Cheerleading Is the Most Dangerous Girls’ Sport

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Photo: Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Thanks to our love of football, America is a land of equal-opportunity head and spine injuries. The devastating effects of recurrent head trauma on men who used to play in the NFL has gotten a lot of airtime, prompting changes in practice protocol down to the Pop Warner level (and prompting President Obama to invoke his rhetorical son). But the sport that causes the majority of life-altering head and spine injuries in girls and young women also happens to be the one invented to psych up the football crowd: cheerleading. Washington Post columnist Lenny Bernstein brought our attention to a 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics report that found that competitive cheer “accounted for 65 percent of all direct catastrophic injuries to girl athletes at the high school level and 70.8 percent at the college level” between 1982 and 2009. One of the things that makes cheering so dangerous is the lack of regulation, relative to football or gymnastics. The NCAA doesn’t even consider it a sport. “Without the oversight of government and big-time sports, some of the people running cheer squads and competitions aren’t held to the same safety, training and coaching standards applied to other sports, even rough ones such as football — though cheerleading does make considerable effort to police itself,” Bernstein writes. The overall number is small — 110 closed-head injuries, skull fractures, and cervical spine injuries that resulted in permanent brain injury, paralysis, or death — but it stands out, proportionally.