Florida State Cheerleading Competition
Chris Matula  /  Zuma Press
Cheerleaders make up about 3 percent of female athletes in high schools but sustain 65 percent of all catastrophic injuries.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 8/21/2008 6:18:29 PM ET 2008-08-21T22:18:29

Gymnasts sometimes fall off the beam. Basketball players often crash to the court. Softball players have unfortunate meetings of face and pitched ball. But when young women turn out for high school and college sports, odds are it’s the cheerleaders who are most at risk, new research shows.

Cheerleading, in fact, is far more dangerous than any other women’s sport, accounting for 65 percent of all catastrophic injuries in high school girls’ athletics and 67 percent in colleges. Those figures emerged in a 25-year study published this month by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.

The next most dangerous sports, gymnastics and track, were far behind, causing 9 percent and 7 percent of all catastrophic injuries, respectively, since 1982.

The raw numbers are not particularly large — the study looked only at injuries that caused death, permanent disability or serious long-term impairment. But other research by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has found that the number of cheerleaders taken to emergency rooms has increased by more than 600 percent since the early 1980s, reaching nearly 25,000 visits a year.

High school athletic authorities in many states have recognized competitive cheerleading as a varsity sport, helping to create an industry of private camps and tournaments where teams show off gymnastics-style routines that send young women flying through the air and plunging off of human pyramids three levels high.

It was that sort of routine that left Patty Phommanyvong, 17, of John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, a comatose quadriplegic after she fell to the ground while performing at a football game last October.

“They threw her up in the air. When she came down, she was hurt,” said Patty’s mother, Vilay Phommanyvong.

Dr. Bruce Fagel, a physician and lawyer representing the family, said Patty was hit in the chest when she was tossed into the air.

“The information we have is she went limp when she was caught,” Fagel said.

The year before, Jessica Smith, then 18, fractured her neck and back when she crashed to the ground during cheerleading practice at Sacramento City College in California. Smith said her squad was practicing a new stunt in which she was tossed high into the air, but fellow team members did not catch her.

Most recently, Lauren Chang, 20, died in April when she was kicked in the chest during a cheerleading competition in Worcester, Mass.

“Lauren died doing what she loved, cheerleading and being with her friends,” Chang’s sister, Nancy, said in a statement. “We hope her death will shed light on the inherent risks of cheerleading, and we hope that additional safeguards are taken to insulate against those risks.”

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Training, facilities can’t keep up
Frederick Mueller, who compiled the injury study, said there were several reasons so many girls and young women were getting hurt.

For one thing, the number of young women joining cheerleading squads in recent years has increased dramatically as cheerleading has become a sport.

But cheerleaders still make up only about 3 percent of the nation’s 2.9 million female high school athletes, according to figures compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations. By contrast, they sustained 65.1 percent of the catastrophic injuries among those athletes, Mueller said.

No comprehensive statistics on the number of college cheerleaders are available because the National Collegiate Athletic Association does not recognize cheerleading as a sport.

Still, the study cited figures from the NCAA’s insurance program, which reported that 25 percent of claims involving college athletics resulted from cheerleading injuries. Cheerleading was a close second only to football, even though the insurance program estimated that football players outnumbered cheerleaders by a ratio of more than 8 to 1.

Mueller, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina, said that as cheerleading routines become ever more spectacular — and spectacularly risky — support for cheerleaders is not keeping up.

He cited a 2006 report published in the journal Pediatrics, which found that many coaches were not certified and that many schools lacked proper facilities and equipment. Some cheerleaders were still practicing in hallways and on other hard surfaces, it said.

“A major factor in this increase has been the change in cheerleading activity, which now involves gymnastic-type stunts,” Mueller said. “If these cheerleading activities are not taught by a competent coach and keep increasing in difficulty, catastrophic injuries will continue to be a part of cheerleading.”

Mueller’s report called on state and collegiate officials to enact nearly a dozen safeguards, including a qualification system that would require a cheerleader to demonstrate mastery of stunts before a new routine could be attempted. It also called for banning any routine involving a mini-trampoline or falls off of other cheerleaders’ shoulders.

“The basic question that has to be asked is, ‘What is the role of the cheerleader?’” the study said. “... Is cheerleading an activity that leads the spectators in cheers or is it a sport?”

“If the answer is to entertain the crowd and to be in competition with other cheerleading squads, then there must be safety guidelines initiated” fully as stringent as those for contact sports like football and wrestling, it concluded.

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