As the 2006 basketball season drew to a close, Kristi Yamaoka became the most famous cheerleader in America. It wasn't just that the Southern Illinois University sophomore fell 15 feet from a pyramid, landed on her head, and fractured a vertebra. It was that she never stopped cheering. Strapped to a stretcher, Yamaoka continued to perform her routine while the Salukis' fight song played her out of the gym and into an ambulance.
In the days that followed, the accident drew publicity for another reason. It prompted the American Association of Cheer Coaches and Administrators (AACCA) and the NCAA to ban all pyramids over two persons high and all basket tosses without the use of a mat or protective surface for the rest of the basketball season.
And the stunts are not coming back any time soon. The Rules Committee of the AACCA voted in June to keep the ban in place for the 2006-07 school year and then added twisting and flipping stunts, twisting tumbling skills, and one-arm stunts to the list of moves allowable only with a mat or on a grass surface. During basketball games, these stunts will be relegated to halftime and postgame.
For high school cheerleaders, 2006-07 brings new rules from the AACCA as well. Pyramids over two persons high were already illegal at the high school level, but this fall, basket tosses will be completely banned.
Some athletic administrators are clearly relieved by the rules changes. "We've been concerned about cheerleading for some time," says Leslie Wurzberger, Associate Athletic Director for Marketing and the administrator in charge of cheer at the University of Washington. "When I saw that accident, I realized it could have been us. There's no question that the ban is the right thing to do."
Jim Lord, Executive Director of the AACCA, explains that the ban was instituted because, no matter how rare, a fall onto a hardwood floor almost always results in a catastrophic injury. In addition, Mutual of Omaha, which provides catastrophic injury insurance for NCAA member institutions, has already signaled discomfort with cheerleading's level of risk. "One more incident like Southern Illinois' may be all it takes for them to decide cheer isn't worth covering," Lord says.
The ban's effect will be primarily on basketball, although its language isn't sport specific. "We'll probably continue to see these stunts at football games, where cheerleaders generally have a protected surface," Lord says.
Some schools, including Oregon State University and Washington, have decided to adopt the ban across all sports. "We're just not doing those stunts anymore, period," Wurzberger says.
Lord cautions that while banning cheerleading's most difficult stunts will reduce catastrophic injuries, each institution needs to assess its own risk. The first step is for administrators to take an active role. "Regardless of where cheerleading is housed in the institution, athletic directors need to get involved and initiate a discussion about safety," he says.
That discussion should begin with clarifying the mission of cheerleading at your institution. "With more emphasis on competition has come more risk," Wurzberger says. "We each need to ask the question, ‘Is our cheer program about competition, or school spirit, atmosphere, and service?'"
For Washington, the answer is the latter. "We told our cheer squad and coaches, ‘We're not about competing. We're about school spirit. We're not saying we won't let you compete, but it's not going to be a mission of our program,'" says Wurzberger.
Schools that place emphasis on stunting then need to make sure they are providing the proper resources to their cheer teams. "A stunting squad needs access to athletic training services, a strength and conditioning coach, time in the weightroom, and appropriate practice facilities," Wurzberger says.
Another often-overlooked area is providing safety measures for visiting cheer squads, according to Nicole Macchione-Early, Director of Spirit Programs and Cheer Coach at George Washington University, who says that when her squad is on the road, there is rarely adequate space to warm up. "That really adds to the risk," she says. "It would be great if administrators provided visiting cheer squads with resources, the same way they do for visiting sports teams, coaches, and referees."
The most important step in reducing risk, however, is careful oversight of your coach's teaching methods. "When falls happen, it's almost always because someone is trying to perform a skill that's beyond their ability level," Lord says. "If every coach used the proper progression, we wouldn't need a ban."
The AACCA provides a cheerleading program safety audit designed specifically for use by administrators at: www.aacca.org/safetyaudit.doc.