No one understands how dangerous cheerleading is like those who actually wear the skirts, do the flips or scale the pyramids.
"It's a whole new thing now," said Julie Nye, an assistant cheer coach at Jordan High, who was a cheerleader herself in high school and college just a few years ago. "It's definitely a sport now. Each year they add more and more. You have to be bigger and better, and sometimes riskier. It's definitely at a whole new level."
So most local cheerleading coaches were not surprised when a recently released national study revealed that cheerleading accounted for two-thirds of sports-related deaths or serious injuries to high school girls in the past 25 years.
Just last year, two out of every 100,000 high school athletes suffered catastrophic injuries while cheerleading. In football, that rate was 3.2 athletes out of every 100,000.
Between 1982 and 2007, the report by Frederick Mueller, director of the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, showed 103 female athletes suffered catastrophic injuries or death playing sports and of that number 67 were cheerleaders.
Part of the explanation given is that in that same time frame, cheerleading evolved from leading chants and waving pom-poms to doing stunts and tumbling that require a high level of gymnastics training.
"That's one of the funnest things in cheer, is stunting and tumbling," said Gina Romney, cheerleading coach at Lehi High. "But I am very, very strict about safety protocol."
Stunting also allows cheerleaders to compete in regional and national competitions that put them center stage instead of in their traditionally supportive role on the sidelines of football games or the corner of the gymnasium.
The problem is that there is very little regulation and no enforcement, leaving it up to individual coaches to seek the training they may need to coach the cheer squad. Each coach also institutes his or her own safety requirements for squads, which leads to different requirements and restrictions from school to school.
"There are no requirements for coaches to get certain certifications," said Trish Andersen, the coach of Carbon High's cheerleading squad. "We've taken it upon ourselves to get every safety certification available, but it's not required."
In Utah, high school cheerleading coaches are required to go to risk management training because the Utah High School Activities Association covers cheerleading under its catastrophic insurance policy. That training, the coaches say, is not enough. One pointed out it doesn't even include CPR training.
"The National Federation of High Schools makes changes to the rules every year, as far as stunting," Andersen said. Keeping up with those changes and the latest in safety techniques can be daunting, and again, it's not required.
Skyview High principal Dee Ashcroft said he prefers cheerleading not be a competitive activity because that is when teams try to out-do each other with more dangerous stunts. The mandatory safety clinics help address most of those concerns and issues.
"Our coaches and cheerleaders go to the camps and we follow the rules," Ashcroft said. "It is a lot safer because the girls are practicing as they should and following the rules."
Many coaches said they've told other coaches or principals that the stunts they were performing on sidelines or at basketball games were actually illegal. For example, a basket toss, where a cheerleader is tossed 15 to 20 feet into the air and then caught by three other cheerleaders, is not allowed on a gymnasium floor. Still, squads do it all the time.
"We've taken basket tosses out of our stunts," Andersen said. "That's where most of your injuries come from. ... A lot of coaches have no clue because there's no requirement to be certified. They're just unaware."
Marc Hunter, executive director of the Utah Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, said he's had to enforce cheerleading rules himself a time or two.
"It's bad if I have to tell a visiting school that they can't do something," he said, acknowledging that when he's done that, the coaches have been unaware they were violating any rules. "I know they're supposed to know those things."
Romney said she has informed administrators when she's seen violations, but she's never seen anyone punished.
"There are supposed to be fines, but I've never actually seen that happen," she said. "We're all supposed to be abiding by the same rules."
One of the reasons coaches wanted the sport sanctioned a few years ago was that they thought it would bring uniform safety requirements to the stunts.
But while cheerleading has changed, the perception of the sport, especially among athletic administrators, has not.
When cheerleading coaches approached the Utah High School Activities Association a few years ago asking to be sanctioned, the body was reluctant to add a new sport, especially without a survey of high school administrators. That survey apparently never was done, and it's something that cheer coaches need to take on themselves if they want to be a sanctioned sport.
Hunter said no one has asked his organization to conduct a survey, which would need to ask whether the sport would be co-ed or just for girls and whether there would be other limitations.
Coaches said they want the limitations that come with being sanctioned, including limits on the amount squads can spend per student and required dead-time and moratoriums. Andersen said she's talked to some coaches who don't want to be sanctioned, but most want the oversight for safety's sake and also for the girls.
"They would get the recognition they deserve as well," Andersen said.
Currently, however, there is no organized push to get cheerleading, which is now a co-ed sport at most high schools and colleges, sanctioned by the UHSAA.
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