Cheerleading is a sport–the most dangerous one, in fact

Via NY Times:

Competitive cheerleading is not an official sport that colleges can use to meet gender-equity requirements, a federal judge ruled Wednesday in ordering Quinnipiac University to keep its women’s volleyball team. The parties in the case said it was the first time the issue had been decided by a judge.

Several volleyball players and their coach sued Quinnipiac, in Hamden, Conn., after it announced in March 2009 that it would eliminate the team for budgetary reasons and replace it with a competitive cheer squad.

Quinnipiac contended that the cheerleading squad and other moves kept it in compliance with Title IX, the 1972 law that mandates equal opportunities for men and women in athletics. But Judge Stefan Underhill of United States District Court in Hartford disagreed. University officials responded by saying they would start a women’s rugby team but declined to discuss the future of other teams or say whether they would continue offering scholarships to competitive cheerleaders.

It’s probably a good thing that Quinnipiac is starting a women’s rugby team (I would only say it is definitely a good thing if there sufficient interest to make the program sustainable, as I expect there will be), but  I have to disagree with this assessment on cheerleading. At the competitive level at least, cheerleading is essentially gymnastic with people instead of rings, pommels, and horses, requiring all the training in coordination, balance, and strength to accomplish. Even cheerleaders on the ground, tossing a “flyer” into the air or planted at the bottom of the pyramid, would have to act in concert with his or her teammates with a high degree of percision just to keep their teammates from getting hurt–or hurting themselves, for that matter.

And they do hurt themselves. A lot. Unlike gymnastics, cheerleaders don’t have the safety afforded by mats. If they fall, it’s onto the ground, or hardwood floors. Consequentially, cheerleaders suffer the highest rate of catastrophic injuries–those which put sufferers at risk of permanent disability, paralysis, or death– of any high school athletic activity. An article in the Columbian Missourian elaborates:

Concerns about cheerleading safety arise whenever a high-profile accident occurs. But alarm spiked again this summer when the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, which has been tracking sports safety nationwide for 25 years, reported that cheerleading accounted for two-thirds of all catastrophic injuries among female high school and college athletes.

The total number of “catastrophic” incidents, defined as death or serious injury, such as head or neck damage leading to permanent disability, was relatively small. The center documented just 93 such cases between 1982 and 2007: 67 that occurred among high school students and 26 in college. And although other sports, such as football, produce far more devastating injuries, Mueller, who runs the center, calculated that the numbers translate into a rate of 2.68 catastrophic injuries for every 100,000 female high school cheerleaders, which exceeds the rate for many other high school sports.

“This tells you that cheerleading is dangerous — even more dangerous than football when it comes to the rate,” said  [Frederick[ Mueller, [ a leading sports injury expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,] noting that because there is no reporting system for cheerleading accidents, the problem is probably worse. “I think it’s a serious problem, and it has to be looked at. I think cheerleading has to make some dramatic changes.”

So the question oughtn’t be whether cheerleading is a sport, but whether it’s an enterprise schools ought to be endorsing. Quantitatively, it is demonstrably life-threatening; qualitatively, its benefits are minimal. There’s little scholarship money in it, and the activity is commonly derided or ignored by non-practicioners. There are, of course, also concerns pertaining to objectification, sexism, and on- and off-field harassment. Recognizing that more and more men participate in the activity does little to answer these concerns, as they are always a minority presence, and rather more clothed.

Tonight I am prepared to point out the issues at hand, but not to draw any conclusions from them. Discuss amongst yourselves.

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