You've seen them smiling as they're being tossed high in the air at football and basketball games, but a new report points to a dark and dangerous side to cheerleading.
Data compiled by the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSI) cites 67 fatal or life-threatening injuries due to cheerleading since 1982, making it by far the most perilous sport for high school and college-age female athletes, Time.com reports.
Cheerleading injuries also account for nearly two-thirds of severe school-sports injuries — yet the sport remains relatively unregulated despite an estimated 100,000 high school students participating in a variety of cheering squad activities, the Web site reported.
Cheeerleaders suffered more injuries than all other school athletes combined — about 65 percent of severe injuries on the high school level and 67 percent at colleges, the study reported.
The study's author, Fred Mueller, cited increased competition and athletes willing to take greater risks as causes for the high incidence of injury, but warned that "there are definitely more accidents out there that we haven't even heard about yet," Time.com reported.
Few states recognize cheerleading as a sport — an estimated 20 do — which means there is less oversight than sports such as field hockey, soccer and basketball.
Of the cheerleaders whose 67 catastrophic injuries were tallied in the NCCSI report, Jessica Smith considers herself to be "one of the lucky ones," Time.com reports. From 15 feet in the air, the Sacramento City College student looked on in horror as the teammate who was supposed to catch her lost his balance and fell backward. With no one to catch her, the then 18-year-old landed headfirst, breaking her back in two places. Doctors told her she was millimeters away from paralysis after the 2006 incident. "I'll never fully recover," says Smith, now a spokeswoman for the NCSF. "Everyone needs to ask themselves, 'Is cheerleading worth not being able to walk again?' "