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Why Cheerleading Needs to Be Considered a Sport

Why Cheerleading Needs to Be Considered a Sport

When I think of sports, I generally think of things like basketball, volleyball, tennis or even golf. I generally don’t think of cheerleading as a sport. Cheerleaders are the people who get the crowd riled up for the real athletes, right? Not so fast.

On Monday, the American Medical Association joined the American Academy of Pediatrics in classifying cheerleading as a sport. This actually makes a lot of sense when you think about how cheerleading has evolved over time. It’s no longer just the ra-ra brigade cheering for the hero football players from the sidelines. Seriously. Check out this madness.

Modern cheerleading is part dance, part gymnastics and part acrobatics. And it’s dangerous. According to the Associated Press:

Cheerleading is a leading cause of catastrophic injury in female athletes at the high school and college level, Samantha Rosman, a Boston-area pediatrician, told AMA delegates during floor debate before the vote.

“These girls are flipping 10, 20 feet in the air,” Rosman said. “We need to stand up for what is right for our patients and demand they get the same protection as their football colleagues.”

Not only that, but, as reported by FiveThirtyEight, the rate of injury in high school cheerleading is higher during practice than in competition. It’s flipped for other sports.

Cheerleading is different from every other high school sport (for which there is injury-tracking data) in one critical way: More cheerleaders are getting injured during practice than in competition. And that’s why cheerleading’s official designation as a sport could go a long way toward reducing the number of injuries that make it risky….

The total concussion rate across all girls sports is 41 concussions per 100,000 competition athlete exposures; cheerleading has a rate that’s about three-tenths of that.

But when we factor in concussions accumulated in practice, we see something interesting. In every sport except cheerleading, the rate drops steeply — concussions in practice happen about one-sixth as often as concussions in competition. Cheerleading was the only sport of the 20 surveyed that had a higher risk of concussion in practice (14 per 100,000) than in competition (12 per 100,000).

This is because at competitions provide safety equipment that might not be available during practice, which is why designating cheerleading as a sport can be important. If cheerleading is considered a sport, maybe it’s more likely to get the resources to make it as safe as possible. That’s only a theory, however. Right now there isn’t enough data to say for sure.

It’s important to note that just because doctors consider cheerleading a sport doesn’t mean it’s a sport for all purposes. The NCAA has no plans to consider cheerleading a sport. For Title IX, the federal law requiring equal opportunity for men and women in school academics and athletics, cheerleading does not qualify as a sport. A 2012 court decision affirmed this. In that case Quinnipiac University tried to cut its volleyball team and replace it with varsity cheerleading in order to comply with Title XI requirements. The volleyball players sued, and an appeals court agreed with them. According to the AP:

“Like the district court, we acknowledge record evidence showing that competitive cheerleading can be physically challenging, requiring competitors to possess ‘strength, agility, and grace,’” the court wrote. “Similarly, we do not foreclose the possibility that the activity, with better organization and defined rules, might someday warrant recognition as a varsity sport. But, like the district court, we conclude that the record evidence shows that ‘that time has not yet arrived.’”

Despite the undeniable athleticism exhibited by cheerleaders, this was probably the right decision. According to the Washington Post, since the first varsity cheerleading team was created at a Division I school in 2003, only a handful of others have followed suit. There is also the problem of schools trying to fulfill their legal obligations at the least possible cost. Cheerleading seems to fall on the less expensive side of athletics, even though there might be demand for more expensive sports like crew or hockey. Cheerleading, despite the skills involved, has been used as a way for schools to get out of their Title IX obligations.

Not that it can’t change. Cheerleading has evolved quite a bit over the past decades. If it keeps on this track, I see no reason why it won’t end up being considered a sport by everyone, and in the process make it safer for everyone involved.

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Photo Credit: John Martinez Pavliga via Flickr

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56 comments

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2:54PM PDT on Jun 18, 2014

Thanks for posting.

9:32PM PDT on Jun 17, 2014

I had always wanted to be a cheerleader at school when I was younger but I never did because my Mom told me you can get injured just like in any sport.

4:15PM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

Not a sports fan, not a cheer-leading fan--ok---its a skill- and it takes practice and discipline but---I don't get the whole thing about sports or entertainment that risks life and limb---WHY BOTHER??
Train for a real job that makes a difference! I don't understand why baseball and football players--in actuality---entertainers--or movie stars, make more than teachers, soldiers, police, fire fighters and medical professionals. With that much discipline and focus--these people could be learning how to make a difference in the world-instead we feed the vanity of our culture, and call them heros and stars instead of those who we truly should be looking up to.

10:56AM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

I think Cheerleading has always been considered a sport. I remember when my daughter was very young, just a few years ago, a radio personality said that girls who take part in sports will be less likely to have sex. The two exceptions were cheerleading and softball.

8:58AM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

So when your daughter got bashed in the head, was she wearing her helmet?

8:55AM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

I'm not sure that it should be considered a sport but it's is definitely more than prancing around in shorts skirts as some of the comments here seem to think it is! When my daughter was in competitive cheerleading, they never saw the inside of a sports stadium, rink or whatever to "cheer" anyone on (not like when I was a cheerleader in high school and we travelled with the basket ball team). They practiced and competed against other teams and it was dangerous. My daughter is nearly 5'9" and therefore a "bottom" and was always getting bashed in the head, etc. when the "tops" were learning to do their stunts. I was glad when she gave it up.

5:57AM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

Jean D., the problem with your suggestion is that most H.S.'s including the ones I taught at have both a cheerleading squad and a dance team with both performing at games. Renaming cheerleading as competitive dance would create conflicts with the dance teams that are already operating at the same venues. In other words, there already are competitive dance teams in schools as well as cheerleading squads.

5:50AM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

If cheerleading were a sport in and unto itself, then why is it necessary to always associate it with other sports especially male dominated sports? Is it possible that without other sports, cheerleading wouldn't exist?

When cheerleading gets to the point that the participants are required to wear protective gear like the football players including helmets, then it might be considered a sport. But as mentioned before, I doubt the participants would voluntarily wear helmets because it would mess up their hair. You can't be an effective, competitive cheerleader if you don't look good.

Moreover, pharmaceutical companies would have to look elsewhere for their pool of attractive female drug reps who hang out around male dominated physician offices.

4:35AM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

I said it before and I'll say it again, if you want to consider it a sport, don't call it cheer leading. Call it competitive dance. Yes, it is very athletic. As an adult working on my handstands and forward flips, holy cow! But still. As long as the cheer leaders are a support for a football team or whatever, they are not their own sport.

12:31AM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

I was disgusted to read about the poor girls who lead the cheers, in bikinis, on the ice for the men's hockey teams. Could never understand why anyone would want to do this sort of thing. The girls do all that work, risking life, limb and frostbite for the boys to get the glory.

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