Actually, my initial question was a bit of a trick, because some states don’t recognize cheerleading as a sport, and neither does the NCAA, a major problem unto itself, some believe. Without the oversight of government and big-time sports, some of the people running cheer squads and competitions aren’t held to the same safety, training and coaching standards applied to other sports, even rough ones such as football — though cheerleading does make considerable effort to police itself.
With or without government regulation, cheerleading poses by far the greatest risk of catastrophic injury to young female participants of any sport. According to a 2012 report and policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, cheerleading “accounted for 65 percent of all direct catastrophic injuries to girl athletes at the high school level and 70.8 percent at the college level” between 1982 and 2009.
The overall number is small — 110 closed-head injuries, skull fractures and cervical spine injuries that resulted in “permanent brain injury, paralysis or death” over that period — and the number of participants in cheerleading is large, an estimated 3.6 million nationwide, the academy found. (A number of other girls suffered cardiac problems and heat stroke.) But the disproportionate number of severe injuries in this one activity is striking.
So as our sons head back to the gridiron this fall, and we head back to the stands to watch them, it might be worth taking a glance at what’s happening with the daughters who have traditionally urged us both on. We’ve begun a national debate about the concussion risks in youth football — President Obama said last season he was unsure he’d let his son play if he had one — but there doesn’t appear to be a corresponding discussion about our daughters. At least not one I’ve heard about.
In part this is because the non-catastrophic injury rate in cheerleading is quite low. But it’s also because some people don’t know that cheer has left the sidelines in the past two decades to become a sport of tumbling, flying through the air and building tall human pyramids.
“I don’t know that the general impression has evolved as fast as the sport has,” said Cynthia LaBella, lead author of the Academy of Pediatrics paper and an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It takes time for these things to register.
“These girls — and boys — are at risk for injury,” she added. “This should be considered a sport, and these folks should be treated as athletes, not as entertainers.” Boys make up about 4 percent of cheerleaders.