By Gina McKlveen
During a routine when a cheerleader rises to the top of a pyramid, supported solely by the strength and trust of her teammates, it probably doesn’t occur to her that the hierarchical athletic structure in sports injury cases could impact her recovery if she falls.
And yet, for Melissa Martin (“Martin”), the plaintiff in the 2019 case filed against The Regents of the University of California and USA Cheer after sustaining several repeated head injuries while she was a member of the cheerleading squad at the University of California, Berkeley (“Berkeley”) this sad fact became Martin’s lived reality.
Represented by Jennie Lee Anderson (“Anderson”), an attorney at Andrus Anderson, LLP, who specializes in matters related to women’s health and safety as well as employment discrimination issues, Martin accused her Berkeley coaches of bullying her into performing stunts even after she had experience three consecutive concussions over the course of a short four-month period. Martin alleged that she was intimidated on multiple occasions by her coaches, who pressured her to participate in activities that led to her injuries. Martin argued that she was obligated to follow her coaches’ orders because the contract she signed with Berkeley and USA Cheer mandated her to do so. The now 27-year-old ex-cheerleader further alleged that her coaches deliberately ignored her concussion symptoms, which has caused her to experience permanent and on-going brain damage to the point that she still suffers from a 24/7 headache years after her initial injury. The consequences of these injuries affected her vision and limited her ability to study or read, so Martin was forced to take a medical leave of absence from school. In turn, Berkeley refunded about half of Martin’s tuition.
In her complaint against Berkeley, filed at the Superior Court of California, County of Alameda, based on claims for negligence as well as violations of California’s Student Athlete Bill of Rights and unfair competition law, Martin sought recovery of the other half of the tuition and damages related to her injuries. She also petitioned the court to go a step further and order Berkeley and USA Cheer to implement reasonable concussion protocols for collegiate cheerleaders. According to Martin, because cheerleaders are viewed as “half-letes,” their safety is taken less seriously than other athletes. Even though cheerleading has evolved from its pom-pom days and now includes highly technical aerial acrobatics, Martin argued that her experience indicates that participants are not provided proper protection when injuries arise, therefore appropriate protocols are needed.
Given the details of a recent settlement with Martin in early 2023, it seems as though Berkeley is honoring its stated commitment to student health and safety. In addition to awarding Martin nearly $700,000, the terms of the settlement specify that Berkeley will provide an athletic trainer for its cheerleading squads who will be tasked with monitoring and treating any injuries when stunting, aerial tumbling, or flipping resumes. All injuries must be immediately reported to the student health center. Furthermore, both coaches and cheerleaders will be required to complete a safety training which is comparable to that of other sports and student athletes at the university level.
Martin’s allegations that the health and safety of cheerleaders is not as sufficiently protected as other athletes is not so far-fetched. In fact, a study from the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed that at both the high school and collegiate level, cheerleading was the runner-up for the highest number of traumatic injuries, second only to football. While the report indicates from its sample size that the number of serious injuries for football players in college were more than 10 times higher than the number of serious injuries for cheerleaders in college, 145 compared to 13 respectively, the fact that cheerleading results in more frequent cases of serious injury than sports like lacrosse, ice hockey, and soccer should raise genuine concern.
Instead, in many cases, like Martin experienced, cheerleaders’ injuries are often ignored or not taken seriously. As Martin’s attorney, Anderson, made clear in her comments on her client’s case, “there has been a lot of attention around concussion risk for young men in football, [but] there has not been a corresponding level of concern about head injuries for young women participating in cheerleading programs.”
Moreover, failure to classify cheerleading as a sport in some instances has limited access to necessary resources such as safety protocols, training for coaches, and on-site athletic trainers. An investigative study from The Johns Hopkins University published by The Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that less than 30 states classify competitive high school cheerleading as a sport. However, since the year 2000 the number of concussions in cheerleading has increased exponentially from 600 to 5,500 as of 2019—practically 10 times greater in just 20 years. One rationale typically given to explain this significant increase is the evolution of cheerleading over the past several years, which includes more stunts, flips, etc., but arguably a larger contributing factor is the apparent lack of concussion protocols.
Unfortunately, it took a life-altering injury of one cheerleader (and a lawsuit) for one school to respond with the reasonable concussion protocols.