CHICAGO (AP) — Cheerleading isn't just jumping and waving pompoms — it has become as athletic and potentially as dangerous as a sport and should be designated one to improve safety, the nation's leading group of pediatricians says.
The number of cheerleaders injured each year has climbed dramatically in the last two decades. Common stunts that pose risks include tossing and flipping cheerleaders in the air and creating human pyramids that reach 15 feet high or more.
In a new policy statement released online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics says school sports associations should designate cheerleading as a sport, and make it subject to safety rules and better supervision. That would include on-site athletic trainers, limits on practice time and better qualified coaches, the academy says.
Just like other athletes, cheerleaders should be required to do conditioning exercises and undergo physical exams before joining the squad, the new policy says.
"Not everyone is fully aware of how cheerleading has evolved over the last couple of decades. It used to be just standing on the sidelines and doing cheers and maybe a few jumps," said Dr. Cynthia LaBella, a sports medicine specialist at Chicago's Lurie Children's Hospital and an author of the new policy.
But she said cheerleading often results in injuries that include severe sprains, broken arms and legs, neck injuries and concussions.
Last year, there were almost 37,000 emergency room visits for cheerleading injuries among girls aged 6 to 22, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That's more than four times higher than in 1980, when cheerleading was tamer.
While there are still traditional cheerleading squads that support schools' athletic teams, some schools and private clubs have separate cheerleading teams that compete against other teams.
Kali Wald of Elburn, Ill., suffered a serious concussion last year during an acrobatic routine with her high school's competitive team; teammates tossed her in the air but she landed wrong twice, first on her upper back and neck, then on her head. She blacked out for several minutes.
Her father, Dave Wald, said her coaches didn't realize she was seriously injured and never called an ambulance. She still has short-term memory loss and can't attend school full-time because of dizziness, headaches and other concussion symptoms.
Kali, 18, said she believes that cheerleading should be considered a sport and made safer.