After its break-out star Jerry Harris was charged with the sexual exploitation of children, it seemed inconceivable that Netflix would commission a second season of the hit series CHEER. The news of Harris’ crimes devastated the cheerleading world. It also opened up a critical and long overdue conversation about safeguarding in the sport, sparking multiple initiatives to improve athlete safety, including SQUAD SAFE.
Netflix has just announced a surprise January premier of a second season in which it will address the criminal allegations against Harris, and feature voices of survivors and their attorney Sarah Klein (herself a survivor of Larry Nassar and who has represented numerous former Olympic Women's gymnasts in the case against him). I'm so pleased this subject is to be addressed in the show and that the voices of those who have been affected are involved. I hope that the edit honors and gives the subject matter the due time it deserves*. We need to confront the issue of abuse in cheerleading head on, and this show has a unique platform.
Sexual abuse is of course not the only type of abuse that permeates cheerleading, and we need a paradigm shift in the whole culture of the sport, its regulation, coaching standards and safeguarding requirements in order to make meaningful change for athletes. In response to the Harris case and various USA Today /HBO exposés, the cheer world has tended to focus on tackling sexual abuse. Other issues of athlete welfare featured in season 1 of the Netflix show (such as forced training on injuries, bullying, gaslighting etc), which are all far more prevalent in the sport in general, are either viewed as secondary issues, or worse, an accepted part of the culture. What is allowed to go unchallenged becomes permissible in the gym, and the lower the overall standards of athlete welfare and psychological safety, the slipperier the slope to sexual predators operating unnoticed.
All of it matters.
A culture that prioritizes athlete welfare needs to be created on purpose through the implementation of rigorous policy, systems and crucially, the intentional daily practices of coaches and gym owners.
In order to make a real difference, our intentions must always be actionable, not aspirational.
*In press notes provided by Netflix, “Cheer” director Greg Whiteley talks about how the series attempts to deal with Harris' story, since he was such a break-out star from the first season. Harris was arrested while the show was being filmed and events unfolded in real time for the cast.