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Prejudice and pom-poms

WE'VE ALL seen it. We've all stood in the stands and watched as athletic trainers knelt by the side of a 250-pound lineman who had been reduced to a scared boy who can't move or feel his legs. We've been those fans who cheered for that lineman as he was driven off the field, hoping that his football career would not end with a tragic injury. But would we, because of that injury, contemplate eliminating tackling from the game of football? No, we wouldn't. Without the rough and tumble element, it just wouldn't be the same.

Similar to football, without its dangerous athletic elements, the sport of cheerleading would be dramatically different. In March, Bill Byrne, University of Nebraska-Lincoln athletic director, decided because of injury and liability risks, the Cornhusker cheerleaders would be grounded for good - no tumbling and no stunting including partner stunts, pyramids and basket tosses. UNL's decision to ground its cheerleaders on the basis of the sport's danger is unfounded and shows the inherent sexism that still plagues traditionally female sports at the college level.

The idea of eliminating the athletic element of cheerleading, which includes gymnastic floor tumbling, pyramid building and free-air stunts like basket tosses, came after UNL settled a lawsuit for $2.1 million with Tracy Jensen, a former cheerleader left paralyzed from a broken neck sustained at cheerleading practice.

According to Byrne, the lawsuit prompted UNL to research the dangers associated with stunting and tumbling in collegiate cheerleading. Even though the Jensen lawsuit did not determine that UNL was legally liable for the accident, the university concluded from its research that cheerleading stunts are too dangerous and cost too much to insure, therefore they should be banned. Nebraska joins Duke, the only other Division I school that had prohibited its cheerleaders from stunting and tumbling.

The idea that cheerleading in its currently evolved form, which includes tumbling and stunting, is just too dangerous for athletes to attempt simply is false. According to a 1997 study published in The Physician and Sports Medicine Journal, compared with other sports, cheerleading carries a relatively low risk of injury. The study, which looked at high school and college cheerleaders, found that cheerleading accounted for 0.67 injuries per 1000 athletic injuries in collegiate athletics. While there may be less cheerleaders than football players, such a discrepancy still does not account for the miniscule percentage of cheerleading injuries.

Related Links

  • National Cheerleaders Association
  • The study also cited which injuries were most common in collegiate cheerleading. Topping the list were ankle injuries with 22 percent and knee injuries with 15 percent. Head and neck injuries like those incurred by Jensen - and most not as bad - only account for seven percent of all injuries sustained in collegiate cheerleading.

    Federal agency statistics also back up the finding that cheerleading carries relatively low risk compared to other sports. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cheerleading is not near the top of the list when it comes to emergency room visits. In 1997-1998, out of 2,616 visits to emergency rooms by persons ages five to 25 with sports-related injuries, 447 or 17.1 percent of those were for basketball-related injuries, 271 or 10.3 percent were for football-related injuries, but only 146 or 5.6 percent were for cheerleading- and gymnastic-related injuries.

    The statistics show that the danger in cheerleading is not to blame for the policies made against the sport by colleges and universities. Sexism is to blame. Cheerleading is seen as a traditionally female sport, even though co-ed collegiate squads usually are equally male and female. Athletic directors and others looking out for reducing university liability risks may think that cheerleading can be reduced to a bunch of girls yelling and bouncing around because the athletic component - which has grown to define the sport - is too much of a risk for girls to take on.

    This sexist attitude influenced UNL officials' decision because they didn't examine the danger in other sports at the same time. For example, why wasn't eliminating tackling from their nationally ranked football team's games discussed? The danger of head and neck injuries in football has been in the news frequently in the recent past, but no athletic administrator would have the audacity to say that the game of football should be changed forever to avoid liability.

    Additionally, when football is the case, money enters the equation. It is true that schools would stand to lose money if they softened their football program, but money is no reason to sustain discrimination against traditionally female athletics.

    Male collegiate athletes never are doubted as to their ability to perform under risk. Cheerleaders should be dealt with under the same assumption as male athletes such as football players, that they will participate in their sport while trying to minimize risk. In addition, the components of any one sport should not be thought of as expendable. Tackling is not expendable in football, so stunting and tumbling should not be either. Without the key athletic components of tumbling and stunting, cheerleading is not competitive and completely unexciting. The same would be said for watching Monday Night Touch Football.

    Basically, cheerleaders cannot participate in their sport completely if they can't stunt or tumble. These aspects have become staples in cheerleading that brought the activity truly into the realm of sport. More importantly, without these things, cheerleaders cannot do their job for their school's teams. They can't connect with the crowd, which is extremely important. The answer to UNL and other universities' risk issues is not to place bans on stunting and tumbling. Cheerleading is a sport, just like football and basketball. The way to eliminate risk is to not encounter it in the first place. Athletic programs must be fair in providing cheerleaders with adequate facilities, coaching and equipment to ensure safety.

    Policies like the one enacted at UNL will drive quality cheerleaders away from schools, killing their programs. Cheerleading is important to colleges and universities, but its importance may not be recognized until it is too late and school spirit is a thing of the past.

    (Erin Perucci's column usually appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at eperucci@cavalierdaily.com.)

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