The Academy of Pediatrics supports designating cheerleading as a sport because of how dramatically cheerleading has changed. A wide variety of gymnastic-inspired tricks, as well as multiperson pyramids and acrobatics, have propelled cheerleading into an activity that has produced a greater incidence of serious injuries than it had in the past.
Data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission shows that rates of injuries from cheerleading accidents have gone from nearly 5,000 in 1980 to roughly 27,000 annually in the past few years. In 2009, Michigan resident Laura Jackson appeared in a taped interview where she explained her catastrophic injury while attempting a cheerleading stunt when she was a 14-year-old student at Stevenson High School. Jackson landed on her head after trying a back tuck and ended up fracturing her neck, resulting in paralysis from the neck down. Now 23, Jackson requires mechanical assistance to breathe and is relegated to a wheelchair.
Jackson's injury is not an aberration, though stories such as her's aren't widely publicized, perhaps because of the lack of a governing body to report and record cheerleading injuries. Also, injuries that do not take place during school functions but during camps or recreational activities garner even less attention.
Even with subpar record-keeping, the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research says high school cheerleading accounted for 65.1 percent of all catastrophic sports injuries among high school females over the past 25 years. In college, cheerleading accounted for 66.7 percent of catastrophic sports injuries in females.
Reports from the AAP indicate concussions and other closed-head injuries account for 4 to 6 percent of all cheerleading injuries. Head and neck trauma make up approximately 15 percent of all cheerleading injuries in emergency rooms in the United States.
Some cheerleading teams lack the necessary equipment, training and supervision of coaches trained in gymnastics and acrobatics to promote safety for participants. Standards are not uniform across the board, which adds wiggle room for the level of skills in coaches and assistants.
Doctors are pushing to have cheerleading classified as a sport so that a standardized set of safety rules can be put in place and also so cheerleading participants will be required to undergo the requisite health screenings required of other athletes. This may include meeting physical requirements, including strength and agility. Suggestions are also made for vetting of coaches to ensure they're trained in the stunts that cheerleaders will be doing. They also should have injury-prevention guidelines available, be informed of emergency plans and ensure cheerleading programs have access to the same level of medical care and injury surveillance as other sports.
In 2010, as part of the ongoing effort to address safety issues in cheerleading, the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators instituted new safety standards for cheerleading competitions. The minimum safety standards addressed the proper environment for cheerleading activity and the need for appropriate equipment, including mats, border areas and ceiling heights as well as the emergency medical technicians, that must be available. The new standards also address the requirements for spotters on the competition floor. In addition to establishing standards for competitive events, AACCA has also updated its Emergency Action Plan to be used by teams at practices and games.
Those who plan to participate in cheerleading as well as those currently on a team can also heed the following suggestions.
* Ensure the coach is trained in gymnastics and acrobatics if these skills will be taught.
* Never attempt risky moves outside of training or without qualified spotters present.
* Do not practice or participate on hard flooring. Use adequate padding and mats or a spring-loaded floor.