Wisconsin Supreme Court Ruling
The Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision in the case of Brittany L. Noffke v. Kevin Bakke has garnered widespread media attention and has put cheerleading in the spotlight. Cheerleading coaches and others in the industry have followed this case closely, as the Court’s ruling was sure to have a resounding impact on cheerleading. AACCA Executive Director Jim Lord addresses the ruling below.
What are the immediate implications of this ruling?
The implications are that cheerleaders are afforded the same legal protections as athletes in basketball, football, etc. Cheerleaders and their parents then don't have to worry about being sued in the event that a cheerleader makes a mistake during a routine and an injury results.
Does this ruling change the way we refer to cheerleading? Is it now officially a contact sport?
The ruling wasn't as much about the status of cheerleading as about the intent of the Wisconsin statute providing immunity to participants in recreational activities. What they decided was that cheerleading does fall into the kind of activity the legislature intended to promote through this immunity protection.
When using the term "sport," most people associate it with a physical activity that follows a set of rules and engages in competition. Even though most cheerleaders don't compete, or only do so once a year, they are clearly athletes, and cheer programs should be run like other athletics. They should have a qualified coach supervising the program, and that coach needs to follow the rules that are in place. Also, the administration should be involved in providing access to athletic equipment and athletic trainers to help develop a cheerleading program that fits within their other athletic programs.
What if the State Supreme Court had upheld the lower court ruling?
That would have had a chilling effect on all of cheerleading. It would have meant that every time a stunt went up, every person in the stunt would be exposing themselves to a lawsuit in the event someone was injured. Parents would have had to take out large liability policies just for their child to participate, if they decided to participate at all.
Do you see this as a victory for cheerleading?
On the one hand, yes. It means kids can be kids and can participate in an athletic activity that has helped develop community leaders. It means friends won't have to take sides against other friends in a courtroom. That's something kids shouldn't have to do.
On the other hand, I wish the court had been stronger on stressing the importance of following cheerleading safety rules. The team should not have been performing on a tiled surface.
What precautions could have been taken to lessen the chance of injury?
Without knowing the exact history of this particular stunt group, the most important thing that a coach can do is require their teams to progress safely. There are lead-up skills that should be learned and practiced until they are automatic. And of course, it is imperative to follow the safety rules that are already in place. It may or may not have made a difference in this particular case, but following the standards that are in place will reduce the risk.
What are some cheerleading skills that you encourage squads to avoid?
The most dangerous skills are those that a cheerleader is not prepared to attempt. What may be a simple skill for an experienced stunt group can be a risky move by a less experienced group. Coaches have a responsibility to use proper skill progressions and safety rules. High School and College cheerleaders should be following their safety rules, and All Star (non-school) teams should follow the safety rules put into place by the United States All Star Federation (USASF).
What is the AACCA’s role in ensuring that cheerleaders are safe?
In athletics, no one can ensure safety. However, we can reduce and manage the associated risk involved. The AACCA has two primary ways of doing this: through safety training and safety rules. The most important aspect of safety is that a qualified coach is supervising the team and is following the standard of care. That means using skill progressions, requiring mastery before allowing advancement, following the safety rules that are in place, and having an emergency plan prepared in the event of an accident.
From a rules standpoint, the AACCA works with the National Federation of State High School Associations to provide safety rules that help reduce the risk of injury. These rules are reviewed and revised every year. Over the years, flipping stunts have been eliminated in high school, and pyramid height has been limited in both high school and college. Recently, changes have been made that require matting with certain skills performed on a basketball court. States should require that their cheerleaders follow these rules just as other athletic programs follow their rules.
Recently we have added a new strategy in improving cheer safety, which is to engage and involve parents in the process. Our "Parents Guide to Cheerleading Safety" was developed and published in order to give parents tools to evaluate their programs. We encourage parents to ask questions of the coach and administration, and if they have safety concerns, take the appropriate action.
For more Information contact: Jim Lord, director, AACCA
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