By Dr. Jack Rutherford
Go to any high school or college major sporting event and you’ll see cheerleaders performing jumps, flips and throws normally seen at an Olympic gymnastics competition. Today’s cheerleaders are much more than dancing and pom poms. They are athletes in every sense of the word. And because of their quest to produce higher pyramids and riskier moves, they are getting injured. It may be hard to believe, but cheerleading produces more catastrophic injuries—concussions, cervical spine injuries, skull fractures and even paralysis and death—than any other sport, male or female. Moreover, there are twice as many severe injuries in cheerleading than all other female sports combined.
According to the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the number of cheerleaders is growing rapidly even as the sport is becoming more daring. There are five times as many females participating today as in 1990, and in the past decade, the incidence of concussions has risen by an average of 26 percent each year. Since 1982, there have been two deaths.
What should be done about this? First of all, like with any other sport, cheerleading coaches need to be adequately trained and certified by cheerleading’s governing bodies. The AAP also recommends barring cheer events on hard surfaces, limiting the height of pyramids, and removing anyone who presents the symptoms of a head injury. Others suggest furnishing strength training for participants and imposing restrictions on riskier moves.
Perhaps most importantly, cheerleading should be recognized for what it is, a sport, so that it is provided with the resources necessary for a quality program. Currently, only 29 states recognize it as a sport, and the NCAA doesn’t consider as such.
Unlike football and other contact sports, parents don’t expect their children to get injured in cheerleading. But, it’s the current reality and unless steps are taken to sharply curtail the dangers, parents ought to be aware that it’s the most hazardous event in sport.