Sports

Netflix hit ‘Cheer’ teaches Hollywood how to center sexual abuse

La’Darius Marshall, Gabi Butler, Jerry Harris and Monica Aldama join host Zach Stafford at BuzzFeed’s AM To DM.

La’Darius Marshall, Gabi Butler, Jerry Harris and Monica Aldama join host Zach Stafford at BuzzFeed’s AM To DM.
Photo: Getty Images

In the second season of Netflix’s Cheer, viewers receive a masterclass in how to center and give voice to the experiences of the victims of alleged child sex abuse. The show addresses the sexual misconduct allegations made regarding Season 1 breakout star Jerry Harris in an episode that could truly only be described as a profile in courage.

Cheerleading is a sport that has flown largely under the public radar throughout its astronomical rise in participation and intensity in the past decade. Aside from YouTube and social media stars popping up here and there, the cheer scene was largely insular — it doesn’t have the Olympic appeal of gymnastics, nor is it a sanctioned NCAA sport, though many colleges have teams. But what does exist is an entire all-encompassing world for the athletes within the sport, revealed in part to a larger American audience with the release of the Netflix hit show Cheer in January 2020.

The cheer scene certainly hasn’t been presented as some sort of perfect universe on the show — concerns of eating disorders, academic struggles, mental health issues, severe injury risk, and more were addressed in the first season, both explicitly and implicitly. But a lot of the students profiled in the first season, all of whom attended Navarro Community College in Texas, repeated the refrain that cheer “saved” them. To say the cheer world presented in the show is “cultish” would be an exaggeration, but it wasn’t entirely devoid of religious undertones, either.

The dark underbelly of the sport and the culture that surrounds it was brought directly into the light in the fifth episode of the second season that Netflix surprise-released on January 12. Titled “Jerry,” the series comes to a grinding halt, going from following the team’s quest for a national title to addressing the allegations made against the breakout star of the first season, Jerry Harris.

In September of 2020, Harris was charged with producing child pornography, and later admitted to FBI agents that he had exchanged explicit photos and engaged in sexual conduct with minors as young as 13 years old. The 22-year-old has since pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.

The show had no choice but to address the charges if they were to feasibly continue creating it, and with something like this looming large over the season and the team, many of whom described Harris as “family,” there were about a million ways it could have gone wrong. I’ll give credit where it’s due to the directors and producers of the show, but the real reason that this episode succeeded in bringing a sufficient weight and gravity to what happened was the remarkable courage of two teenage boys who came forward to share their stories.

Given ample time to speak about their experiences being solicited for explicit photos and sex, beginning when they were 13 years old and Harris was 19, twins Sam and Charlie described the abuse they had undergone at the hands of Harris. The unimaginable strength and bravery it took to do what they did was made explicitly clear — their storytelling accompanied by photos of them a few years ago to emphasize just how young they were when Harris originally contacted them. Their last name was withheld as they are still minors.

The twins are represented by attorney Sarah Klein, who was one of the many gymnasts who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar. There’s an interesting dichotomy that appears between her story and that of the twins’ — Nassar had a structural, authoritative power over his victims absent in the Harris case. But Harris — even before Cheer came out — had a social power within the incredibly insular world of cheerleading, which the twins had recently joined at the time. For a 13-year-old who just wanted to fit in to this new community, rejecting the advances, inappropriate though they may be, of an incredibly popular and pseudo-famous person in their world just didn’t seem like an option. Nor did telling anyone what was going on — it would be risking total alienation by calling out a universally beloved star.

Intercut with shot after shot of Harris surrounded by adoring fans, teammates, and coaches, winning honors, meeting Ellen DeGeneres, interviewing celebrities on the red carpet, filming advertisements for Walmart and Cheerios, video chatting with President Joe Biden, the voiceover of Sam and Charlie’s experience triggers a sinking feeling for viewers — with the success of the show, Harris is no longer popular just within the cheer community. He was on the rise to total celebrity in the “real world,” making it that much bigger of an accusation to come forward with.

But they did, and they were not alone — court documents show that Harris solicited and exchanged explicit photos with 10 to 15 minors as an adult. With Harris’ growing influence, it’s not a stretch to say that the twins’ choice to come forward and risk complete isolation within their chosen community likely saved other children from undergoing the same thing. When asked if they regretted their decision to come forward, they answered with a simultaneous and resounding “no.”

“After me and Sam spoke out, pretty much all sense of community was ripped away from us,” Charlie told the camera. “At competitions, we would walk down the hallways and everyone would stare and point at us and whisper. We felt so isolated.”

Added their mother, “it has really brought into focus for us why so few people come out and speak about this. It is so extraordinarily difficult.”

The twins’ experience and their retelling of it viscerally demonstrates why it is so deeply challenging, and can seem impossible, to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse. It is difficult in any case, but there is a particular weight added when an abuser is popular, powerful, or famous in any way — of which Harris is all three. One is deeply struck by the emotional toll it must have taken for these teenagers to keep the abuse a secret as well as to report it.

A USA Today report that came out earlier this month revealed that this is, in fact, a systemic issue in cheer — and it goes a lot deeper than an older athlete taking advantage of a younger one. There are, according to the article, “180 individuals affiliated with cheerleading who have faced charges relating to sexual misconduct involving minors but were not banned by the sport’s two governing bodies … More than 140 of them — a group that includes coaches, choreographers and others directly tied to the activity — have been convicted, and 74 are registered sex offenders.”

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