Cheerleaders Are Athletes, part 2: Just Chunk It

Last week, in part one of this 3-part blog on Cheer safety, we told you about why it was important for Cheer to be recognized as a sport: namely, safety. Schools are required to provide trained coaches for athletes, and “real” sports are provided with the space and equipment necessary for safe practice. Cheer squads don’t get that. (To read the full blog, click here:  Cheerleaders Are Athletes, Part One)

It seems clear that cheer athletes need all the safety measures they can get.

Dr. Frederick O. Mueller is the director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSIR), located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The center collects catastrophic (fatalities and permanent disability) injury data for high school and college athletes on a national level. The center has been in existence since 1982 and is funded annually by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). According to the latest report on catastrophic injuries:

Catastrophic injuries to female athletes have increased over the years. As an example, in 1982-83 there was one female catastrophic injury and during the past 27 years there has been an average of 8.8 per year. A major factor in this increase has been the change in cheerleading activity, which now involves gymnastic type stunts. If these cheerleading activities are not taught by a competent coach and keep increasing in difficulty, catastrophic injuries will continue to be a part of cheerleading. [Twenty-seventh Annual Report; italics added by blogger]

Rusty McKinley, a pioneer and nationally recognized expert in cheer safety, agrees. He reports that the total number of cheer-related injuries has been rising as the raw numbers of participants have been increasing; however, the percentage of injuries has increased significantly faster in comparison to the competitors. This is because, without proper coaching by highly trained individuals, cheer athletes are being asked to attempt new, complex skills… without necessarily mastering the fundamentals.

To me, this situation is similar to a parent handing their 15-year-old child the keys to a brand new car, without any safety training, and without having been taught safe-driving skills by an experienced and licensed driver:  It will result in an injury. [personal communication with Mr. McKinley]

So, where will that skilled, educated, and experienced coaching come from?  It’s not clear.

“Chunk It”

Right now, the only certification can come from the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA). This organization began in the late 1980s under the disguise of providing safety training for different levels of advisers. Today, the distinctions among the various levels of leadership have been blurred.  According to McKinley, the AACCA basically:

…allows anyone who desires to hang out a sign as a “Coach” the ability to start or sponsor either a school-based squad or an All Star squad.  I received a certification after only 2.5 hours of book-learning and an open-book test–no hands-on experience was required or tested.

Given Dr. Mueller’s work on catastrophic injury to cheer athletes, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that the largest cheer industry organization would welcome more safety measures?  Unfortunately, the answer isn’t logical:  The Cheer industry not only ignores Dr. Mueller’s safety recommendations, but they actually have gone so far as to say the work is inaccurate. (This is despite the fact that Dr. Mueller is recognized by all U.S. and many foreign sport officials as the first researcher of historic injury data for all competitive sports requiring the need for rule, equipment, and technique changes to keep the sport safe.)

The Cheer industry expresses its attitude toward safety in one of the more colorful phrases in Cheer terminology: Just Chunk It! When a cheer athlete isn’t sure of her part in performing a movement, she’s likely to hear, “Well…just “chunk it.” It means just try and do something and we’ll work out the details later.  That’s how severe injuries occur.

“Chunk It” is really a great term for the Cheer industry reaction to all the research that could create a safe environment:   just chunk it!

Check in next week for the last installment of our 3-part series on why Cheerleaders are Athletes, and why safety cannot…and should not…be ignored.

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