Cheerleading's Risky Lack of Rules

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Tom Gannam / AP

A Southern Illinois cheerleader signals to the crowd that she is O.K. after taking a fall during a routine

Cheerleading is by far the most perilous sport for female athletes in high school and college, accounting for as much as two-thirds of severe school-sports injuries over the past 25 years, according to a new report. Yet cheerleading remains one of the least-regulated sports, despite more than 95,000 high school girls and 2,000 boys signing up for spirit squads nationwide each year.

New data from the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSI) catalogs 67 fatal or life-threatening injuries due to cheerleading since 1982. By contrast, there were nine catastrophic injuries in gymnastics, the sport second most prone to such incidents. Indeed, cheerleaders suffered more injuries than all other school athletes combined — about 65% of severe injuries on the high school level and 67% on the college level. These findings confirm what many in this sport have worried about for years: as cheerleading has grown more competitive, athletes are willing to take greater risks. And because there are no established regulations for reporting cheerleading injuries, "there are definitely more accidents out there that we haven't even heard about yet," says the study's lead author, Fred Mueller.

Since the 1980s, when schools eliminated gymnastics teams due to high liability costs, more sideline routines have been incorporating high-flying acrobatics. Girls start cheerleading at younger ages than ever, and parents have proven willing to pay thousands of dollars for their daughters to participate on elite touring squads that compete year-round. The pressure can consume coaches, teams and families alike. In 2003, when Tiffani Bright broke her arm in two places during a stunt that went awry, the 15-year-old Oregonian and her parents' immediate concern was how to get her back cheering as quickly as possible. "As an orthopedic surgeon is explaining she'll have a metal plate in her arm for the rest of her life, we're asking, 'But can she still tumble?' " recalls Bright's mother, Kim Archie, now executive director of the National Cheer Safety Foundation (NCSF). Archie started the organization after hearing about more and more injuries like her daughter's. "Girls are willing to do anything to win," she says.

Only about 20 states recognize cheerleading as a sport, which generally means there is less oversight than girls' soccer or basketball. But some states are now being pushed to expand regulation. One Massachusetts legislator, for example, is calling for the state to classify cheerleading as a sport, which would lead to codifying cheerleading training and competition safety practices. The push for legislation comes after two cheerleading fatalities in the state. In 2005, Ashley Burns, a 14-year-old from Medford, Mass., died after being thrown into the air and landing on her stomach, causing her spleen to rupture. Another Massachusetts athlete, 20-year-old Lauren Chang, died in April, after she was accidentally kicked in the chest during a cheerleading competition.

Of the cheerleaders whose 67 catastrophic injuries were tallied in the NCCSI report, Jessica Smith considers herself to be "one of the lucky ones." From 15 feet in the air, the Sacramento City College student looked on in horror as the teammate who was supposed to catch her lost his balance and fell backward. With no one to catch her, the then 18-year-old landed headfirst, breaking her back in two places. Doctors told her she was millimeters away from paralysis after the 2006 incident. "I'll never fully recover," says Smith, now a spokeswoman for the NCSF. "Everyone needs to ask themselves, 'Is cheerleading worth not being able to walk again?' "

Such incidents have made safety an increasing priority within the sport, and these efforts appear to be paying off. Total catastrophic injuries went from 11 in 2005, including one fatality, to five injuries with no fatalities in 2006, according to the report. Part of that success comes from more coaches getting certified — about 30% of the 70,000 cheerleading coaches in the U.S. are now certified, according to the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators. The certification course touches on key medical and legal issues and trains coaches on how to spot squad members properly during routines and how to safely progress teams through increasingly difficult stunts. Plus, in recent years, nearly all of the 75 major spirit organizations have issued some type of safety rules or guidelines. "On a local level, everyone involved must be sure safety precautions are in place — athletic directors, coaches, parents, the girls themselves," says Jim Lord, executive director of the cheerleading coaches' association. "They need to know they have a responsibility to speak up if risks are being taken."

To this end, Lord's group and others are trying to get out the word on how parents and administrators can judge the safety of their school's cheer programs. For instance, the NCSF recently published an emergency-plan outline to get coaches thinking about how to handle injuries more effectively, with steps including locating medical kits and making sure at least one adult present is certified in CPR. The fact that some cheering squads lack even these rudimentary precautions is pretty distressing. But that's not even the worst part, according to Archie. "No one has to abide by any of these rules," she says of the push for more safety precautions. "It's a joke."