Cheer kind of took the Internet by storm, so naturally, I didn’t watch it. Not because it didn’t look good (having someone describe it as Last Chance U but cheerleading was enough to hook me) but because the heat behind it felt…particular. It seemed like the kind of unequivocal praise that only happens when someone is missing something.
And after spending a day just blasting myself in the brain with these precocious and determined youths, I can say that instincts are right.
Cheer deserves the praise it has gotten. It is a thoroughly engaging and uplifting and heartbreaking show, accomplishing more in just six episodes than other shows do across 22. Nothing is ever exactly surprising; the shadow of being a true story looms tall, but they wouldn’t be airing it if it didn’t succeed at following a, shall we say, acceptable trajectory.
The best comparison to make is to a sports anime. The ingredients are simple: ostensibly misfit children band together to achieve more together than they could alone under the strong but tender and loving hand of a coach standing in as a surrogate parental figure. Sprinkle in the seemingly insurmountable (but obviously later surmounted) obstacle and you’re golden.
And none of that is meant in a derogatory sense. Storytelling archetypes exist for many reasons, chief among them to help jumpstart new narratives and supply new avenues to the storyteller for surprise. Bending and breaking genre tropes is where you find unexpected delight, but playing within them is also where you get to flex mastery of the craft.
To wit, Cheer is definitely of the latter. It’s so good, in fact, that they manage to make everyone on the planet believe that the 13-time NCA National Championships-winning cheer team at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, is somehow an underdog. But by making the individual links in the chain feel fragile and flawed (they are still just kids, after all) and focusing on their rival school just 40 miles away and constantly creeping on their shadow, we buy it all.
A huge component is simply the physical nature of failure in sports. It’s a lot easier to feel like you relate to any number of their potentially unrelatable familial or interpersonal problems when you see them fall on their face or breaking their ribs. And with the impeccably neat emotional bow tied atop it all in head coach Monica Aldama literally being called mom, it’s hard not to fall in line with what everything the show demands of you.
Which, intellectually, is problematic. This is easily where that paranoia of the categorical praise comes in. Some of it falls into the usual wariness of editing being able to turn any exchange into any desired interaction. For instance, does Navarro College not have any nutritionists on hand or are we simply not shown any? (Living an hour away from Corsicana, I’m willing to guess the former, but who knows.)
Some of it comes through in Aldama’s coaching, too. Her tough-love approach reeks of being the product of a modern Boss Bitch influence, which is really just what Steve Jobs did for asshole male CEOs but for women in positions of power. Certainly, some of it comes down to creative license in the editing room, but it’s also unavoidable that she is indeed that person. She is exactly that take-no-prisoners leader that makes for an insufferable human being.
Juxtaposed with the personal drama, though, and that goes from unsavory to plain evil. Anyone can see that the athletes’ perception of Aldama as a mother figure leads them to also push themselves further than they would otherwise. (Another instance where, as Amanda Mull over at The Atlantic points out, a training and medical staff would be able to check a coach’s otherwise unfettered power, which in a state like Texas, comes part and parcel with the irrevocable hardass philosophy of duty blue collars.) Only once do we see Aldama urge an athlete to seek medical help despite regularly witnessing grotesque and shocking head injuries.
Did you know that 65 percent of “catastrophic” injuries for female athletes come from cheerleading? One girl on the show just sort of drops the bomb that she’s had five concussions already, and another doesn’t even see a doctor for her own concussions. If football, the most lucrative sport in America, can’t enjoy comprehensive safety oversight even after years of drama regarding the revelations of the damage caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (more commonly referred to as CTE), then what chance does cheerleading have? What chance do these young cheerleaders have?
It often takes years for the consequences of CTE to manifest. Decades after they are no longer a coach’s problem does dementia and cognitive failure and memory loss and suicidality manifest. How clear is it being made to these young athletes that they are sacrificing their future for the glory and name of an uncaring school and an overbearing coach? It makes even the potential of Aldama purposefully manipulating them with her full and bare knowledge of their tragic backstories downright disgusting. (Especially with the close proximity between cheer and gymnastics, which has had its own well-known reckoning in recent years. Heck, just in 2018, a sexual abuse allegation came to light from a former Navarro College cheerleader.)
Of course, not all of it is on her or even whatever editing decisions the docuseries has made. The spectre that looms over all of this is that cheerleading simply cannot enjoy the systemic safety regulations of other collegiate sports because it’s not recognized as a sport. But why? Why else: capitalism.
Cheerleading is owned almost entirely by a company called Varsity Brands, a subsidiary owned by massive private equity firm Bain Capital that runs all major cheer competitions and camps. The consequences of this are many, but most relevant is the simple fact that they can make the sport as expensive as they want (top competitors often spend $15,000 a year, and even casual athletes spend as much as $10,000) and structure the scoring to be as pricey as they want (routines are often given points based on prop usage, props that are sold primarily by Varsity Brands).
Since this makes cheerleading one of their most profitable verticals, they have every reason to make safety regulations as lax as they want to ensure that as many athletes can qualify for competition as possible. And their stranglehold on the sport means they have international influence; fully independent nonprofits push aside their own safety regulations to abide Varsity’s iron, bloodied fist. As Kimberly Archie, founder of the National Cheer Safety Foundation, puts it, “Varsity has free rein.”
Know, though, that watching Cheer does not necessarily make you complicit. No one would expect you to know all or even any of this from just living your normal life and then putting on the show that everyone’s been talking about. There’s not even anything particularly actionable in reading all of this. Yet ingesting this information and feeling compelled to let it go on certainly is problematic.
To that end, you don’t have to set out to burn down the Varsity crown all on your own; a new world can be built together. If not by you then at least with your voice behind it. Be vocal, be insufferable, be loud and heard about this. And sure, definitely be invested in watching Cheer because these are remarkable athletes and remarkable people achieving incredible things.