Cheerleading meant everything to Alexandria Fitzgerald. She found her passion in the challenge and excitement in every performance and competition. Growing up, her life revolved around the rigorous training and the tight-nit community surrounding her team.
After joining her High School's cheerleading team, Alexandria Fitzgerald knew the sport would be competitive and physically taxing. What she did not know was the dangers involved in the acrobatics, and that it would lead her to receiving serious injuries that would stay with her the rest of her life.
A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics stated, "Cheerleading has accounted for about 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries in high school female athletes over the past 25 years." The most common injury for those athletes: concussions.
Cheerleading has evolved greatly from the sideline chants that brought it to popularity. Participants now are expected to have a background in gymnastics and tumbling, as the winning routines in competition involve more and more dangerous stunts.
Fitzgerald suffered three concussions during cheerleading. Each successive trauma grew more serious as her brain was not given adequate time to heal which she was told created compounding effects that led to five other concussions.
To this day, she still experiences symptoms such as short term memory loss and dizziness. Cheerleaders in competition will often fall on hard gym floors or turf when a stunt goes awry. These falls can lead to concussions not only through direct trauma to the head but also through an impact to "another part of the body where the force transmits to the brain" said Joanna Boyd, a concussion specialist at the Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey. Fitzgerald and organizations like the BIANJ have worked to spread awareness as more data is collected on injuries within cheerleading.
A study from the University of North Carolina states that safety issues during training may account for the problem. Cheerleading was the only sport of the 20 surveyed that had a higher risk of concussion in practice.
Some researchers point at the fact cheerleading isn't afforded the same safety guidelines as other contact sports.
In the US only 15 states officially designate cheerleading as a sport.
Dawn Comstock, a professor at Colorado's School of Public Health in Denver said, "If cheerleading isn’t officially designated as a sport at a school, there are better odds that the team isn’t practicing on athletic mats and instead setting up in, say, a parking lot or school cafeteria."
Unlike football, cheerleaders have no helmets or pads. Safety mats are used during practice, but during games and competitions, they are prone to the same risks that players in the NFL and college level deal with in contact sports.
The National Football League has seen an unprecedented amount of scrutiny on their safety guidelines. As they've scrambled to adapt to new research, Neurologist Bennet Omalu says, “There is no equipment that can prevent this kind of injury.”
Fitzgerald hopes that the cheerleading community will take steps to address the issue of concussions in the same way other sports have started to take accountability.
She says the responsibility largely falls on the coaches and training staff in order to make changes on a local level. Her vision for the sport adapting to this issue on a larger scale will require an acceptance that the concussion problem is real.
This is obviously an extremely controversial issue, because once you admit there's a problem, then you have to take steps to fix it
"This is obviously an extremely controversial issue, because once you admit there's a problem, then you have to take steps to fix it," she said.