What could be more American than cheerleading? Probably for as long as athletes have competed on the ball field, cheerleaders have been pumping up the players and stirring up the crowds. But recently cheering has morphed into something much more daring...and dangerous. The routines now resemble Olympic gymnastics. And as Laura Ling found out, young women are getting hurt -- in the worst cases, lives are ruined.
Laura Ling/Reporter: Big hair, big smiles, big pom-poms. A little strutting and a few high kicks.This is cheerleading old-school style. And this is new-school cheerleading, with gravity-defying flips, precision people pyramids, and dramatic basket tosses. Think gymnastics-meets-Cirque du Soleil. This sort of "stunting" started taking off in the early eighties when competitions were first televised. By the year 2000, cheering had changed so much, Hollywood noticed and made the cult film "Bring It On" about the high-flying hijinks of high school contests.
Cheerleader ["Bring It On"]: Why does everyone have to go on a diet?
Coach: Because in cheerleading, we throw people in the air, and fat people don't go as high.
Ling: How high? In hundreds of competitions held year-round all over the country, flyers are thrown 10, 15, even 20 feet in the air. Researchers even did an experiment on the show "Sports Science," measuring the speed of a cheerleader tossed up 20 feet by her UC Irvine teammates. A crash dummy was then dropped from the same height to determine that if a flyer wasn't caught, the impact would be a body-crushing 2,000 pounds. These competitive cheerleaders, called "all-stars," have inspired sideline cheerers to ratchet up their routines to be flashier. High school and college sideline squads now do similar stunts during games on hard, unforgiving surfaces, not on mats like at all-star competitions. Videos of falls are posted all over the internet. Here, a group of high schoolers promote cheerleader tryouts doing tricks on concrete. The cliche warning "don't try this at home, kids" definitely applies to this group of girls. Not too surprisingly, emergency room visits for cheerleaders have skyrocketed. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 1980, almost 5,000 had to be taken to hospitals. In 2011, it was more than seven times that number -- a little over 38,000 injuries. But that's not the scariest statistic. This one is: among catastrophic injuries, like brain damage and paralysis, cheerleading is second only to football. And there's one other significant fact.
Incredibly, cheerleading accounts for 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries among high school female athletes. Yet, don't forget, by and large, it's not considered a sport.
You heard right! Unlike football or other sports, cheerleading is rarely classified as a sport by school districts and universities. The result is that coaching, training, and safety measures are haphazard at best. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently studied the injuries and issued a report recommending that cheerleading can be made safer if it becomes an officially-sanctioned sport.
Say Phommanyvong/Patty's father: Patty, are you ready?
Ling: The parents of Patty Phommanyphong fled Laos after the Vietnam War. They didn't know much about cheerleading when their 17-year-old daughter started doing it in her senior year of high school. Since she was light and little, Patty was at the top of pyramids and started doing flying stunts.
Say: I didn't know that. I didn't know that. I just know the dancing, cheerleading, you know? Kick the leg in the air and that's all. I saw the football game, every Sunday game. I saw them just carrying pom-poms, dancing on the ground. I didn't saw they throw her up in the air. Patty not professional to do that.
Ling: On October 5th, 2007, 17-year-old Patty had been cheering less than two months. This photo was taken just before that evening's football game. Patty did a trick and the other girls caught her. But the force from the catch stopped Patty's heart. Her cardiologist says it was most likely caused by commotio cordis, a little known, rare type of cardiac arrest, following blunt force to the heart area during sport. It often seems like a benign blow. Victims are usually athletes under eighteen who have softer chest walls, but otherwise healthy hearts. The mortality rate is high.
Paramedics were eventually able to restart patty's heart that night, but her brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long. Today, five years after the accident, she has to be fed through a feeding tube. She can't see or speak, although her mother often feels that Patty wants to say her mom's name.
Vilay Phommanyvong/Patty's mother [to Patty]: Can you say "ma?" Can you say "me?" Can you say "ma?"
Sometimes she try to talk to me, too, when I talk to her in the morning. I'm always reminding her to say my, ask her, "Can you say 'ma?'" I remind her every morning.
Ling: Patty's parents are her sole caregivers. They take turns sleeping in short shifts. Patty is never, ever left alone.
Say: When husband go out, wife stay home. When wife go out, husband have to stay home -- take care of patty. Everything she wants, we do for her. We do for her. We love her.
Kimberly Archie/Parent: Any reasonable person can look at a high school sideline cheerleading team in any city in California and see that that's an accident waiting to happen. It's abuse to allow kids to continue to do something which we all know could lead to catastrophic injury.
Ling: Kimberly Archie is a former cheerleader, the mother of a daughter who started cheering as a child and a son who played football as a kid. She was gung-ho in support of both activities until her daughter, then 15, was hurt at practice.
Archie: Ay daughter, Tiffani, had a double compound fracture, and she had to have surgery and have a metal plate and eight screws put in her arm. And, if she wanted to continue to cheer, we had to leave the metal plate in; otherwise the arm would be too weak.
Ling: Previously, she'd taken other girls to the hospital and was recognized by a doctor there.
Archie: And he said, "Aren't you the cheer mom that brought another kid in here? What are you guys doing? What are you thinking?" And that was another big, 'a-ha' moment.
Ling: Today, 24-year-old Tiffani still has the metal plate in her arm. She works alongside her mom at the organization Archie started, The National Cheer Safety Foundation.
Archie: I've been keeping records dating back to 1979 which is the first death, and we have 307 catastrophic injuries and 17 deaths. I think most parents would be surprised to hear those statistics. This is Laura Jackson. She's a paraplegic. She lives on a ventilator. This is Lindsey Heidelberg, and she broke her back, and so did three of her teammates. Bethany Norwood, and she initially was paralyzed from the waist down and later died from complications from her paralysis. And here is Lauren Chang. She was kicked in the chest. Her lungs collapsed and crushed her heart, and she died.
Ling: Kimberly Archie is adamant that the tumbling and acrobatics in today's cheerleading does make it a sport, just like gymnastics. But cheerleading isn't considered a sport, it's largely unregulated. Coach's training is her biggest concern.
Archie: Typical high school coach has zero experience in gymnastics. They're the English teacher. Maybe they were a cheerleader. Maybe they were a baton twirler. Maybe their sister cheered. Who knows? But as far as the training for high school cheer coaches, it's almost non-existent.
Ling: Certification as a cheer coach is overwhelmingly done online, in just a few hours for a modest fee.
Lauren Hysen/Cheerleading Coach [to cheerleaders]: Put it up nice and sharp, okay?
Ling: Lauren Hysen is the coach at Yucaipa High School, two-time U.S.A. national cheer champs. She has 15 years experience; is certified in first aid, CPR; and she's been trained in using a defibrillator. In short, she's what a coach should be. Every summer, she continues to hone her skills at a camp run by Dave Kirschner, a former cheerleader-turned-consultant. Kirschner is a stickler for safety. He insists that cheering can be done without injury if it's done smartly. Warming up, always using mats, and learning skills in progressions. There's even an app for that. Dave created it.
Kirschner: Myself, I'm on screen teaching you slowly, breaking it all down. On how to do these particular tricks.
They’re gonna bend their knees and get into a squat. They're creating a platform. This is our basket toss grip.
Kirschner [to cheerleaders]: One, two, three, four, five.
Laura: Wow! She went high up there.
Kirschner: They’ll probably throw her a good 10, 15 feet.
Ling: During this night's practice, the only close call was with our photographer.
Coach Lauren: Sorry!
Dave Fernandez/Cameraman: I got a little too close.
Lauren: Are you okay?
Fernandez: My fault. I'm fine.
Ling: Kirschner agrees with Kimberly Archie that competitive cheering is a sport, but he disagrees with her on sideline cheering. He worries that school districts will have to discontinue it because new regulations will be too expensive.
Kirschner: The injuries are happening, not because cheerleading's not a sport, but they're happening because of poor technique or unsafe practice environments.
Ling: Like those mats. Plenty of schools don't even have them. And then, there's that pesky problem of training.
Ling: Are there more coaches out there who are untrained than trained?
Dave: Yes, there are. There are more untrained coaches out there than trained when it comes to the technical components of stunting and of tumbling and of the flips and the pyramid dismounts and transitions.
Archie: I don't think I’ve slept well one night in 9 years, knowing that it's not a matter of “if,” it's only a matter of “when” the next catastrophic injury will happen.
Vilay: The cheerleading -- it looks like fun but it is not fun. It’s dangerous. They go overboard. Do over, you know. We don't want another kid to happen like patty.