Safety crucial as cheer becomes sport

CHEER requires a high degree of athleticism and coordination, but as it becomes a sport, safety issues must be addressed. Above, Garden Grove High School students compete (File photo).

What’s more dangerous? Being a football player or a cheerleader? Despite all the controversy and concern about concussions and brain injuries in the NFL and other levels of the sport, it’s far from the most scary endeavor. The answer is cheerleader.

Today’s cheer people are generally not just young ladies in sweaters and bobby sox who wave pompoms and yell into outsize megaphones. Those are “sideline” cheerpeople, but they are being eclipsed by what’s called “all star cheerleading” in which the participants perform elaborate and often risky routines and stunts rather than rallying support for a team.

Certainly there is some crossover between the two versions, but as the “all star” variation gains more traction, the light of publicity will make the latter breed more visible and add to the question of what makes a sport.

Cheerleading has been certified by the California Interscholastic Federation – which governs high school athletics in the state – as a sport, with official competitions starting in 2018. What’s more, the International Olympic Committee has given provisional recognition to the International Cheer Union as the governing body, which is one step from accepting cheer as an Olympic event.

Personally, it’s difficult for me to accept cheer as a sport. It more closely resembles an artistic competition or exhibition. But, on the other hand, if rhythmic gymnastics can make it, why not cheer?

Setting aside the issue of whether young women in short skirts and heavy makeup doing choreographed routines compares with basketball and even tennis, there is a paramount issue of safety. A typical aspect of an all-star cheer routine consists of throwing a girl – called a “flyer”– high into the air – and being caught by her teammates. Usually it’s just a thrilling flight, but too often it results in tragedy.

Understand that unlike a football or baseball player, the flyer is not wearing any protective equipment. As my old judo teacher used to say, the earth is the world’s biggest fist. A “flyer” that isn’t caught lands cruelly on the packed turf of a football field or a thin mat or hardwood gym floor.

An article in the Journal of Pediatric Medicine stated that cheerleading accounts for 66 percent of all catastrophic sports injuries, meaning injuries, which shorten lives or result in permanent disability. On top of that, 6 percent of cheer injuries are concussions.

There are other issues as well. Since all-star cheer is overwhelmingly a female undertaking, adding it to the roster of sports for a high school or college could – under Title IX – require the dropping of another sport for girls or women, or mandate the addition of another balancing sport for boys and men. Money becomes a factor.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. If cheer is indeed a sport, so be it. Therefore, as with any other sport, the highest priority has to be the safety of the athletes. Helmets? Faceguards? Thick landing pads? Nets? Protective clothing? They might take away some of the glamour, but as cheer gains legitimacy it must also gain the means to keep its participants safe.

Pete Zarustica writes Monday Morning Coach.


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