When Is a Sport Not a "Sport"?

For girls and young women, one sport accounts for more than 65% of of all high school catastrophic injuries, and more than 70% of all collegiate catastrophic injuries. (For the record, “catastrophic injuries” are life changing events, including traumatic brain injury, paralysis, and death.)  Less severe injuries are also common–each year, this sport sends more than 25,000 female students to hospital emergency rooms.

The sport?  Cheerleading.  And compounding the tragedy of injury is the fact that only 20-25 states list high school cheerleading as a sport… the NCAA doesn’t recognize cheering as a championship sport… and unless the number has changed since December 2009, only 3 colleges consider cheering a sport–none in North Carolina. (Statistics from Journal of Athletic Training 2009)

Call a Sport a Sport.

While “recognition” might seem like a minor point, it has major ramifications for safety.  A “sport,” performed competitively and for entertainment, requires strict guidelines to ensure the safety of athletes. In 1980, when cheering was still primarily about leading the crowd in cheers, there were fewer than 5,000 emergency room visits. Today, cheering involves highly skilled gymnastics (as well as being tossed in the air and trusting that someone will be there to catch you).

Without the sanction of being a sport, cheerleaders often have to practice in areas that make injuries more likely, such as an asphalt parking lot or a team member’s backyard.  A “sport” requires coaches to have a certain level of training and certification; a “sport” puts limits on the risks required of the participants; and a “sport” makes training and safety an integral part of practice and performance. Unfortunately, in most schools, cheering lacks safety, limits, and trained coaches.

Gimme an A-C-T-I-O-N.

One of cheering biggest and most vocal supporters is Frederick O. Mueller, Ph.D., Director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH). The group’s 26th annual report devotes a special section to cheerleading injuries, which describes the current state of cheering as a sport, details specific catastrophic injuries and how they occurred, and suggests sample guidelines that could help prevent cheerleading injuries. As quoted from the report (available here):

“Is cheerleading an activity that leads the spectators in cheers or is it a sport? If the answer is to entertain the crowd and to be in competition with other cheerleading squads, then there must be safety guidelines initiated. The authors of this research question why it is called cheerleading, when competitive cheer has nothing to do with leading the crowds at athletic events in cheering for the athletic teams on the playing field. Following are a list of sample guidelines that may help prevent cheerleading injuries:

  1. Cheerleaders should have medical examinations before they are allowed to participate. Included would be a complete medical history.
  2. Cheerleaders should be trained by a qualified coach with training in gymnastics and partner stunting. This person should also be trained in the proper methods for spotting and other safety factors.
  3. Cheerleaders should be exposed to proper conditioning programs and trained in proper spotting techniques.
  4. Cheerleaders should receive proper training before attempting gymnastic and partner type stunts and should not attempt stunts they are not capable of completing. A qualification system demonstrating mastery of stunts is recommended.
  5. Coaches should supervise all practice sessions in a safe facility.
  6. Mini-trampolines and flips or falls off of pyramids and shoulders should be prohibited.
  7. Pyramids over two high should not be performed. Two high pyramids should not be performed without mats and other safety precautions.
  8. If it is not possible to have a physician or certified athletic trainer at games and practice sessions, emergency procedures must be provided. The emergency procedure should be in writing and available to all staff and athletes.
  9. There should be continued research concerning safety in cheerleading.
  10. When a cheerleader has experienced or shown signs of head trauma (loss of consciousness, visual disturbances, headache, inability to walk correctly, obvious disorientation, memory loss) she/he should receive immediate medical attention and should not be allowed to practice or cheer without permission from a physician.
  11. Cheerleading coaches should have some type of safety certification. The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors offers this certification.
  12. The NFHS should make cheerleading a sport, which will place cheerleading under the same restrictions and safety rules as all other high school sports. The NCAA should follow this same recommendation.”

HensonFuerst commends the research and activist efforts of Dr. Mueller and his team. We represent the interests of far too many children and young adults whose lives have been shattered due to head trauma or other catastrophic injury. There are few things in life as heartbreaking as broken potential. We agree that it is time to let recognition and regulations catch up to this fast-moving, physically demanding sport. Yes, sport. Let’s at least make an effort to stop the hemorrhage of young, enthusiastic lives.

To report a cheerleading injury to make statistical reporting more accurate, go to www.cheerinjuryreport.com, sponsored by the National Cheer Safety Foundation. For more information about traumatic brain injury, or to request a legal consultation for a cheer injury, visit our dedicated web page. If you have questions, HensonFuerst has answers.

(Related and interesting articles can be found here: Flying without a net: Cheer injuries on rise. MSNBC and Cheerleading is leading cause of catastrophic injury in young women, ScienceDaily.)

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