When a sport is unregulated, and teenagers and college students are pushed in increasingly intensified competition, catastrophic injury and fatal accidents can result. This is especially true in cheerleading, where teams are pushed to perform more and more complex and difficult stunts. Thrown 25 feet spinning in the air by several teammates in a “basket toss” on a hard basketball court floor may be exhilarating for the crowd but a recipe for disaster for the flier who is dropped.
The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, which has followed national sports safety for over two decades, reported that cheerleading accounted for nearly 2/3rds of all catastrophic injuries among female high school and college athletes, according to a recent Washington Post article. Catastrophic incidents were defined as death or serious injury, such as head or neck damage leading to permanent disability. Furthermore, the article also cited a noteworthy study:
a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2006 calculated that the number of children showing up in emergency rooms with cheer-leading injuries rose from 10,900 in 1990 to 22,900 in 2002, a 110 percent increase.
Individual cases of cheerleaders dying after getting kicked in the chest or having their spleen ruptured have also been reported.
The National Council of Spirit Safety and Education offers training programs for coaches and some school systems require coaches to be thoroughly trained. However, the rules for safety and training are inconsistent among neighboring schools. Recommendations to improve the safety of cheerleading programs include:
1. Standard training for coaches, with the schools funding initial and continuing education,
2. Uniform safety rules with mandatory and consistent application,
3. Avoid attempting stunts without adequate preparation, safety equipment and safeguards,
4. Having schools give the resources and subjecting cheerleading to the same safeguards as football, basketball or other athletic activity,
5. Conducting practice sessions and competitions on appropriate surfaces,
6. Enforcement of the safety rules so that non-compliant programs would not be allowed to continue to jeopardize students’ health.
7. Health screening and routine physicals to catch chronic injuries and predisposition to injury early,
8. Safety guidelines updated every year addressing the age at which certain stunts may be attempted and with what surfaces, spotters and supervision,
9. Mandatory “off seasons” for rest, recovery and recuperation,
10. Education for participants, so that they understand and appreciate the dangers, warning signs of injury and avoid unnecessary risks.