There’s a scene in the second season of Netflix’s hit show Cheer, which dropped Wednesday, where La’Darius Marshall and another of his Navarro College cheer teammates are at home discussing their disgraced former teammate, Jerry Harris. How could they have missed the signs?, they wonder. They sift through past conversations and interactions with the beloved mat talker, but nothing in the entirety of their friendship with Harris alluded to the alleged sexual abuse that would come to light. In 2020, two twin teenagers sued Harris for sexual abuse, prompting his arrest and subsequent charges for the production of child pornography. He has been in custody at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago for more than a year awaiting trial.
The critically acclaimed first season of Cheer never captured the loquacious Harris as anything other than lovable, which makes it even more disorienting to see him at rock bottom in season two—thwarted by scandal as he’s escorted from a home in Illinois by FBI agents. It’s nearly impossible to reconcile the Jerry we grew to love and the dark reality of his predatory nature. The show, which dedicates an entire episode to Harris’ downfall, appropriately acknowledges this conundrum.
To zero in on Harris when examining the cultural impact of the show, however, is to miss the larger revelation of Cheer’s two-season life: You cannot produce a show about cheerleading, reality or otherwise, without colliding head on with the ugly systemic issues the sport faces on nearly every level. When you shine a spotlight on an industry like cheerleading, the cockroaches are bound to scatter into view. Unfortunately, Cheer’s second season could never re-bottle the untampered joy of its first, as the show was forced to reckon with the aforementioned dark underbelly of cheerleading—something it never intended or was equipped to address.
“The only reason I agreed to do the docuseries was to show the athleticism and the hard work,” Navarro coach Monica Aldama says in the new season’s first episode, a feat the show has admittedly pulled off. As a former studio dancer and NFL cheerleader myself, it was refreshing to see cheerleaders shot with such unflinching honesty and reverence without centering conflict or scandal (at least initially). The show frames cheerleading as athletic without ever giving merit to the age-old debate of whether cheer should be nationally recognized as a sport. It highlighted the physical therapy needed to maintain peak physical fitness, the competitive nature of the game, and the fight for mat, as well as all the tears that came with the process. Not unlike the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ own iconic reality series, the popularity of Cheer demonstrated the budding star power of cheerleaders of all ages—not just as reality television cast-mates, but as star professional athletes.
Acknowledging the athleticism of cheerleading is only a sliver of the whole pie that those within the sport of cheerleading—from youngsters’ all-star cheer to professional NFL cheerleading and everything in between—have to contend with on a daily basis. Woven into the very fabric of the industry are vexing conversations about gender and sexism, corporate ignorance and greed, and the systemic failure to protect young people from sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse. Conversations questioning whether cheerleading costumes are too skimpy or moves too sexualized have left a generation of girls confused about why they have permission to bare themselves on football fields, but not in school hallways. As was the case in the twins’ suit against Harris, all star cheerleading’s governing body the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF) demonstrated an inability to take action on reports of abuse, on top of reportedly failing to track and ban nearly 180 sexual predators who were working with underaged athletes in cheer gyms across the country.
Meanwhile, in the NFL, teams across the country began removing the word “cheerleader” from their names to avoid connections to the wage theft lawsuits and gender and religious discrimination complaints the word has come to represent. Women employees and cheerleaders at the Washington Football Team, in particular, endured near incessant sexual harassment in the workplace. Lewd photos that were taken of the former Redskins’ cheerleaders during their annual bikini photo shoot were flippantly distributed via email to some of the biggest coaching and staffing names in football as if they were memes. Widespread accountability on all levels of the cheerleading world remains to be seen.
Better than most television I’ve seen, Cheer accurately captures the rigid linear structures and unquestioned authority of the leagues, governing bodies, and associations that lord an inordinate amount of power over the heads of cheerleaders. These antiquated structures enable these entities to prioritize the interests of their checking accounts and their reputations ahead of the cheerleaders’ safety. Throughout the first season, Navarro cheer regularly flouts concussion protocol for the sake of winning, but in the second season, that power is illustrated in gym owners’ refusal to take accusations against Harris seriously, forcing the twins’ mother to take the abuse story to the press.
So, while it’s difficult to reconcile our two contradicting versions of Harris, it is similarly difficult to reconcile the glamour and reality of life as a cheerleader. As with any athletes competing at the highest level, cheerleading will likely always impose physical and mental anguish on those who partake and, until the culture changes, the risk that they will fall prey to those who shield abusive behavior behind peppy mat talk remains.
The world is certainly better for the existence of Cheer, allowing the public to see what it truly means to be a cheerleader in the twenty-first century, but Harris’ misconduct is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps another docuseries can come along and do the dirty work Cheer could never accomplish. Until then, we wait.