Sorry, cheerleading is not a sport

The American Medical Association recently designated cheerleading as a sport to help increase safety protocols and funding for high school and collegiate cheer programs. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

At its annual meeting in Chicago recently, the American Medical Association unexpectedly voted to adopt a policy designating cheerleading as a sport. It encouraged appropriate accrediting bodies to do the same.

It's about damn time, right?

Not so fast.

The AMA based its decision on an intention to increase safety protocols and funding for high school and collegiate cheer programs, which would be a positive outcome. The problem is that, by declaring cheerleading a sport, the AMA is taking a stance that could effectively eliminate cheerleading as it exists today.

Allow me to explain.

I was a cheerleader at the University of Florida and spent summers teaching at cheerleading camps around the country. After graduating from UF, I spent my first two years in New York City working as an editor for American Cheerleader magazine.

I long ago decided to avoid the cheer-as-sport debate. In this case, though, I must engage.

Cheerleaders are athletes. College cheerleading was as physically demanding and mentally challenging as any activity in which I've participated. It afforded me the opportunity to travel the country, paid for much of my schooling and challenged me athletically on a daily basis.

But cheerleading is not a sport.

Most definitions of "sport" include a focus on competition. That is how the NCAA, the National Federation of State High School Associations and the Women's Sports Foundation define a sport. Oh yeah, Webster's says that too.

Sports teams exist to compete, not to perform and entertain or support another group that competes. In the cheer-as-sport conversation, this is the most important element to understand. One can be an athlete and not participate in a sport. And one can participate in a sport and not be very athletic. By definition, billiards and bowling are sports. Backcountry skiing, climbing, ballet and cheerleading are not. I'm fine with that.

Although the athleticism of cheerleaders has risen dramatically since Johnny Campbell led the first cheers at a University of Minnesota football game in 1898, what hasn't changed is the primary focus of school cheerleading: to promote school spirit, support other teams in competition and provide leadership within the school and community. Because of the highly athletic nature of modern cheerleading, annual competitions were created to showcase these athletes on their own and away from the sidelines, and the sport-or-not debate began.

The competition at high school and collegiate national championships -- some of which are aired on ESPN -- is incredible, but these events take place only once per year. That's not frequently enough to satisfy NCAA, NFHS or Title IX sport requirements. And many teams still choose not to compete at all.

If cheerleading squads began practicing and competing enough to satisfy those requirements, they would be forced to drastically scale back the number of games at which they cheer. Or stop cheering at games entirely. The minute that happens, rest in peace, cheerleading.

For athletes who wish to participate in cheerleading solely to compete, there are private all-star teams and STUNT, a new version of competitive cheer that was developed by USA Cheer, the governing body of cheerleading in the U.S. The goal of STUNT is to provide a means for female cheerleaders to compete in the spring season. It is the fastest-growing high school sport and is seeking emerging sport status from the NCAA. Unlike traditional cheerleading, it also meets Title IX eligibility requirements.

STUNT is a sport, as its athletes participate solely to compete. But it is not cheerleading.

In making its recommendation, the AMA said it believes that defining cheerleading as a sport will cause money from school athletic budgets to flow into cheer programs, allowing for the purchase of mats and safety equipment. Schools will begin to provide the same level of safety training for coaches that other teams receive, and cheerleaders will be granted more access to training facilities.

"The AMA recognizes the potential dangers now associated with cheerleading and believes steps should be taken to ensure the health and safety of individuals who participate in the time-honored tradition," AMA board member Georgia Tuttle, M.D., told espnW. "By designating cheerleading as a sport, those participating will benefit from the same robust safety protocols as other designated sports, including properly trained coaches and adherence to rules for the proper execution of stunts."

That's all great in theory, and the AMA's motives seem sincere. More attention to safety is a wonderful thing. In one of the fairest assessments of cheerleading injuries in recent years, FiveThirtyEight's Walt Hickey examined recent injury reports and found that while cheerleading is not nearly as dangerous as it was previously believed to be, what distinguishes high school cheerleading from almost every sport is that cheerleaders are injured in practice more frequently than in competition. That clearly points toward a need for access to safer practice surfaces and more highly trained coaches.

But that is something that can and should happen whether cheer is defined as a sport or as an athletic activity.

Many leaders in the cheerleading community support the ideal that the AMA is advocating; they just disagree with the method. Bill Seely, the president of USA Cheer, says that while his organization and the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, the nonprofit safety education association for cheerleading, share the AMA's goal of decreasing injuries, he believes the medical community is coming at the issue from the wrong angle.

"We believe the best approach is not relabeling cheerleading but ensuring all athletes and coaches are trained and certified and all programs adhere to safety rules," Seely said. "Relabeling cheerleading will change its fundamental nature to a purely competitive sport. We're disappointed the AMA made this recommendation without consulting us or reviewing our safety initiatives, but we hope to work with them toward a shared goal of cheerleader safety."

But first, it's cheerleading that needs to be protected.