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Cheerleading Has a Dangerous New Role

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When people think of cheerleading they probably remember going out to football games and chanting along with their school’s songs, clapping with the pom pons and bringing out the best of “school spirit.” Though cheerleading still relies on these aspects, things have changed, and in recent years cheerleaders have stretched their skills to great lengths. The risk of cheerleading personal injury is now a common problem while expectations for intricate stunt routines continue to skyrocket.

Cheerleading has long departed from the “Rah! Rah! Rah!” of yesteryear and has taken on some strenuous physical goals. People who have seen the 2000 movie “Bring it On” may have been surprised by the number of hours the team portrayed in the movie practiced for the high school level. And though just a movie, the way cheerleading consumed the lives of the cheerleaders leading up to their competition is a reality with some everyday high school squads.

“Stunts” are at the heart of the matter. Teams continue to perfect dance routines and cheers, but borrowing jaw-dropping moves from gymnastics has made cheer harder and more dangerous. One stunt, called a “basket toss” was tested by the Fox Sports show “Sport Science.” The stunt requires a “flyer” to be thrown into the air and caught by a group of supporting cheerleaders. The show executed the stunt with a crash dummy and the UC Irvine cheer squad, and found the impact of the fall for the “flyer” was 2,000 pounds — more than the 1,800 pound force of hit to an NFL linebacker.

The concern is real because personal injuries from cheerleading have increased. Emergency room visits from cheerleading accidents have grown six-fold since 1980. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were almost 30,000 emergency room visits in 2008.

From 1982 to 2008 there have been 73 catastrophic injuries — including two deaths — from female high school cheerleading. This number is double the number of injuries to female players of all sports combined. Gymnasts had the next highest injury rate, with 9.

The disparity in the number of injuries between cheerleading and gymnastics is key as cheerleading begins to look more and more like gymnastics. This is a strange turn of events since high school cheerleading in California, as in most states, is not recognized as a sport. Because of this, cheerleading squads do not seem to follow effective safety precautions or have a standard set of procedures. Gymnastics is considered a sport, but not many high schools have gymnastics teams. Just about every high school nationwide has a cheer squad.

It’s arguable that “Bring it On” actors and stunt doubles and all, has actually played a role in shaping and pushing cheer squads to these new limits, or perhaps it reflects the state of cheerleading today. Either way, cheerleader personal injuries are a continuing concern.

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