CHICAGO — Cheerleading isn’t just jumping and waving pompoms – it has become as athletic and potentially as dangerous as a sport and should be designated one to improve safety, the nation’s leading group of pediatricians says.
The number of cheerleaders injured each year has climbed dramatically in the past two decades. Common stunts that pose risks include tossing and flipping cheerleaders in the air and creating human pyramids that reach 15 feet high or more.
In a new policy statement released online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics says school sports associations should designate cheerleading as a sport, and make it subject to safety rules and better supervision. That would include on-site athletic trainers, limits on practice time and better qualified coaches, the academy says.
Just like other athletes, cheerleaders should be required to do conditioning exercises and undergo physical exams before joining the squad, the new policy says.
“Not everyone is fully aware of how cheerleading has evolved over the last couple of decades. It used to be just standing on the sidelines and doing cheers and maybe a few jumps,” said Cynthia LaBella, a sports medicine specialist at Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital and an author of the new policy.
But she said cheerleading often results in injuries that include severe sprains, broken arms and legs, neck injuries and concussions.
Last year, there were almost 37,000 emergency room visits for cheerleading injuries among girls aged 6 to 22, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That’s more than four times higher than in 1980, when cheerleading was tamer.
Cheerleading in Kansas public middle and high schools falls under the Kansas State High School Activities Association. Its guidelines say pyramids or mounts can be no more than two people high and one of the people must be in direct, weight-bearing contact with the cheering surface.
“Basket tosses,” in which a cheerleader is thrown high into the air, are prohibited. So are tosses in which the flier’s feet go above her head.
Coaches must attend a rules and safety meeting at least every other year, and cheerleaders must have a sports physical before joining the squad.
J. Means, athletic director for the Wichita school district, said he considers cheerleading an athletic enterprise, even at schools that don’t compete in cheer competitions against other squads.
“They’re not shoved off to the side,” Means said. “We follow all the appropriate guidelines and regulations and take that very seriously.”
Injuries have increased as cheerleading has become more popular. Data suggest there are more than 3 million cheerleaders nationwide aged 6 and older, mostly girls. That includes about 400,000 in high school, according to data cited in the new policy.
While the overall injury rate in high school cheerleading is lower than in other girls sports – including gymnastics, soccer and field hockey – the rate of catastrophic injuries like skull fractures and paralyzing spine injuries is higher, the academy noted.
Means, the Wichita athletic director, said on-site trainers are available to cheer squads to respond to injuries during practices and games just as for other sports.
“They might not be standing right there at cheer practice, but they are on site and can be accessed very quickly,” he said. “We go over safety rules and new regulations all the time because … you don’t want to see tragic things happen.”
Lisa Kluchorosky, a sports medicine specialist who works with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Athletic Trainers Association, said new guidelines will help erase misconceptions that cheerleading is not very athletic.
“The statistics are compelling and you can’t turn your head from that,” she said.