Cheerleading May Be Riskier Than Thought

Tumbling Toward Tragedy

Archie is no stranger to the perils of cheerleading. Her daughter Tiffani Bright sustained a serious injury as a high school cheerleader; at age 15, she broke her arm in two places when a stunt went wrong.

Tiffani recovered completely, but not all high school cheerleaders have been so lucky. Three years ago, 14-year-old Ashley Burns of Medford, Mass., was practicing with her high school cheerleading squad when a high-flying stunt ended in her landing in the arms of her teammates on her stomach instead of on her back. Unbeknownst to her coaches and her teammates, the fall had ruptured her spleen. She soon fell ill, experienced convulsions and lost consciousness.

"She was pronounced dead before I could even get there," said Ashley's mother, Ruth Burns, through the National Cheer Safety Foundation in a statement. "The coaches waited until Ashley was really sick, like [vomiting blood], to call the ambulance."

She says she feels that if a proper emergency plan had been implemented and properly followed, her daughter might be alive today.

"It was the hardest day ever," she said in the statement. "It gets harder instead of easier. She was my only child."

"I hope that this new study opens people's eyes and they stop making excuses."

Archie agrees -- and she adds that cheerleading organizations and companies involved in promoting the activity must be more involved in implementing safety standards.

"We have to have the support of the cheerleading industry," she said. "Thus far, not one of the cheerleading organizations has volunteered to do anything with NCSF [the National Cheer Safety Foundation]."

And while American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors has promoted revised safety standards in recent years, Archie says the measures have largely failed to encourage preparedness among those supervising the young athletes.

"When we studied these, including the cases of Lauren Chang [another Massachusetts cheerleader who died during a cheerleading competition in April 2008] and Ashley Burns, we found a pattern of delayed emergency response," she says. "This is in direct respect to cheerleading's lackadaisical response to catastrophic injuries."

Making Cheering Safer

If there is a point on which all parties agree, it is that coaches and other supervisors must be properly trained and accredited.

"I think the first thing that parents of kids in cheerleading should do is to know who the coach is and what background experience they have," Mueller said. "It's still the case in many schools that the last teacher who is hired is assigned cheerleading coaching responsibilities, whether they know anything about it or not. That's a big problem."

"The biggest problem is uninformed consent," Archie said. "Parents don't know that their kids can break their necks doing this."

Lord adds that proper supervision would also ideally cut the risk associated with ill-advised stunts.

"The number-one reason people get injured is that they attempt a skill that they are not qualified to perform," he said. "If someone's not going to follow the rules, there's nothing we can do."

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