Gloomy Prognosis for Cheerleading
by Rachel Balik
The number of catastrophic injuries suffered by cheerleaders is higher than previously thought.
The NBC show “Heroes” features an indestructible cheerleader character. The real-life picture is considerably less rosy. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill-based National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research has released a new report stating that the percentage of severe sporting injuries suffered by high school and college cheerleaders over the past 25 years is even higher than previously thought. Newly available data indicates that 65.1 percent of “catastrophic sports injuries” among high school female athletes are cheerleading accidents; previous estimates put it at 55 percent. Meanwhile, 66.7 percent of all female college sports injuries happen to cheerleaders, not 59.1 percent, as was believed. Of the 103 severe or fatal injuries sustained by female high school athletes between 1982 and 2007, 67 were sustained by cheerleaders. In contrast, gymnastics had the second highest number of injuries, but only accounted for nine such incidents. One reason for cheerleading accidents might be that cheerleaders are asked to perform gymnastic-like stunts, but do not always have the same level of training or supervision as gymnasts.
The New York Times says, “New acrobatic maneuvers have turned cheerleaders into daredevils,” and, as a result, frequent visitors to the emergency room. An 18-year-old cheerleader who broke her neck during a stunt told the Times, “They make you sign a medical release when you join a cheerleading team.” She suggests grimly, “They ought to tell the girls that they are signing a death waiver.” Brenda Shields, who runs the injury research center at Columbus Children’s Hospital in Ohio, says that everyone assumed that cheerleading was a lot of “harmless” pom-pom waving and yelling. “No one knew how much cheerleading had changed,” she explained. “Once we looked at the data, the numbers were a bit of a shock, and that’s when we realized the risks involved.”
In March 2006, Kristi Yamaoka, a cheerleader for Southern Illinois University, tumbled 15 feet from a human pyramid during a basketball game. Lying on a gurney with a fractured vertebrae and bruised lung, she continued to cheer for her team. “My biggest concern was that I didn’t want my squad to be distracted—so that they could continue cheering on the team—and I didn’t want my team to be distracted from winning the game,” the injured sophomore said. In response to the incident, the Missouri Valley Conference disallowed more dangerous cheerleading stunts in future basketball games.
But Yamaoka and cheerleading coaches didn’t respond well to the ban. “I don't want anyone to be restricted based on one little thing that happened to me,” Yamoaka said in a press conference conducted from her hospital bed. Her coach, Jennifer Graeff, was incensed and argued, “If a basketball player dunks and breaks an ankle, are they going to say you can't dunk?” SI.com writer Phil Thomas notes that the risks cheerleaders take often have tragic results; however, he also believes that they are the most mentally tough players on the field.
A San Jose cheerleader who was paralyzed from the waist down during a 2004 practice is also tough, but she took her aggression out on the school. She initially sued for $30 million, but she ultimately got a $2.1 million settlement. She said that her coaches did not provide proper supervision or safety materials during practice.