WASHINGTON — Cheerleading accounted for two-thirds of sports-related deaths or serious injuries to high school girls over the past 25 years, according to a new nationwide study.
It's because cheerleading increasingly requires complex — and dangerous — gymnastics stunts, said report author Frederick Mueller, who directs the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in Chapel Hill, N.C.
"Many of the coaches weren't ready for that kind of change and weren't ready to teach those kinds of activities" when cheerleading shifted away from merely pom-poms and chant-leading, Mueller said.
Today's cheerleaders perform such athletic feats as the basket toss, where a cheerleader is thrown 20 feet in the air and then caught in her teammates' interlocked arms. There's also the helicopter toss, where a cheerleader makes a 180-degree, helicopter-blade rotation after being flung in the air.
"You didn't see a basket toss 15 to 20 years ago," said Susan Loomis, cheer and dance director for the National Federation of State High School Associations, an Indianapolis-based organization that writes rulebooks for high school sports. "Now every little team from tiny northern Montana to the bayous of Louisiana does a basket toss."
By way of comparison, last year's rate for catastrophic injuries in cheerleading was 2.0 injuries out of 100,000 athletes. For football, it was 3.2 injuries out of 100,000 athletes, Mueller said.
By his study's tally, 103 female high school students suffered sports-linked catastrophic injuries — deaths, permanent disabilities and serious injuries such as skull fractures — between 1982 and 2007. Of that number, 67 were cheerleaders.
After cheerleading came gymnastics, with nine injuries, and track, with seven.
Loomis said that high schools take cheerleading as a serious sport these days and ensure that coaches are properly trained.
"I think it's a good idea for cheerleading — especially now that it's changed so dramatically — for cheerleading to be considered a sport and to follow the regulations that other sports have," Mueller said.
The sports research center compiled data from coaches, athletic directors, a national clipping service and the National Cheer Safety Foundation, an Irvine, Calif.-based organization for parents of cheerleaders.
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