Let's hear it for S-A-F-E-T-Y

On gridiron sidelines across the nation this weekend, cheerleading squads will treat folks in the stands to gymnastic performances that go far beyond rousing any hometown football crowd.

In fact, there's less and less that's old-school about cheerleading routines - other than the fact that cheering remains mostly a female preserve, at least at the high school level.

But the athletic stunts that now comprise much of cheerleading - the tosses, flips, and towering human pyramids - provide thrills that too often come with a steep price, when cheerleaders take a tumble.

The rising injuries among cheerleaders prompted the medical professionals charged with the care of these young athletes to take note, and they're urging sensible steps to make cheerleading a safer activity.


Does cheerleading have to be classified as a sport to make it safer?

Citing a staggering rise in emergency room visits by cheering squad members over the last three decades, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy paper calling on school sports associations to designate cheerleading officially as a sport.

The pediatricians' reasoning is that, by classifying cheerleaders as athletes - which they are, by any standards - they would be protected under more formal safety rules. For instance, skilled supervision could be required, adequate facilities, and limits on practice time to guard against injuries triggered by fatigue. Physicals should be a must before joining a cheering squad, and conditioning training should be required regularly, the policy states.

Even more critical to the health of these student athletes, the pediatricians recommend that cheerleaders who have suffered a concussion must be given medical clearance before being allow to return to the sidelines. That's in step with improved precautions being urged for football-playing athletes, where the risk of head injury is even greater.

Of course, the pediatricians' recommendations sound like commonsense measures that most schools and athletic boosters should be advocating already. Qualified coaches? Check. Spotting risky stunts? Check. And, indeed, a major cheering trade group, the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches & Administrators, responds that its policies closely parallel the Academy of Pediatrics guidelines.

However, the group acknowledges that many schools - especially if their cheering squads do not enter competitions - don't regard cheering as a sport, and may well not be as vigilant about meeting the guidelines. 

In that sense, the pediatricians' group deserves credit for trying to jump-start an important public debate on combating the risks of cheerleading.

Certainly, the ranks of cheerleaders are sizable, with more than three million cheerleaders nationwide from ages 6 and up. As many as 400,000 cheerleaders - 96 percent of them girls - participate on high school squads.

The 37,000 annual emergency room visits by cheerleaders should be all the evidence needed to take steps to safeguard their health, whether or not that means a sports designation. Not just pediatricians, but also parents, school and athletic officials should be cheering for that effort.