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Leave the Acrobatics to Acrobats

April 6, 1996

After three weeks of watching agile kids defying gravity, soaring up, up and away, high over the hardwood courts of college basketball, it’s time for a collective sigh of relief.

The NCAA tournament is over and none of the cheerleaders got hurt. Not this time.

The kids got lucky again. Oh, there was the usual quota of youngsters wearing knee braces and wrist wraps, souvenirs from previous stunts that produced strains and sprains, the stuff that comes with the territory. But nothing tragic.

Some day, some place, though, some well-meaning youngster is going to miss a catch on one of these acrobats coming down over the court and the sport will be stained by disaster _ a head injury or something worse.

For what?

To show school spirit?

Get serious.

You want to cheer, go ahead and cheer. Wave pompoms. Yell to your heart’s content. Scream your lungs out. Run from baseline to baseline waving banners. Paint your faces in school colors. Paste those cute little decals on your cheeks. Run out there in shorts and skirts and dance those timeouts away. Some schools, like Duke University, figure that’s sufficient.

It’s the other stuff, the climbing on shoulders, the human pyramids and most of all the high-flying routines that seem downright dangerous. The cheerleaders practice tirelessly, but it just takes one miss for a tragedy to occur.

How many times have cheerleaders staggered around, trying to get their balance with a young woman perched on each shoulder? How many times has a jump been interrupted because one partner or the other was not quite ready?

For some reason, cheerleaders don’t find it necessary to do that death-defying stuff during football games, many of which are played on grass, which would at least provide a soft landing in case of a fall. They choose instead to challenge the hardwood, a showdown they can’t win in the event of a mishap.

The up side of those fancy flips are the oohs and ahhs of the fans. The down side is some young person winding up in a wheelchair after a spinal cord or head injury. The risk is not worth the return.

The NCAA issues instructions that regulate the participation of cheerleaders at championship events. They require that squads _ 12 individuals only, please _ comply with guidelines set down by the American Association of Cheerleader Coaches and Advisors.

``Neither the NCAA nor the host institution shall be responsible for supervising or monitoring routines performed by cheerleaders at championship events,″ the handbook says. ``Activities, yells and stunts are solely the participating institution’s responsibility.″

That seems odd for an organization that scrupulously watches over everything else in college athletics, from practices to programs. Give an athlete a T-shirt and the NCAA police are all over an institution. Let a cheerleader do a flying flip with a 3.9 degree of difficulty and the authorities say if it’s OK with the cheerleading association, it’s OK with them.

The AACCA has guidelines for the stunts. Pyramids are limited to 2 1/2 persons in height and when the kids start tossing one another around, they are allowed only one rotation, no double flips.

``It involves risk,″ said Jim Lord of the Universal Cheerleaders Association, a Memphis company that trains cheerleader squads. ``That’s important to realize. But done right, it’s a relatively safe activity. There’s risk in any activity. Our job is to make it as safe as we can and do it within the rules.″

Some cheerleading squads seem to act as though the tougher their routines, the more encouragement they will provide their teams. The teams, though, are never watching, huddled instead around the coaches, plotting strategies.

Ten years ago during a game between Georgetown and Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, cheerleader Michelle Munn fell from a pyramid and suffered a head injury. There was a ghastly silence in the arena as she was carried off the court on a stretcher.

Munn was hospitalized for several days. Fortunately for all concerned, she was not seriously hurt.

She was lucky. Will the next cheerleader who climbs up on some other kid’s shoulders be as fortunate?

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