Cheer on Netflix is, quite simply, a sensation. Having never been a cheerleader myself, instead spending the fall of my senior year of high school in a massive polyester sauna suit otherwise known as my mascot uniform (I was a lion, rawr), I find the sheer athleticism of the Navarro cheerleaders tumbling and stunting and spotting on the mat to be nothing short of electric.
If in high school I considered the work I could see the cheerleaders doing through the mouth of my lion costume to be superhuman, then I can only describe what I watched on Netflix to be inhuman. The flips, the tricks, the lifts, and the perseverance of the squad at Navarro College superseded any previous conceptions of what I could have imagined to be humanly possible.
The thing is though, just like the rest of us, the cheerleaders at Navarro are human. Powerfully, delicately human. In the same way that describing Simone Biles’s accomplishments on the mat as “magic” pulls focus from the incredibly hard work she’s put in to her craft, looking at the Navarro cheerleaders as anything other than “just your average person” makes it easier to believe that the injuries they sustain somehow have less of an impact on them than they would the rest of us. Regardless of whether you make mat or not, a concussion is a concussion after all.
“Just your average person” is one side of the binary coach Monica Aldama sets up in talking about coaching, with E! News. On the other side are the elite athletes on her cheer team, who often push their bodies to the breaking point (literally), which is well-documented on Cheer.
As Diana Moskovitz of Unnamed Temporary Sports Blog Dot Com writes:
Cheer doesn’t hide the sports brutality; it shows the taped-up body parts, the bruises, the wincing, and the cheerleaders ignoring any advice from doctors that involves not cheering. Author Natalie Adams appears and speaks about the sport’s high number of catastrophic injuries. If anything, the show seems to offer the constant agony as a sort of evidence for the sport’s leigtimacy: These must be real athletes if they get hurt this often and play through this much pain.
What is less well-documented on Cheer are the systems and polices that are put in place to protect these elite athletes after the sustain an injury, particularly a concussion, which we see two cheerleaders evaluated for in the first episode alone.
Knowing that cheerleading is an at least somewhat well regulated sport, Moskovitz submitted a pubic records request for Navarro’s policies and protocols as they relate the the safety of the cheer team, and found that they do have policies on file for a concussion assessment plan, return-to-play rules for concussions, and a traumatic head injury policy.
How well those policies are practiced and enforced, Moskovitz was less sure:
Did we see these policies enforced in Cheer? The truth is, I can’t be sure. I watched all six episodes in a row and took notes on discussions about concussions, athlete safety, and injuries. The documentary shows you horrifying falls, lets you hear the thuds and the screams. A few times I saw what were glimpses of what are presented as concussion testing: standing on one leg, closing your eyes and touching your nose with each hand. But the focus after any fall, concussion or not, wasn’t on testing. It’s on the mandatory punishment: a drop means everyone has to do 50 push-ups. Cheer treats concussions much the same way a football or hockey broadcast treats them: an event happening on the sidelines, nothing worth paying that much attention.
While it brings me no pleasure to talk about the potential downside of one of my favorite things I’ve watched maybe ever, it does serve as an important reminder that just because something is consumed as entertainment, it doesn’t make it any less real. And as spectacular as the feats accomplished by the Navarro cheerleaders are, they don’t make them anything other than human. Amazing, yes, but still just human.