Is Cheerleading the Most Dangerous Sport for Women?

'Bringing it on' is associated with a crazy number of injuries -- yet people still insist on treating it more like a dumb hobby than a sport that deserves respect.
Publish date:
September 16, 2013
sports, studies, cheerleading, cheering

Just in case anyone out there still thinks cheerleading is more Jessica Wakefield than an intense, hard-core sport: um, you might want to rethink your position.

An estimated 3.6 million people in the U.S. participate in cheerleading (and four percent of those are boys). According to a new report published in the Journal of Pediatrics, 66 percent of women's "catastrophic" sport injuries (aka the ones that cause permanent disability or medical conditions) are a result of cheering. And at the college level, competitive cheer caused upwards of 70 percent of the catastrophic injuries among women.

It sure seems to encourage a lot of injuries for a sport that isn't considered legit. Since 1980, ER visits for hurt cheerleaders have more than quintupled, rising about 5,000 to more than 26,000 injuries in 2007. According to the report, most of these injuries are happening to the people serving as bases (the ones who hold up and catch their teammates) instead of the fliers (the ones who, obvs, get tossed through the air like spry little rounds of pizza dough or something).

Some naysayers might still insist on seeing cheerleading as little more than tanned mean girls grinning and waving pom-poms in your face, but it's hard to talk back to statistics. And the stats in the study are pretty damn clear: cheerleading is way more physically demanding than lots of idiots give it credit for. Still, only 29 American states recognize it as a sport; in March, a federal judge in Connecticut ruled -- again -- that it wasn't. The subject sparks lots of debate both on- and offline, and that's doubtful to wane anytime soon.

One of the reasons cheering is so dangerous is the fact that most cheerleaders don't wear protective gear like helmets or padding. Why? Because ... it's complicated. Though it clearly deserves respect, cheering, in general, still seems to promote the idea of women as ornaments more than instruments, entertainers more than athletes. Cheer may require crazy acrobatic skills, but on the whole, it's still generally seen as a superficial thing, with heavy emphasis put on cheerleaders meeting a certain stereotypical physical ideal (thin, toned, and Chiclet-toothed comes to mind; or, you know, that good old Jessica Wakefield again).It sucks that cheerleading, as an institution, arguably seems to prioritize the looks more than the safety and well-being of its participants, who essentially risk life and limb in practice each day. There IS a push for more states to acknowledge it as a sport, but then it would require more qualified coaches and overall regulation. And there ARE some safety-oriented rules, like limits on the height of pyramid stunts and rules about the number of tossers and spotters in certain "basket toss" stunts. But in general, there just aren't enough safety precautions in place to counter the growing number of injuries, and until cheerleaders start wearing helmets or other real protective gear, it seems likely that those injuries will only continue.

What was your take on cheerleaders when you were in high school or college? Do you think it's a legit sport?