San Francisco Chronicle
UC Berkeley settles lawsuit with former cheerleader
“Hopefully, the settlement will ... signal to the whole cheer community that our brains are important, too.” Melissa Martin, former UC Berkeley cheerleader
High-flying cheerleaders at UC Berkeley sporting events will receive new protection and training under a $695,000 settlement with a former student who suffered three concussions in five months during acrobatic cheerleading in 2017-18.
In a 2019 lawsuit against the university, Melissa Martin said aerial athletes such as divers and gymnasts were watched closely by coaches, trainers and physicians for signs of injury, but no such monitoring was provided for cheerleaders who engaged in equally high-risk maneuvers. Instead, she said, she was pressured into participating in team practices and games after suffering a head injury while training for an aerial maneuver in September 2017, and had two more concussions before leaving the team in February 2017.
Martin, now 27, told The Chronicle Monday she is still recovering from brain damage and has “a 24-7 headache.”
Under the settlement, UC Berkeley will provide an athletic trainer for its cheerleading squads when they resume “stunting,” or aerial tumbling and flipping, which has been halted during the pandemic. Participants will be monitored and treated for injuries, and cheerleaders and coaches will undergo safety training, similar to procedures already in place for student athletes. Any indication of injuries will be immediately reported to the student health center. The university, while denying any wrongdoing, will also pay $695,000 to Martin and her lawyers.
“Hopefully, the settlement will not only impact Cal in a positive way but signal to the whole cheer community that our brains are important, too,” Martin said.
In a statement, UC Berkeley’s Athletic Program said, “The safety of all of our students has been and continues to be a top priority. The staff who work with the cheerleading program have had and will continue to have the necessary certifications and training from their relevant cheer and dance national associations, which includes concussion education.”
Martin, who had been a gymnast for 14 years, joined the cheerleading team in the fall of 2017 and, during a practice session that October, was kicked in the head. After suffering a severe headache, nausea and dizziness the next three days, she phoned the coach, Lisa Keys, and said she would be seeing a doctor, but Keys told her not to go because “we really need you” at the next football game, the suit said.
Martin went to the doctor anyway and was diagnosed with a concussion and told to rest. But Keys again ordered her to attend practice and perform at the next game, Martin said. She said she later saw the university’s concussion specialist, Dr. Kent Scheff, who told her to refrain from physical activity, but backed off when he was told of the coach’s edict.
Martin was kicked in the head again while performing at a game in November, and was then told by Keys to walk, by herself, to the UC health services office more than a mile away, the suit said. She was again diagnosed with a concussion and was sidelined for several months. But she said Scheff cleared her to return to cheerleading in February, contrary to standard concussion protocol. The next day, Martin was struck in the head during a warm-up stunt for a basketball game.
She quit the squad soon afterward. Suffering from headaches, nausea and light sensitivity, she tried to re-enroll at Berkeley in the fall but had to withdraw, the suit said, while UC Berkeley refunded only half of her tuition. She graduated in 2019, worked at a Bay Area tech firm, now lives in Milwaukee, and has been accepted to a remote course at Harvard this spring for executives who help corporations and nonprofits make their operations more climatefriendly.
“I still get nauseous, sensitive to lights and sounds, but I’m trying to do things, go to concerts,” she said in an interview. “I hope that one day I will be symptom-free.”
Cheerleading, Martin observed, “has changed a lot. My mom was captain of a team in the ’70s that was more pom-pom cheers. Now people are tumbling and flipping, very acrobatic, a very intensive sport. People are competing, not just cheering on the sidelines anymore.”