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Cheerleading danger: What no one is talking about

There are few all-American activities more wholesome than cheerleading. The pressure to win encourages each team to push the limits as stunts become harder, faster and higher each year.

Cheerleaders who make the team in junior high and high school fill positions depending on weight, agility, flexibility and strength. Team members throw girls called flyers up to 20 feet in the air. These cheerleaders are lightweight, agile and good at gymnastics. Those who have strength, mass and power form the base for pyramids or other stunts where they help to catch flyers.

Who is in charge of safety?

The level and difficulty of cheerleading stunts are on par with skills once possessed only by circus acrobatics. Because cheerleading is not an official school sport, there are few safety rules in place. No prior experience is necessary for coaches. They do their best to prevent injury, but they may not understand the cumulative damage of concussions or the risk of other head, neck and spine injuries. Spotters, standing by to catch the girls if they fall, also lack training.

A young high school cheerleader broke her neck at practice. She was in the air, over-rotated and landed on her neck. She rallied and finished the remaining hours of practice, then went home to load her gear, ready to board the bus for nationals. Her mom, who had just heard about the fall from the girl's sister, called an ambulance. At the hospital, the mother insisted on imaging scans. The X-rays revealed her daughter's fall broke three vertebrae and was only one vertebra away from causing total lower body paralysis. The girl wore a full torso brace for several months. 

Why are catastrophic accidents so prevalent?

Over the course of a girl's cheerleading years, she can sustain multiple concussions. When a flyer falls to the ground, the injury can be catastrophic, or even fatal. Concussions result when one girl's elbow, foot or shoulder strikes another girl's head. Each concussion may seem mild. After one young woman's third and final concussion during years of cheerleading, she was severely dazed, unable to focus her eyes and speaking in nonsense syllables. Alarmed, the coach called the young woman's mother. The girl now has permanent brain issues that severely affect her schoolwork and her memory.

American parents may not know cheerleading accounts for 65 percent of severe accidents across all female school sports teams. For all high school sports, regardless of gender, cheerleading is second only to football in catastrophic injuries and fatalities.

High schools try to wiggle out of lawsuits by saying it was a before- or after-school event. They know a catastrophic student accident can mean medical care for life. School boards are increasingly unhappy to discover their disingenuous claims of non-involvement do not protect them from liability. 

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