Associations sued in cheerleader death

by Walter Olson on October 24, 2008

Medford, Mass.: 14-year-old Ashley Burns was performing an airborne role in a cheerleading routine when she fell and fatally ruptured her spleen. Now her mother is suing the gym where it happened, two accrediting organizations (the U.S. All Star Federation for Cheer and Dance Teams, and the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators) and other defendants. (Donna Goodison, “Mom files lawsuit in cheerleader’s ’05 death”, Boston Herald, Oct. 21).

{ 28 comments }

1 PhilG 10.24.08 at 9:21 am

Note that, in the article, her lawyer, Robert Bonsignore, is quoted as saying “The ($2 billion) cheerleading industry is, and has been, completely out of control and profit-driven for a long time.(The industry has) been profiting by putting cheerleaders at risk, causing death and serious injury in staggering numbers.” Thank goodness we have such a fearless crusader to protect us from the abuses of the cheerleading industry.

2 Todd Rogers 10.24.08 at 10:04 am

Let me be the first to start the flood of potential defendants: The loggers who fell the trees which were used to make the hardwood floors of the gym. Next defendant, please…line forms to the right.

3 Dirk D 10.24.08 at 10:23 am

Don’t forget the saw manufacturers. Those loggers didn’t cut down those trees with their hands.

4 arby 10.24.08 at 11:03 am

Don’t forget to add God or the deity of your choice to the list – gravity played a major role in this event…

5 Jim Collins 10.24.08 at 12:26 pm

Is it too much to hope for that the Sierria Club planted the trees?

6 David Wisniewski 10.24.08 at 5:10 pm

I love how these pi plaintiffs wait until days before the statute of limitations is about to run out to file (which is 3 years in Mass for pi actions).

On another note, reading the newspaper article between the lines, it seems to be another suit that “is not about the money”.

7 gitarcarver 10.25.08 at 12:17 am

I love how these pi plaintiffs wait until days before the statute of limitations is about to run out to file (which is 3 years in Mass for pi actions).

The child died on August 9, 2005.

The suit, according to the article, was filed on October 20, 2008.

Is there some special calendar that is in play here?

8 Bumper 10.25.08 at 1:53 am

Something is missing here.

Ruptured spleens if treated promptly are not fatal.

All industry is profit driven, or it’s driven out of business.

AND after almost 40 years of compiling stats on K-12 injuries I cannot recall a single death of a cheerleader from an accident. I am sure one happened some where, some time; but nothing compared to interscholastic sports. Cheerleading is hazardous, a lot of backs and knees, but nothing like basketball or football.

Did I miss the part about where it’s not about the money?

9 Kimberly Archie 10.25.08 at 2:33 am

Who said Ashley Burns was the first, or only death in cheerleading? First death on record was in Texas in 1979.

10 Todd Rogers 10.25.08 at 9:13 am

It’s not about the money. It’s about the protecting the children…

…the children.

11 Bill Poser 10.25.08 at 4:00 pm

Bumper,

I don’t know the statistics, but I’ve certainly heard of severe injuries and fatalities resulting from cheerleading accidents. Cheerleaders are doing more and more elaborate stunts, so it isn’t surprising. Here’s an example of a fatality that Google turned up:
Medford accident.

12 Bill Poser 10.25.08 at 4:02 pm

From the same article:

Between 1982 and 2001, 25 high school girls suffered severe injuries in cheerleading accidents, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. Four died.

13 OBQuiet 10.26.08 at 12:26 am

Bill,

Isn’t that story the same one that started this thread, Ashley Burns?

And the numbers quoted in the article do not match those reported at the NCCSIR site. They show only 1 fatality in the period quoted. Two when you include the time through 2005/6

http://www.unc.edu/depts/nccsi/ReportDataTables.htm

http://www.unc.edu/depts/nccsi/AllSportDataTables/HighCheerDirect.html

Though there does seem to have been a MAJOR uptick in injuries over the last few years.

Participation figures would be helpful. More people seem to have died in High School playing Lacrosse than Cheerleading but you need more info to know which is more hazardous.

14 Kimberly Archie 10.26.08 at 2:34 am

Bumper,

Not like football……..

Dr Frederick Mueller, a sports injury expert at the University of North Carolina, who did the research, told The Sunday Telegraph: “We are getting more and more of these cheerleading injuries, and they are pretty serious head and neck injuries. They’re throwing people in the air 20 to 25 feet and trying to catch them on the way down. It’s really gymnastic activity. It shouldn’t be called cheerleading any more. 10/08

“This tells you that cheerleading is dangerous — even more dangerous than football when it comes to the rate,” said Mueller, noting that because there is no reporting system for cheerleading accidents, the problem is probably worse. “I think it’s a serious problem, and it has to be looked at. I think cheerleading has to make some dramatic changes” -Washington Post 9/9/08

Cheerleading “has the potential to be very dangerous,” said Brenda J. Shields, who runs the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and led the Pediatrics study. –Washington Post 9/9/08

The experts have been making recommendations for cheer safety since the 80′s and the cheer industry continues to ignore sports medicine and science.

Of the 148 catastrophic injuries sustained by females athletes in high school and college (not k-12) 99, were cheerleaders DOUBLE the number of all other female sports combined!

CPSC report released last month stated that cheering injuries cost the American health care system $4.38 billion.

Bumper is right about one thing…..”it’s nothing compared to interscholastic sports.” Cheerleading is in a league of it’s own when it comes to injuries, and their coaches are the least likely to know what to do in an emergency.

The frequency and severity of cheerleading injuries is a national crisis.

15 Kimberly Archie 10.26.08 at 3:09 pm

One more for Bumper

Today’s headline in The Signal, a southern California paper

Cheering tops list of most dangerous sports
activity out paces basketball in serious injuries
by 16 to 1

16 Bill Poser 10.26.08 at 7:29 pm

OBQuiet,

Yes, there is an apparent discrepancy between the article and the statistics on the NCCSIR site. One possible explanation would be that the article is including fatalities that are not “direct”, but I don’t know.

Who if anyone should be liable for these injuries is an open question. If the organizations are pushing the use of more and more elaborate stunts without providing the kind of equipment and training for both coaches and girls that ought to accompany them (as, e.g., in gymnastics) than I could see them as being liable. On the other hand, it could be that the girl who died did something foolish and brought it on herself. Whether this suit is overreaching depends on facts that I don’t think we have.

17 BrandonR 10.26.08 at 9:33 pm

It is ridiculous and would never happen, but I wonder if any of these organizations could counter-sue mom. After all, the girl was 14 years old–which means she needed parental permission to cheer in the first place. Usually that means a signed form or at the very least a permission slip.

I could understand the suit if mom doesn’t believe people at the gym waited too long to get her daughter medical attention, but I fail to see what the accrediting organizations or cheerleading association as a whole would have to do with that.

18 Kimberly Archie 10.26.08 at 11:14 pm

Bill Poser: You are correct in that the indirect deaths (which would include any heart related conditions) are not included.

19 Brad Ford 10.27.08 at 12:08 pm

Years ago, I ended up on our cheerleading team after “winning” a bet. As a varsity wrestler (and former football player), I was shocked by the number of injuries sustained by the girls our our squad. After 1 week of camp, 12 girls managed to sustain:
1. Serious knee injury requiring surgery;
2. One dislocated shoulder;
3. Numerous strains and sprains;
4. On near fatality when a girl fell off a pyramid head first. (Luckily, I did my job and caught her.)

When I went to wrestling camp, we beat the crap out of each other for 9 days. Nobody (including me) got seriously injured. Indeed, I wrestled the a member of the US Olympic team without incident. Why? We had great coaches, great safety equipment, and we knew what we were doing.

Bottom line, cheerleading is dangerous and largely pointless. Without properly trained instructors and good safety equipment, it is a recipe for disaster.

20 Bumper 10.27.08 at 11:00 pm

Ms. Archie clearly you have a cause and are on a mission. Good for you. If I have learned one thing at OL it is not to take anything personal or get personal. The information you provided has no links to verify it’s validity, and may well be cherry picked for emphasis. We can agree that it is a dangerous activity, as are a lot of activities in which children participate. Where we disagree is how dangerous it is compared to other activities. What I am basing my comments on is data that I collected over a fourty year period for hundreds of thousands of K-12 age children who got injured in school and youth group activities, which included interscholastic sports and cheerleading. That data was used to project the costs of paying for treatment of future similar injuries and rates to insure same. During that time injuries from cheerleading activities were no more prevalent or expensive to treat than any other activity save senior high football. If you want to know how dangerous something is go ask the people who insure it.

Encapsulate your data with meaning, how many children over how many years to spend $4.38 billion on treatment? How many children are participating today in cheerleading versus ten years ago? Does not every school, camp and gym have trained adults to supervise the training of these cheerleaders? Are these adults so devoid of personal responsibility that they robotically only do what the national organization tells them to do? Did these organizations tell this child’s mom not to take her to the hospital even though it appeared she was ailing?

21 Bill Poser 10.28.08 at 1:55 am

Bumper,

How recent is your injury data? Is it recent enough to reflect the apparent fact that the difficulty of the stunts that cheerleaders perform has increased in recent years?

22 Bumper 10.28.08 at 3:24 am

To the fall of 2005 when I retired. But I clearly remember in the mid 90s when my son was playing high school football shuddering when we were sitting mid-bleachers watching young ladies being launched to our eye level. I don’t know of any changes in the last three years that would elevate cheerleading to a national crisis.

I am reminded of the time not that long ago when our governor, who rode motorcycles, got the helmet law rescinded. A couple of years later there was a hew and cry when motorcycle related deaths went up by half again. No matter that we were in a resurgence of motorcycles (no doubt the result of the Discovery channel) and ridership was up over double from the previous years. So now they have to wear helmets again.

So maybe there are more kids participating, maybe the size of the groups have gotten larger and there is less supervision, maybe the kids need better physical conditioning. Maybe there is a back story to the case that resulted in this lawsuit. But until someone can put together the broader picture all I can respond with is based on my own experience.

23 Richard Nieporent 10.28.08 at 10:28 am

Thanks Bumper for your realistic assessment of the risks of participating in cheerleading. If one were to believe the scare stories then the only activity that would be more dangerous than cheerleading would be becoming a suicide bomber. It is hard for me to believe that cheerleading is uniquely dangerous and that other organized sports that also require one to defy gravity (gymnastics, ski jumping and diving come to mind) wouldn’t have similar types of injuries.

24 gitarcarver 10.28.08 at 1:15 pm

It is hard for me to believe that cheerleading is uniquely dangerous and that other organized sports that also require one to defy gravity (gymnastics, ski jumping and diving come to mind) wouldn’t have similar types of injuries.

There are two major players in sport regulations at the High School and College Level. The first is the NCAA, which first addressed cheerleading safety in 2005, and basically has prohibited certain stunts from being performed. This is in association with the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators. When you read the AACCA “rules,” there is no requirement for safety equipment. The “rules” are basically a restriction of certain moves and stunts.

The National Federation of High School Associations has had a rule book for sports since 1935, but the first rule book for cheerleading was published in 1985. It too only dealt with moves and stunts and not safety equipment. Only recently has the NFHSA come out with rules for safety equipment when doing certain stunts.

The point I am trying to make is that while other sports have aggressively addressed safety in the form of safety equipment, cheerleading seems to be lagging behind in that area. In baseball, everything from the bat to the ball to helmets to gloves to hats to jewelry is regulated. The same thing isn’t there in cheerleading. There is no requirement for the most basic of equipment such as a mat.

Secondly, there is something else that should be looked at and that is the difference physically between men and women. I have never figured this out, but as a sports official, I can tell you that when I umpire a softball game, it is not unusual to see 3 or 4 girls per team with metal knee braces on. In umpiring baseball, it is rare to see a single player on either team wearing the same type of brace. The same is true with basketball. In the women’s game, knee braces are common. In the men’s game, they are common, but very much less common than with women.

I am not saying that any regulation would have saved the girl’s life in this case. What I am saying is that the regulation for safety equipment in other sports appears to be lacking in cheerleading.

25 Bumper 10.28.08 at 3:20 pm

gitarcarver,

Some of what you note is probably because for the most part cheerleading is not considered a sport and as such was not under the athletic department of the school. Thus probably the formation of the two groups the got used that brought about the whole thread.

Although as it has been pointed out it has become more akin to gymnastics than a spirit squad. Other than outlawing certain moves I am not sure what else there is to regulate; shoes, socks and uniforms.(Sorry but those pom-poms are an inch to long?) Athletes have no standard of conditioning necessary to participate, other than a cursory medical clearance.

Orthopedics is not my specialty, but I have been told by those who it is that the prevalence of knee problems with girls is God’s fault. It seems the female pelvic girdle is usually wider than a males and this causes different angles of gait, etc., which can lead to knee problems. But as we recently found out they may have trouble suing the maker, at least in Kansas.

26 Brad Ford 10.28.08 at 3:52 pm

Looking at the posts, there has been little commentary on the quality of “cheerleading” coaching provided by schools. At my high school, our wrestling coach was a former Division 1 wrestler with twenty years experience. Our baseball coach played college in the Big 12. All our football coaches played college football “somewhere” and the head coach had 20+ years experience.

Our “cheerleading” coach taught English and appeared to have been selected on the basis she was willing to do it because she needed the stipend. As far as I could tell, she had no training whatsoever.

27 gitarcarver 10.28.08 at 5:55 pm

Bumper,
Other than outlawing certain moves I am not sure what else there is to regulate; shoes, socks and uniforms.

Gymnastics has standards for padding on the floor and apparatus. Why not have something similar for cheerleading especially if we are throwing kids 20 and 30 feet into the air over hard flooring? Even if we are dropping them from standing on the shoulders of teammates, why not have padding underneath their landing area?

Like you, I am not sure what can be done, but I am sure that launching kids up into the air without padding or some type of protection when they come back to the ground would never be tolerated in other sports.

Secondly, the point I was trying to make with the girl’s knees is that it is a false comparrison to say “more people get hurt in cheerleading than in football.” More girls get hurt in basketball than boys get hurt in basketball. I have a feeling that people make the comparrison between football and cheerleading to feed into the idea that cheerleading is a sport (it isn’t) and that cheerleaders are in more danger because of the activity, rather than acknowledging that in comparable sports, women get hurt more than men.

It is simply a false comparrison.

28 Al Mac 12.09.08 at 6:41 am

Are people finding sports that dull that they need to see scantily clad young girls (and boys) flying around. May i suggest that people start concentrating on watching the game and going to a strip club if they still require fulfilment of that kind. Let the kids go to gymnastics where the activities are far better controlled, with 1-1 supervision in most cases and professionaly qualified coaches. Children will do dangerous things because they look fun so will continue to want to be cheerleaders, especially with society making them think they are the prettiest and most elligable girls. As adults we need to ensure their safety and wellbeing.
I play rugby in Scotland, where there are no sports with cheerleaders at half time. Half time is for the athletes to get a breather and supporters to get another drink. Lets get back to the sport and stop trying to add glitz and glamour to what is effectivly a modern gladiators arena.

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