The Netflix docuseries Cheer has gathered significant chatter for its stark portrayal of how cheerleading affects the human body, as well as the magnetic personalities of the athletes involved. On the latest episode of Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, co-hosts Joel Anderson and Josh Levin talked with sports writer Lindsay Gibbs about what makes it such an absorbing watch. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Joel Anderson: Cheer takes place at Navarro College in Texas, a little south of Dallas, where longtime coach Monica Aldama has built this unlikely cheerleading powerhouse. If you remember the Last Chance U series, which was also directed by Greg Whiteley, then you’ll get the appeal of Cheer. Last Chance U was about junior college programs in Mississippi and Kansas, where talented but troubled athletes come in search of another way to get to big-time football. Cheer doesn’t work quite like that: It’s not exactly clear where the post-Navarro destination is, or if the future is brighter for the kids who come through Coach Aldama’s program. But while they’re there, you get to watch them perfect their craft, sometimes excruciatingly so: There is a seemingly endless tally of broken bones, cracked ribs, and concussed heads. You can really hear the bones cracking and ankles breaking throughout the series.
Josh Levin: It’s just an unbelievably well-made piece of television. When that 100-pound cheerleader, Morgan, gets tossed in the air and caught, you can hear it and feel the pain. It’s incredibly well-shot. The sound is great. And the way the show integrates the competition with the backstories of the athletes and goes back to their hometowns—I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a work of reality television that is so transfixing.
Navarro is both a juggernaut and an underdog, which makes it the perfect subject for a series like this. And it has this one rival, Trinity Valley, which is glimpsed occasionally. It made me wonder what the docuseries about Trinity Valley would have been. Navarro’s kids come from really difficult backgrounds, they have to struggle, and yet Navarro wins all the time and Trinity Valley doesn’t win as much. I wonder if you could have made such a compelling series about the rival school, or if it had to be Navarro.
Anderson: I think it helps a lot, because that way you get to Daytona Beach in the end, where the championship is, and you get to see this team defending its title. That’s the spine of this story: How is Navarro going to maintain this excellence? I don’t know that we would have got that at Trinity Valley.
One thing I thought about was that Navarro doesn’t have a lot of resources. And I thought about that most when the cheerleaders got hurt, over and over again, and people would say, Oh well, maybe you should ice that up, or you should go see the doctor. In any other major sport, there’d be so much more attention paid to these injuries. In some ways it was inspiring—they’re soldiering on in spite of these limitations. But I also wondered what it would’ve looked like if it had happened at the University of Texas, if they had all these sorts of resources. Because it’s not until the end that you realize that Navarro is dominating amongst all these other programs that are similarly limited. It’s not like community colleges and junior colleges are well-funded.
Lindsay Gibbs: For me, that brought up the fact that cheerleading is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport. And I think so much sexism goes into that. Not that I’m ever in favor of the NCAA taking control, but there are some regulations and a level of minimal oversight when you are an NCAA sport. It made me wonder if Navarro would’ve been better off having that.
Anderson: How many times per day, or per week, do they practice?
Levin: No limitations, it seemed like.
Gibbs: And there’s one trainer for their whole school. The only way I felt like cheerleading not being an NCAA sport really benefited the athletes was the fact that these athletes were able to create social media followings and profit off them.
Levin: That’s the first thing I wrote in my notes: Cheer shows what could happen if the NCAA allowed athletes to market themselves. They can do sponsored content on their social media and they can make money. All of the people who are in Cheer now are incredibly famous. They’re taking every conceivable marketing opportunity—Jerry is on the red carpet for Ellen DeGeneres. It’s great for them.
Now, let’s talk about Monica Aldama, the coach. She’s compared in Cheer to Nick Saban and Bill Belichick. She struck me as a lot like Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights. She clearly cares a lot about the men and women on her team. They all talk about her as “the queen.” She’s the greatest cheerleading coach that there is in terms of her résumé. And yet it seems like she’s putting her athletes in danger a lot of the time.
Gibbs: At times it’s a toxic relationship, and at other times it seems like a rewarding relationship for these athletes. But I think ultimately that’s an uncomfortable truth at the root of a lot of toxic relationships: that it’s not all bad, that manipulation is part of that. Seeing her flippant nature toward injuries for these kids was jarring, and I can’t overlook it. At the same time, she was giving a lot of these young adults support and love and attention that they had never received before.
Levin: Joel, how much of what you saw from Monica do you feel like is endemic to high-level competitive college athletics, versus being unique to this particular environment?
Anderson: It reminded me of pretty much every coach you might come across at that level, or at any level, right? There is this pretense that the coaches care about you, they want the best for you, they’re going to be a parental figure for the rest of your life, and they’re teaching you sacrifice and commitment and determination and all these other values that we supposedly imbue our sports with.
But in the end, what was it all for? At the end of this documentary, we see that, for a lot of these cheerleaders, there doesn’t appear to be some sort of defined path. There’s not necessarily a way forward.
Levin: The coach at least claims: I’ve won enough, I don’t need more trophies. I just do this for the kids, and I want to give them discipline and put them on the right path.
Anderson: I guess we’d need to know a little bit more about what that path looks like after this.
Levin: I mentioned earlier all the backstories that you hear, and the different kinds of brokenness that the show depicts. Like Gabi’s relationship with her parents, who are incredibly overbearing and are seen as villains by a lot of people who watch the show. Jerry and what he overcomes in his life, with his mom getting cancer. Morgan being abandoned by her family, La’Darius getting bullied and abused. And we see depictions of people we don’t necessarily see in popular media. “Gay black male athlete” is not a typical category. Yes, we’ve seen Michael Sam and Jason Collins, but the men on this team are really fascinating figures, and not ones you necessarily see on reality television all that often.
Anderson: The one thing that I kept coming back to is how much they all supported each other, how much they made a community for each other. Maybe that’s because the cameras are there, and in some ways they’re putting on a good show, but it really did seem that those guys and girls did care about each other, and took care of each other even as they were competing for spots on the cheerleading team. There are all these moments where Jerry and La’Darius are in their room and talking to each other, and it’s very brotherly.
Gibbs: I think what you’re getting at is that there was this intense athletic environment without a lot of toxic masculinity, which is just so rare. I mean, there were some unhealthy aspects to this, but seeing predominantly women and gay men as the stars of this brutal, intense, athletic competition made it feel different.