Extreme cheerleading: how schools grapple with the new risks

Let's clear up one thing right away: Cheer leading has come a long way since the days of pompoms and bobby socks.

Over the past two decades, its physical demands have spiraled upward, making it more about muscle than megaphones - and forging squads that are often more athletic than the teams they're cheering on. But as the focus shifts from boosterism to circus-style feats, with regulations not always keeping apace, safety and liability have become huge issues. Increasingly, high schools and colleges are "grounding" teams, battling lawsuits, and changing the landscape of the sport.

The latest team to take stunts out of the mix is Prairie View A&M University, which grounded its squad after a "basket toss" left cheerleader Bethany Norwood with a broken neck. The team will stay off the field for the rest of the year, as administrators weigh the rules and risks that left Ms. Norwood in rehab in Houston.

"It's a really hot issue right now," says Doris Price, interim vice president for student and enrollment services at Prairie View. "And we're not the only school looking at it.

Administrators are having to stop and take a real hard look at cheerleading because of the potential for injury and even death."

Superhuman stunts

Here in Texas - a powerhouse in churning out national competitors, and a place where cheerleaders' popularity matches football players' fame - the growing hesitation is especially controversial, with fans and athletes alike decrying the prohibitions. As more colleges offer cheerleading scholarships, tougher regulations can feel like an economic loss, too.

But while the new wariness may be most striking in Texas, the last decades have seen it take hold nationwide. In California, San Jose State University grounded its squad after an accident in January. The University of Nebraska took the same route last year after agreeing to a $2 million settlement with a squad member who fell on her head in 1996. And Duke University has forbidden stunts since the 1980s.

Sarah Stogner, for one, found it hard to adjust to Duke's prohibition. An active cheerleader in high school, she was tossed and tumbled, she flipped and flew. But once she came to Duke, the athletics of cheer ended for her.

"The first year was really hard," says Ms. Stogner, a 2004 graduate who co-captained this year's squad. "It took some getting used to because stunts are fun. But the longer you cheer without them, the more you realize that it's really about getting the crowd involved."

Still, plenty of cheerleaders refuse to consider Duke because of its policy. These days, yelling into megaphones, shaking pompoms, and holding signs on the sidelines can seem as dated as cheerleaders' knee-length skirts.

Measuring the risks

Because cheerleading is not considered a sport in most states, it's not subject to the safety regulations that govern activities like football and basketball. That means schools can have squads without coaches, or coaches without safety certifications.

At Prairie View, for instance, there was no cheerleading coach, and the adviser wasn't there when Norwood fell. Also, Norwood was considered a "base," someone who supports "fliers" when they perform aerial flips and tosses, and was inexperienced at the basket toss.

But even schools with coaches and safety certifications say injuries are simply a part of athletics. "Accidents come with the sport," says Alice Rogers, squad coach at Texas Southern University in Houston.

The fact is, the activity has changed dramatically in the 22 years Ms. Rogers has coached.

When the National Cheerleaders Association was founded in 1948, for instance, cheerleading was "really a sideline attraction to keep the crowed engaged and entertained when the team wasn't doing that well," says spokeswoman Martha Selman.

That shifted during the 1980s, when a lot of high schools got rid of gymnastic programs and equipment. Many gymnasts simply moved to cheerleading, pushing the activity to a new level. Now, because of increased competition, says Ms. Selman, "teams are pushing the envelope and going to extremes. And the more eye-catching the moves that are created, the more risk is involved."

Quantifying that risk, however, is controversial. Yes, cheerleading injuries doubled between 1991 and 2001, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. But some say those numbers don't tell the whole story. For instance, 100,000 female basketball players visited emergency rooms last year, compared to 25,000 female cheerleaders, points out Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors in Memphis, Tenn.

"We are by no means minimizing the injuries; we are simply putting them into perspective," says Mr. Lord, whose organization sets safety standards and certifies coaches. "When compared to other sports, cheerleading is a low-risk activity."

The push for regulation - and its price

Pete and Robin Buczek take issue with the notion of "low-risk" cheerleading. Their daughter, Ashlee, suffered a skull fracture in November when she fell from a basket toss at an Indianapolis high school football game.

Mr. Buczek says cheerleading injuries are not being reported accurately - and so the numbers look lower on paper than they actually are. Ashlee's accident, for instance, was classified as an extracurricular activity injury instead of a cheerleading injury.

"They are covering up the truth," says Mr. Buczek, who is suing the school and is attempting to get legislation passed in Indiana that would recognize cheerleading as a sport in order to regulate it. About a dozen states have done so already.

Those regulations - and the overall crackdown - come with a cost. Duke cheerleading coach Teresa Jones Ward says she loses a lot of strong talent because of the ban on stunting and a lack of scholarships. But in her mind, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. The cheerleaders learn more about real school spirit, she says, have more time for academics, and are more active in their communities.

What's more, stunt-free squads put the focus back on the game.

"A lot of times you go to a game and you can hardly concentrate on it," says Ms. Ward. "Cheerleaders are being thrown in the air, dance teams are circling the court, and gymnasts are doing flips. They're almost like circuses, and that's a byproduct of stunting."

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