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Cheerleading Should Be Classified as a Sport, Nation's Doctors Say

At its annual meeting in Chicago on Monday, the American Medical Association adopted a policy recommending that cheerleading be considered a sport at the high school and collegiate levels.

The AMA is encouraging state high school associations and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to begin declaring cheerleading as a sport to ensure that cheerleaders have improved safety measures and better training for coaches.

"These girls are flipping 10, 20 feet in the air," said Dr. Samantha Rosman, a specialist in emergency medicine at Boston Children's Hospital, before the floor vote, per The Associated Press. "We need to stand up for what is right for our patients and demand they get the same protection as their football colleagues."

More than 116,000 high school girls in 32 states participated in competitive spirit squads during the 2012-13 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Association's most recent participation survey. That figure does not include data from the other 19 state athletic associations, and also does not account for cheerleaders who didn't participate in competitions with their squads.

Back in the fall of 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics similarly recommended that all 50 states designate cheerleading as a sport to ensure that squads have qualified coaches, access to certified athletic trainers, and injury surveillance. At that time, only 29 state high school athletic associations recognized cheerleading as a sport, and the NCAA did not.

Cheerleading injuries have shot up significantly in recent years, according to data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission featured in the pediatrics academy's policy statement. In 1980, cheerleading injuries accounted for 4,954 emergency-room visits; by 2007, that number rose to 26,786.

"Cheerleading has become extremely competitive in the past few years, incorporating more complex skills than ever before," said Dr. Cynthia LaBella, co-author of the pediatrics academy's guidelines, in a statement. "Relatively speaking, the injury rate is low compared to other sports, but despite the overall lower rate, the number of catastrophic injuries continues to climb. That is an area of concern and needs attention for improving safety."

In the spring of 2012, the National Federation of State High School Associations banned high school cheerleaders from performing a double twist to a cradle, also known as a "double down," in an effort to reduce the risk of concussions in cheerleading.

"The number [of concussions] that were coming from double downs was overwhelming and appeared to be increasing," said Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, to The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time the ban was announced. "The decision was a very hard one to make, because cheerleaders will see this as taking something away from them."

Cheerleading isn't just fun and pom poms anymore. It involves highly advanced maneuvers that require a great deal of strength, concentration, and athletic ability. And if we're going by the dictionary definition of sport—"an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment"—it appears the American Medical Association has solid ground on which to stand in terms of its new cheerleading policy.

UPDATE, 6/11 (9:00 A.M.): It appears as though the American Medical Association's message came through loud and clear in New Jersey. On the same day the association adopted its new policy regarding cheerleading, a New Jersey Assembly member introduced a bill that would require the state interscholastic athletic association to recognize cheerleading as a sport. 

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