for many great things to come. We want accountability measures. We want sportsmanship. We want trust and legitimacy in our system. We’re putting lots of checks and balances in place, and two years from now, I believe it’s going to be standard operating procedure. It won’t be as time-consuming. Athletes’ numbers will follow them in their cheer or dance career regardless of what gym they are associated with, so they’ll never have to prove it again.

People want to know they can go to competition and that it will be fair across the board. I’m encouraged by the voice of the coaches; having them do this without seeing a tangible benefit is a clear indicator of its importance. We’re working day and night to make sure this is successful because we believe it is the right thing to do.