Another Cheerleader Dies

Chang's family hopes that the death of Lauren will lead to reforms." We hope her death will shed light on the inherent risks of cheerleading and we hope that additional safeguards are taken," Nancy Chang said.

"Accidents are just preventable injuries," said Kimberly Archie, executive director of the National Cheer Safety Foundation. The problem, according to Archie, is that when the public pictures cheerleaders they think of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. "They wink into the camera, the wiggle their pom poms and that's about it," said Archie.

But cheerleading is really a sport that combines acrobatic, gymnastics and dance elements, according to Archie. "People have no clue the level of athleticism, they see them throw the girls in the air and they hold their breaths, but they don't take the time to think about it. If someone was throwing your kid 20 feet in the air over grass and over cement wouldn't you worry about what's behind it?" said Archie.

Archie has compiled a list of injuries sustained by cheerleaders going back more than decade. The list includes broken backs, concussions and paralysis. Archie's own daughter, Tiffani Bright, broke her arm in two places when she was 15 years old. After that, Archie started to ask questions and what she found out frightened her. "No one is trying to shut cheerleading down, we just want some protection for the girls," said Archie.

Part of the problem is it's hard to figure out who is responsible for protecting what in the world of cheerleading. The United States All Star Federation for Cheer and Dance Teams (USASF) oversees elite teams like Lauren Chang's. But there's also the National Federation for High School Sports, and various state sport associations. And the International Cheer Union, one of the biggest purveyors of related cheer paraphernalia, uniforms, camps and competitions.

States differ even as to whether or not they call cheerleading a sport or an activity. In Massachusetts for instance, cheerleading is not officially classified as a sport, but in neighboring New Hampshire it is.

Mass. State Rep. Peter Koutoujian, chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Health, was contacted by the Chang family in the wake of their daughter's death. "They always say it's not your father's Cadillac, well this is not your mother's cheerleading. It's a highly competitive and grueling sport," said Koutoujian. Koutoujian is concerned about the high number of injuries in the sport, although he doesn't necessarily believe regulations are the solution. "We are going to hold some meetings and it appears they might be followed up with some oversight hearings," said Koutoujian.

There are roughly 3,000 coaches and 10,000 athletes like Chang governed by the USASF. The organization was started in the 1990s and provides a certification process for coaches and rules that govern competitions. Les Stella, the vice president of programs for USASF, wants to get a tape of Chang's meet to review it and try to understand exactly what happened. "We will investigate it, we are trying to keep kids safe … our hearts go out to the family, the industry as a whole is upset about this," said Stella.

But Stella also said that "football has more deaths per year than you have had in cheerleading in 10 years" and that the sport is ultimately safe. Jessica Smith, Ruth Burns, Say Phommanyvong, and Lauren Chang's family would no doubt disagree.

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