Twenty-five years ago, some college buddies of mine and I were sitting around trying to determine which commonplace things would be gone from the American scene 20 years hence, at the turn of the century. The answers were pretty safe--8-track tapes and so on--but then I suggested cheerleaders, which was greeted with a gasp. While my nerdboys argued that there would always be a place in America for scantily clad young girls willing to debase themselves perchance to sidle up next to the sweaty quarterback, I couldn't imagine that remaining the case after a couple generations of females reaped the benefits of Title IX and saw how much more fun and fulfilling it was to actually play the games, rather than to stand on the sidelines and pretend to be enthused about those who were.
Shows what I know. Five years into the new millennium, cheerleading is not only still around; it's booming. There are cheerleading summer camps, cheerleader movies and mothers who are pushing their little Buffys into cheerleading at an early age to give them that competitive edge.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention two things. First off, three of my sisters were cheerleaders. My sweet Italian mother actually encouraged it. Since we were shockingly poor, it helped on the clothing budget, as they could wear their cheerleading outfits--which the school paid for--to school on game days.)
(Second, when my daughter was a high school athlete, she ran afoul of the cheerleaders at her school when she wrote a Tucson Citizen teen columnist article in which she mentioned that the cheerleaders handed down the homecoming queen crown like it was a family heirloom, and she thought it would be nice if one of her basketball teammates got a few votes. Well, the cheerleaders went nuts and declared war on her. They even tried to egg our house, but because they were cheerleaders and not real athletes, they couldn't throw for shit, and so, mostly, they just pissed off our neighbors.)
Just last week, hundreds of pre-teen cheerleaders gathered in the Old Pueblo (in an event partly sponsored by the Weekly) to have a cheer-off, not unlike the one immortalized in Bring It On. That movie was very funny, especially when hired-gun instructor Sparky Polastri uttered the legendary line, "Cheerleaders are dancers who've gone retarded."
Nowadays, however, cheerleaders are being sold as gymnasts who've gone social. And therein lies the biggest problem with this particular activity: Across the country, cheerleaders are being hurt, maimed and even killed in shocking numbers, and nobody seems willing to do anything about it. This number pretty much tells it all: In 2003, more high school cheerleaders suffered injuries that required medical attention than did football players, even though there are four times as many kids participating in football, which is supposed to be a pretty rough sport.
In the past 10 years, the number of emergency-room visits for cheerleading injuries--usually fractures, dislocations and serious sprains--has nearly doubled, from 15,700 to 28,400. The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Industry Research reports that 55 percent of all catastrophic injuries--those defined as severe injuries to the skull or spine--involve cheerleading.
And it's not even limited to those injuries. Just this summer, a 14-year-old Massachusetts girl was doing one of those tosses where she was thrown into the air and was supposed to spin a couple of times and be caught on her back. Instead, she over-rotated and landed face-down in her teammates' arms. The impact ruptured her spleen, and she died an hour later.
While improvements in equipment and training techniques have made most sports, including football, much safer, cheerleading is zooming off in the other direction. Part of the problem is that less than half of the states (including, fortunately, Arizona) classify cheerleading as a sport, thereby putting it under the auspices of the state's athletic governing body (in our case, the Arizona Interscholastic Association). This allows the activity to be governed by strict safety guidelines.
Other states treat it as a loosely defined "activity," like Chess Club or National Honor Society. Add to that the explosive growth of cheer academies and "all-star" cheer squads, which are the bastard cousins of the abomination known as club sports. Obviously, I'm not a big fan of cheerleading. I have no idea why a girl would choose that instead of volleyball or softball or even soccer. (And I don't even want to think about why a guy would.) But it should be, at most, a silly choice one made and then grew out of, like hickeys or a Pat Benatar haircut. It shouldn't be something that goes on a tombstone.