The risks and relevance of cheerleading

by Jim Longworth

The other day I read about a 52-year-old wife and mother who fulfilled her lifelong dream by trying out for and making the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleading squad. I suppose her story was inspiring on some level, and I’m not knocking anyone’s aspirations. I’m also probably the least qualified person in the hemisphere to comment on or criticize cheerleading. Nevertheless, we should all be concerned about the safety and impressionability of our children, and, by association, the relevance of the professional cheerleaders who they seek to emulate. Let’s begin with those NFL role models.

In October 2010, New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden made a case for eliminating NFL cheerleaders altogether. Said Rhoden: “Today’s NFL cheerleaders are little more than props that reinforce objectified sex roles. The professional cheerleader has become feminized and eroticized.”

At least six NFL owners agree. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Green Bay, and the New York Giants have abandoned their cheerleading squads, and Detroit never had one. Giants owner John Mara told Rhoden: “Philosophically we have always had issues with sending scantily clad women out on a field to entertain our fans.”

Despite such criticisms, 16 other NFL teams continue to field a cheerleading squad, and while most fans can’t hear or see what the gals are doing on the sidelines, the TV cameras love to show skin and sexy dance moves. So don’t look for pro cheerleading to go away any time soon.

Meanwhile, millions of girls from middle school through college age see the NFL cheerleaders as role models, and like the 52-year-old mom, want to dress and act like their heroines. OK, so sexy costumes and suggestive dance moves have never hurt anybody. But the bi-product of that culture has.

Today, 3.6 million people in the United States participate in cheerleading, most of whom are girls and young women. But get this. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and, 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries among female high school athletes are due to cheerleading. And, according to Provena’s Human Motion Institute, the number of children ages 5 through 18 admitted to hospitals for cheerleading injuries grew by 100 percent between 1990 and 2002, from 10,900 to 22,900. These are disturbing and totally preventable statistics.

In ancient times when I was growing up, cheerleaders just had pom poms and strong lungs. Back then it was an extracurricular activity. Today cheerleading is widely recognized as a sport where young people form human pyramids, toss girls 20 feet into the air, and perform all sorts of dangerous acrobatics. But if cheerleading is a legitimate sport, then why aren’t we as a society as outraged by the incidence of serious injury in cheerleading as we are in football?

The NFL, for example, has finally come to terms with its role in causing concussions and long-term brain damage, by eliminating helmet-tohelmet contact and other types of violent collisions. Even so, the impact of those harmful hits is being felt in the heartland. Last week, the chief medical officer of the Pop Warner football association reported that the number of children participating in PW football is down 10 percent over the past two years because parents are concerned about the possibility of head injury. Yet, while the number of boys playing football is dwindling significantly, the number of girls participating in cheerleading has grown by 600,000 in recent years. This despite the aforementioned injury statistics. Sure the two “sports” are different, but that doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to the dangers of cheerleading. Says AAP board member Dr. Cynthia LaBella: “Relatively speaking, the injury rate (in cheerleading) is low compared to other sports.

But the number of catastrophic injuries continues to grow.”

There is obviously a societal disconnect here.

Fortunately groups like the AAP and have advocated for stricter guidelines to reduce the risk of serious injury from cheerleading. Those include limiting human pyramid formations to two body lengths, restricting the number of people who can toss a squad member in the air, and requiring that a thrower remain behind the flyer at all times. But here’s the rub. According to AAP, only 29 state high school athletic associations recognize cheerleading as a sport, and those who don’t are not required to provide certified trainers, hire qualified coaches, or have a system in place for surveillance of injuries. Clearly, all 50 states need to agree on the classification of cheerleading, then institute uniform regulations and enforcement of same.

In the meantime, more and more girls will sign up for cheerleading, and many of them will become seriously injured. Do I think those injuries are a direct result of children watching sexy adults cheerlead on TV? No. But it is a shame that the glamour of one has distracted us from a national referendum on safety reforms for the other.