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State Regents OK cheerleading as an interscholastic sport

Two-four-six-eight, what’s the newest sport in New York State?

Competitive cheerleading, to borrow your grandmother’s number cheer.

Never mind that spirited girls and young women in cute uniforms have been performing on the sidelines and at center field and center court for decades. The activity was not officially designated as a sport in New York, until now.

The move means cheerleaders will have their own state-sanctioned competitions, from local scholastic leagues, to sectionals and state championships starting next February.

“It think it’s a very good day for our cheerleaders,” said Jeff Rabey, superintendent of Depew public schools and president of Section VI, the local governing body for high school sports.

“This lends credibility to cheerleading,” said Michele Ziegler, cheerleading chairwoman for Section VI. Gone are the days, she hopes, that cheerleading is seen as more of a decorative activity for girls.

The designation Tuesday by the state Board of Regents is recognition by the state how the activity has grown from leading cheers for the home team to more elaborate and intricate moves requiring trained athletes to perform acrobatic feats.

While colleges already offer cheerleading scholarships, supporters hope the new designation will open the doors to more.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association and the New York State Council of School Superintendents Athletics Advisory Committee first brought the issue to the state Education Department in 2009.

An ad hoc committee of the two groups recommended competitive cheerleading be designated a sport “to ensure student safety and the proper training of coaches,” according to a Regents committee.

“It’s now policy, and it’s long overdue,” said Regent Robert M. Bennett said. “We’re talking about a very rigorous, almost gymnastic-type of approach to competitive cheerleading, and the safety issue there is very important.”

With millions of students from elementary school through college performing more advanced tumbles, jumps, cartwheels and pyramids, officials want to make sure coaches are certified and run safe programs.

An American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement in 2012 noted that cheerleading accounted for 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries suffered by female high school athletes in the previous 25 years.

But the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, which will be certifying New York State cheerleading coaches, maintains it is one of the safest around, and studies show overall injury rates in cheerleading are lower than all sports but swimming and boys volleyball.

“Safety is the primary focus of our athletes all of the time,” Ziegler said.

Many athletic directors, students and parents have questions about how the new sport will operate, but Section VI has been making plans for several years.

“We’ve been preparing. We believe it’s good,” Executive Director Timm Slade said. “We know cheerleading has evolved differently and progressively.”

New York joins 34 other states and the District of Columbia in recognizing competitive cheerleading as a sport.

Section VI and the state will make a distinction between traditional, sideline cheerleading and competitive cheerleading, he said. Schools will decide for themselves which type of team they want. They could have both competitive teams and sideline teams, he said.

But if there are any competitions involved, the team must be considered a sport with a certified coach.

“If you’re only going to cheer at basketball and football games, you would not have to meet guidelines for competitive cheerleading,” Slade said.

The new opportunities for cheerleaders could have the opposite effect of limiting some, said Patrick Cauley, director of health, physical education and recreation at Hamburg Central School District.

“We have outstanding athletes who are cheerleaders,” he said, adding many are involved in other sports while cheering for the football or basketball team. “If they’re told they have to choose, that will be a problem.”

Cheerleaders also practice throughout the year, including throughout the summer, he said. But if the school team is a competitive team, it must follow the rules dictating what day practices can start.

Slade said most leagues allow athletes to participate in more than one sport during a designated season, and in that case, it would be up to the individual school and coaches if the athlete could do both.

News Staff Reporters Denise Jewell Gee and Keith McShea contributed to this report. email: