Is cheerleading more dangerous than football? While most people would have a knee-jerk response such as "Of course not! Don't be silly!", the question is actually more complex than that. Cheerleaders are certainly athletes practicing their craft with not only their bodies but also their voices almost daily. The stunts that are required of cheerleaders are combinations of weightlifting (using each other as weights) and gymnastic tumbling. The stunts require extreme flexibility, balance, strength and focus- especially since many of them are performed from a height at least twice as tall as the flyer.
All of this physical effort has to look easy as well unlike football players or other sports that thrill fans the harder they make it look. No one is going to fault a linebacker for not smiling as he runs across the endzone, but if a cheerleader grimaces as her ankle comes down wrong from a liberty, everyone will notice and it will break the spell of encouragement and motivation.
Depends on What "Dangerous" Means
According to a recent study, cheerleading is definitely more dangerous than football, that is if by "danger" you are talking about risk of injury. According to a recent study by Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio, there were 22,900 cheerleading-related injuries treated in emergency rooms in 2002. That was more than twice as many as in 1990 and almost six times as many as 1980. Keep in mind, this only takes into account the injuries that rated a trip to the ER; like most sports, most participants will try to hide an injury if at all possible, and "walk it off" so as not to appear weak or let down the team.
Even more sobering is the fact that in the period from 1982 to 2005, there were 104 catastrophic injuries for high school and college female athletes ("catastrophic" usually means head and spinal trauma, sometimes leading to death). More than half of those were the result of cheerleading activities. The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research study proved that cheerleading is certainly the most dangerous sport for women; more dangerous, in fact, than all the other women's sports combined.
However, while that injury rate by percentage does make the sport seem more dangerous than football in one sense, the statistics all show that football players are far more likely to actually die from a sports-related injury than cheerleaders. Also, in a ratio of injury-to-participants, cheerleading doesn't even rank in the top seven most dangerous sports.
Don't Ask "Is Cheerleading More Dangerous Than Football" - Ask "Why?"
While the question of comparing cheerleading to football is dependent on perception, it can't be denied that it is dangerous, and is becoming more so. The question really should be "Why? And what can be done about it?"
Researchers point to several factors that have contributed to the dramatic increase in injuries.
- Many talented young gymnasts have moved from youth competition into the world of cheerleading, and with that advanced skill set have pushed the sport far beyond simple pom-shaking on the sidelines.
- Coaches for cheerleading squads usually have little or no training in safety and stunts beyond what they've learned from experience. At times, cheer squads attempting dangerous stunts are coached simply by other cheerleaders.
- Cheerleaders are asked to perform at more and more events, and on many different surfaces including cement and gravel.
- Cheerleaders are encouraged to be ultra-competitive, and this drives them to higher and more dangerous stunts.
Several high schools and colleges have eliminated flying from the repertoire of their squads, both to protect the cheerleaders and to keep costs of liability insurance down. Others have increased the training for their coaches, and they've also insisted on the use of safety equipment such as mats for the more complex stunts.
One frustrating block to increased safety is the refusal of many states to classify cheerleading as a "sport". Such a classification would subject it to much more oversight and regulation. Instead, it's considered an "activity" like chess club. Some of this reluctance may be simply because the state governments aren't aware of just how much cheerleading is in need of a more comprehensive safety structure.
Meanwhile, it is up to the squads themselves, coaches and cheerleaders alike to keep their stunts as safely spectacular as they can.