Safety in Numbers

Cheerleading is more dangerous than all other sports. There are more injuries and more emergency room visits in cheerleading than in football. There are several high school and college cheer teams that have been prohibited from stunting and tumbling because catastrophic injuries have occurred. You may have seen the video of the college cheerleader who was carried off on a stretcher after falling from the top of a pyramid during halftime, all the while doing arm motions to the school band’s fight song in the background. She made national headlines. You have probably also heard reports of traumatic brain injuries and neck injuries sustained during cheer practice or competition. The media appears to love these stories, and these reports fuel the argument that cheerleading is too dangerous for young athletes. And while I do believe that this type media is important in educating the general public about the risks involved in cheerleading, it’s unfortunate that most of the data simply doesn’t give a complete picture. I’ve come to believe that some statistics can be skewed to give whatever result the researcher initially intended to prove.

There’s a few things to keep in mind when reviewing the numbers regarding cheer injuries. First, most of these statistics are collected by number of emergency room visits. Cheer teams, unlike many other high school sports, don’t typically have a trainer available to them at practice. So whereas a football player might strain his shoulder during practice, he would usually have the option to be treated on spot by the athletic trainer. The trainer might ice, brace, sling, or massage the injury until it’s healed. In doing so, the athlete avoids a trip to the ER. But for cheer athletes, diagnosis and treatment of the exact same injury can only be accomplished through an ER visit. Hence, the football injury won’t be reported, but the cheer injury will.

Second, ER visits are counted only on admission to the ER, not on discharge or disposition. This leaves no room for understanding the severity of an injury.   As a nurse myself, I’ve treated and released dozens of cheer athletes from the ER during the past ten years, all with bumps, bruises, and sprains. However, I have yet to send a cheerleader from the ER to the OR to have surgery for a broken anything. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, I’d rather treat and release ten cheerleaders with sore wrists than have to treat even ONE basketball player who comes to the ER with an injury like that Louisville player who literally busted his lower leg in half during last year’s NCAA tournament.

Another major problem with relying on ER statistics is that, for many athletes, cheerleading is a year round activity and the particular injury being reported is a chronic one. Traditional three sport athletes with similar recurring injuries would be reported differently because of the particular sport’s season in which it occurred. Say, for example, little Joey has a weak ankle. He sprains it in September during soccer season and goes to the ER for an x-ray. He rolls that same ankle mid-January after coming down with a rebound during basketball season. Another trip to the ER for an air cast. In May, poor little Joey slides feet first into home plate during baseball season, and you guessed it…..back to the ER, this time for crutches. Same kid, same injury, but three different reporting databases because the injuries occurred playing three different sports. And it wasn’t necessarily the sport itself that caused the injury; it probably had more to do with Joey’s weak ankles. On the other hand, Suzie also has a weak ankle. She sprains it while jumping on the football sideline in September and winds up in the ER for an x-ray. She rolls it again after coming down from a stunt in mid-December, and has to go to the ER to get an air cast. Low and behold, poor Suzie goes back to the ER in May after a hard landing while tumbling at the gymnastics center, and same as little Joey, has to go back to the ER for crutches. Same kid, same injury…..ALL reported as cheerleading injuries.

My final issue with the general public’s perception of the dangers in cheerleading lie in the assumption that, well, cheerleaders just shouldn’t get injured. Ambulances are standard at football games because injuries are expected. Soccer games are often interrupted for players down with concussions. That’s expected too. A few years back, I watched a basketball player dive for a loose ball and wind up head first in the bleachers. He was carried off on a stretcher. It was scary, no doubt; however, not ONE person ever said “wow, boys just shouldn’t be diving for loose balls”. It’s just part of the game. When football players in Texas die from heat exhaustion, it’s tragic, but those late summer practices go on. My guess is that if a cheerleader in Texas died from heat exhaustion and dehydration during a late summer double session practice, that would be the end of Texas cheerleading practice.

I’m not claiming that dangers in cheerleading don’t exist. They do. In discussing this topic I mean no disrespect to athletes who may have sustained life altering injuries as a result of the sport. And unfortunately, there are still some cheer coaches who are not up to par on current safety rules. As in most other sports, many cheer teams at the youth level are coached by volunteers or parents who have very little mandated training. Cheerleading, like all athletic events, will never be completely free of injuries. However, national regulations exist on what type of skills can be performed at each age level, and Maine in particular has come a long way with training requirements for cheer coaches (more on that later!). As the sport continues to evolve, so do the rules, and so does the safety. The point is, that while yes, injuries might occur (sometime even really, really bad injuries), some of the statistics which lead the public to believe that cheerleading is more dangerous than all other sports, are just…..well….misleading.

Rachel Coor

About Rachel Coor

Rachel currently serves as the secretary on the board of the Maine Cheerleading Coaches Association, which works to educate cheer coaches and raise college scholarships for cheer athletes throughout the state. She is also the head varsity cheer coach at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, and was previously the varsity coach at Rockland District High School from 1997-2004.