By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
- Rules changes are often made in sports to reduce injury rates
- In 2006, the cheerleading rules for basket tosses were changed, eliminating basket tosses performed over hard surfaces
- Catastrophic injury rates from the basket toss dramatically reduced in the years after the rules change
Rules changes are among the most effective ways to make a sport safer for the participants, often immediately. I’ve written previously about various rules changes that have made youth sports safer. At the adult collegiate and professional level we see safety related rules changes in almost all contact and collision based sports. One sport that often doesn’t get the attention it deserves from a safety standpoint is cheerleading.
In acrobatic cheerleading, injuries unfortunately happen with some frequency, and the basket toss was a stunt with catastrophic injuries possible. A rule change started in 2006 has shown a dramatic reduction in catastrophic cheerleading injuries.
The basket toss involves a single cheerleader being tossed into the air by multiple people with interlocked hands. The cheerleader being tossed is typically a small and light female, and the toss can vault her very impressive distances into the air. Unfortunately, the tossed cheerleader could potentially not be caught and subsequently fall to the ground or be caught improperly. The impact with the ground can result in catastrophic injuries to the head, spine, or even death.
In 2006 the basket toss rules where changed, banning basket tosses on hard surfaces such as a basketball court. This recently published study examined injury rates over a 15-year time frame, from 2002 to 2017 so it straddled the year the rule change went into effect.
For the entire 15-year study period they recorded 54 catastrophic cheerleading injuries, and found that a large number came from the basket toss. There were 14 catastrophic basket toss injuries prior to the rule change in 2006 and zero in the 7 years of the study after the rule change.
Some catastrophic injuries continue to occur at a low rate from cheerleading activity that doesn’t involve the basket toss, so the severe injury rate unfortunately doesn’t drop to zero. Still, the study shows that over this 15-year period a single rule change had a very positive effect on the safety of the participants.
My feeling is that careful analysis of exactly how and when serious injuries happen in a sport can often identify a single type of play that then lends itself to a safety intervention. For example, in American tackle football the kickoff was identified as a play in which a disproportionate number of injuries occurred, and rules changes for the kickoff result in substantial safety benefits for the players.
This cheerleading study is further evidence that a rule change can have great benefits for the health and safety of the participants.