The Dangers of Cheerleading

Kristi Yamaoka

Happy first day of the NCAA, everyone! My bracket is filled out and ready to go. Anyone want to start a pool? Don’t worry. I’ll lose. I always do, because I go for wishful thinking rather than pragmatism in choosing my winners. In other words, I’ve picked the same team to win every year since I was a little kid.

But let’s shift focus a little—this is a blog about cheerleading after all. Several years ago, in the week before the NCAA tournament, a Southern Illinois cheerleader named Kristi Yamaoka fell off the top of a human pyramid. The basketball game was put on hold for several minutes while medics ran to the court floor, wrapped her in a full-body brace, and lifted her onto a stretcher. As they wheeled her off the court floor, the band began to play the school’s fight song. Kristi’s arm shot up, her fingers wiggling—she performed her school’s fight song while being rolled toward an ambulance. This image was replayed on the nightly news for weeks and it got many people thinking, “Is cheerleading dangerous?”

The answer is complicated—risk is absolutely a part of competitive cheerleading, and many top cheerleaders say the adrenaline rush is part of why they love the sport. But at the same time, I think there’s a definite gender bias going on in the reporting of cheerleading injuries.

First, I’ll give you the stats you hear most often. Every year, about 25,000 cheerleaders will end up in the emergency room for everything from hyperextended joints to serious head and neck injuries. And over the past 23 years, of the 104 female athletes catastrophically injured in a high school or college sport, more than half were cheerleaders.

These numbers are shocking, but they’re also misleading. First of all, there are more than 4 million cheerleaders out there—which means that 6 of every thousand cheerleaders will be injured in any given year. In football, that number is 42 out of a thousand. And for that second figure, we are talking about a 58 women catastrophically injured in cheerleading over a 23-year period. Terrible, yes, but hardly scandalous number.

In the past few years, stories have run in many major newspapers and magazines and on various news programs dubbing cheerleading a dangerous sport. But it’s only a fraction as dangerous as football, and hockey for that matter. While I think it’s important to talk about injuries in cheerleading—this is what leads to better coach training and safety standards—I can’t help but feel like there’s a touch of, “We need to save our women folk,” in the coverage.

What do you guys think?

Read much more about CHEER! here.

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