JENISON, Mich. -- Since first grade, Jenison High School sophomore Gabe Herdegen has been a cheerleader. Yet the seventh grade was the last time he says his public school allowed him to participate on their competitive cheer team; he was not allowed on the team because he's a boy.
Now Herdegen is working to change state rules on who can and cannot participate on high school teams. It's a gender discrimination dilemma, based on a company's rules that schools opt to follow.
"I would like to be part of the same group and same team that I was with when I was in seventh grade," said Herdegen. "I grew up with them, I’ve looked forward to cheering with them, and now that I can’t. I wish I could."
Herdegen is allowed on his high school's sideline cheer team, which is a fall sport. He and his father say the Michigan High School Athletic Association's rules have sidelined him.
"All kids should have their rights," said Gabe's father, Paul Herdegen, "and they shouldn’t be signed off in a whim by saying ‘Okay, that’s just the way it’s always been done, and we’re going to allow a company to be able to discriminate.'"
"They ask these kids to follow rules, to be comfortable with themselves, to participate and be kind to other people; but that's not what they're doing to [Gabe]."
According to the MHSAA, Jension High School is one of more than 1,500 public and private schools that are voluntary MHSAA members. MHSAA Director of Broadcast Properties John Johnson says the MHSAA is a private corporation that does not accept government funds or tax dollars, which makes them exempt from Title IX law.
MHSAA sanctions cheerleading as a girls-only sport.
"Title IX was designed to promote and protect girls’ participation opportunities; it doesn’t cut both ways," Johnson told FOX 17.
"If there was something out there that schools wanted to do, and if there was a demonstrated interest around the state in altering the format to be co-ed, or to provide a co-ed format on top of a girls-only format, then that would have to come from a member school, or a league in conference, or from a coaches’ association to initiate that process."
Johnson says while each year the MHSAA receives inquiries from schools about whether a boy can join a girls team, the company has never received a formal proposal to add a co-ed competitive cheer team, or to overhaul the sport to make it entirely co-ed.
Jenison Public Schools' Superintendent Tom TenBrink tells FOX 17 they petitioned MHSAA to allow Herdegen on Jenison's girls' competitive cheer team, which he says was denied. Or, if Herdegen joined the team, TenBrink clarified the team would be barred from competing against teams in MHSAA tournaments. Then if they petitioned to become a co-ed team, TenBrink says he fears they would have no teams statewide to compete against.
"It’s a huge dilemma for us because we would love to have Gabe competing during the competitive cheer season with the young ladies that he’s competed [with, and] been a part of the sideline cheer team," said TenBrink.
"The unfortunate thing that you have is we then put the young ladies who are in competitive cheer, and want to participate in MHSAA competitions, at a huge disadvantage, because if Gabe is involved with them in whatever capacity, they’re not allowed to participate in MHSAA competitive cheer."
Herdegen says he wants his chance to compete like anyone else, and have a shot at a college scholarship.
"I would just like the same opportunities that everybody else thinks they have at least," he said. "I would like to be a part of the team and nothing’s going to change that."