“Hellcats” Cram Session: The Truth About Injuries In Cheerleading

It’s “Hellcats” night, party people! As I’ve told you 901 times—this show has a special place in my DVR heart because it is based on a non-fiction book I wrote a few years back called Cheer: Inside The Secret World Of College Cheerleaders. Also, the show is awesome. So I hope you’ll be watching tonight at 9 p.m.

In the first three episodes, we’ve seen a cheerleader—Alice—topple off the top of a pyramid and break her wrist. And we witnessed another—Savannah’s sister—slip out of a stunt and be hospitalized for head injuries. So, you are probably wondering, how realistic is this?The scene with Savannah’s sister definitely gave me pause because I’ve never seen a cheerleader fall without a spotter softening the landing. But the truth is that cheerleaders do get injured. With flyers zipping through the air at high velocities for stunts, pyramids, and basket tosses, it’s an inevitability that sometimes they will land wrong. And bases, the cheerleaders who do the lifting, often take hard hits as they come down.

If you ask a cheerleader about their injuries, you’ll often get a laundry list, like this one from a top cheerleader at a midwestern college: “I’ve gotten four concussions, broken a rib, knocked my jaw out of place, and of course I’ve broken fingers.” Cheerleaders see it as an unfortunate part of their sport.

Media outlets, however, tend to see it much more sensationally. Dozens of newspapers and magazines have done exposes on injuries in cheerleading. Here are the stats you’ll hear most often: Every year, about 25,000 cheerleaders will end up in the emergency room for everything from hyperextended joints to serious head and neck injuries. And over the past 23 years, of the 104 female athletes catastrophically injured in a high school or college sport, more than half were cheerleaders.

These numbers are shocking at first, but they’re also misleading. First of all, there are more than four million cheerleaders out there—which means that six of every 1,000 cheerleaders will be injured in any given year. In football, that number is 42 out of a 1,000. And for that second figure, we are talking about 58 women catastrophically injured in cheerleading over a 23-year period. Terrible, yes, but hardly scandalous. In fact, sledding, bunk beds, volleyball, and television sets all landed more people in the hospital than cheerleading last year.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about why cheerleading injuries are so shocking. I think part of it has to do with the fact that many people think cheerleading is pom-pom-shaking and not an acrobatic competitive sport. But I also think a lot of the outrage has to do with the fact that the people injured in cheerleading are women. And young, generally attractive women to boot. So while I think it’s important to talk about injuries in cheerleading—this is what leads to better coach training and safety standards—I can’t help but feel like there’s a touch of “We need to save our women folk” in the coverage.

What do you guys think?