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.
Photo Credit: John Martinez Pavliga via Flickr