The American Medical Association recently adopted a position in which it argues that cheerleading should be designated as a sport. Currently the NCAA does not consider cheerleading to be a sport, although many states do recognize it as such. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted a similar position to that of the AMA.
As I have written previously, there is little question that cheerleaders are athletes. Just watch some of the stunts and tumbling passes and pay attention to the strength, speed and agility demonstrated by participants. Whether or not we call it a sport seems less of an issue to me. I am more concerned that we take all necessary measures to prevent injuries and keep the competitors safe.
The AMA says cheerleading should be considered a sport
The AMA argues that cheerleading is as rigorous as many other activities recognized as sports by the NCAA. According to the Associated Press, Dr. Samantha Rosman, a pediatrician, argued that by designating it as a sport, increased safety measures would be adopted and the coaches would undergo proper training. “These girls are flipping 10, 20 feet in the air. We need to stand up for what is right for our patients and demand they get the same protection as their football colleagues.”
Steps to decrease cheerleading injuries
Efforts from national cheerleading organizations, like the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA), have helped to decrease injuries in recent years. I feel that schools and teams can take many of the necessary steps themselves. Examples include requiring coaches to undergo training and acquire certification, teaching proper techniques for spotting and stunting, providing safe training and competition surfaces and much more.
My personal opinion is that these and other steps can be taken without officially designating cheerleading as a sport.
Perspective of an experienced athletic trainer
I asked two people with tremendous knowledge of cheerleading to weigh in. First, I discussed the AMA’s position with Mike Hopper, MS, ATC. Mike is an athletic trainer in Waterloo, Illinois. He has provided care for many of these athletes, and he has researched cheerleading injuries extensively.
Is cheerleading a sport? Ask me that 5 years ago and I probably would have laughed in your face. Today, however, I have a much greater respect for cheerleading. Personally I would agree with the roughly 30 state associations who now consider it a sport; however that designation is not clear in all cases nor shall we construe that the designation as a sport provides specific safety requirements as proposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Here in Illinois, cheerleading is considered a sport by the IHSA, which requires that cheerleaders must complete all paperwork just like any other athlete. This is a good thing. Cheerleaders in Illinois must have a physical on file, they must be educated in concussions, and starting here very soon their coaches will be required to be educated in concussions.
But the AAP proposed that making cheerleading a sport would automatically provide them with enhanced healthcare in the way of athletic trainers. While I’d love to see that, currently the simple designation of being a “sport” does not grant that as truth. Just ask the 50% of high schools nationwide who operate an athletic department without one. From a legal standpoint that mandates the above, such as what the IHSA requires, designation as a sport is a good thing. Could the IHSA mandate those things without the “sport” designation? Sure they could! And for those states who do not currently consider it a sport, I would appeal to them to mandate those sorts of things. The designation itself does not matter to me.
Thoughts from the Executive Director of the AACCA
I also reached out to Jim Lord, the executive director of the AACCA. He and I had previously discussed injury statistics and the sport designation issue after the American Academy of Pediatrics position statement was released. Even after this recent stand by the American Medical Association, Lord points out the complexity of calling cheerleading a sport.
Our position is the same – it’s about the need for support of these athletes, regardless of the terminology. One concern we have with the term “sport” is “how” that works at the state high school level. For most, we think of “sport” as something athletic. However, depending on how it is implemented, “sport” can also mean removing game cheerleading from the mix and requiring that cheerleaders compete more, since that is what “sports” do. I don’t think that would necessarily result in fewer injuries. The same restrictions on coach contact time could result in losing the ability for cheerleaders and coaches to get safety education at summer camps. That model has been one way in which we’ve been able to work with the CDC and summer camps to distribute concussion information to over 350,000 cheerleaders annually.
Cheer is different, especially in the school setting. It’s a mix of leadership, the support role, and athleticism. We need to make sure that we are looking at all of those roles when determining how it is organized.
Should cheerleading have another label?
In a position paper on its website, the AACCA advocates the cheerleading be placed in a new category called “athletic activity.” This group could include any activity that combines athletic competitions and school spirit functions. Other activities that could fall into this classification include marching band, dance teams and drill teams. Interestingly, such a designation might still allow cheerleaders to be covered by a school’s athletic catastrophic insurance policy.
Regardless, our main focus must be on the athletes themselves. Whether or not you consider cheerleading a sport, we should do everything we can to keep their risks of serious injuries as low as possible.
Also listen to my podcast discussions on cheerleading:
Episode 109: Is cheerleading becoming safer for its athletes?
Episode 64: Is cheerleading more dangerous than other sports?
Episode 5: What can cheerleaders and coaches do to reduce the risk of serious injuries?