The Emmy-winning Netflix documentary series Cheer has returned for a second run today with a vital message for survivors of sexual abuse. Content note: this article contains references to the sexual abuse and exploitation of children that readers may find upsetting.
Last month, Netflix gifted TV fans an end-of-year-treat by announcing a surprise second season of its Emmy-winning documentary series Cheer. The first series, which followed a national champion cheerleading team from Navarro College on their quest to win the 2019 NCAA National Championship, became a byword for feel-good entertainment with its heartfelt stories of struggle and triumph.
Two years later, and the second season of Cheer, which arrives on Netflix today, picks up with the Navarro College team and their formidable head coach Monica Aldama in the aftermath of their championship victory. Everything has changed for the team: there’s a dizzying stream of media appearances, the newfound weight of celebrity, and the impact of pandemic shutdowns which push the team to their limits.
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But there’s another dark shadow which falls upon Navarro in the new season, as Jerry Harris, the fan favourite cheerleader known for his motivational mat-talk, has a shocking fall from grace. In September 2020, Harris was arrested and charged by the FBI on federal child pornography charges after twin teenage boys accused him of sexual abuse.
Three months later in December 2020, the FBI filed additional charges against Harris involving incidents with four other minors. They included four counts of sexual exploitation of children, one count of receiving and attempting to receive child pornography, one count of travelling with the attempt to engage in sexual conduct with a minor and one count of enticement, totalling seven counts related to five minor boys which allegedly took place between August 2017 and August 2020. Harris pled not guilty to the new charges, but if convicted, he could face 15 to 30 years in federal prison.
The second season of Cheer devotes an entire episode to the case, featuring interviews with Aldama, Harris’ former teammates, the USA reporters who broke the story, and most significantly, the twin brothers, Charlie and Sam, who decided to publicly share the abuse they allegedly experienced aged just 13 years old. (Netflix said Harris’ legal team declined requests to be interviewed on camera, while Cheer director Greg Whiteley explained in the press notes for the series that they’d also prevented him from talking to Harris.)
We hear how Harris is alleged to have solicited explicit photos from Charlie when he was 13 and Harris was 19, as well as sent sexually explicit messages to the brothers via text and social media. Charlie also alleges that while at the NCA’s National Championship, Harris followed him into the bathroom and harassed him for oral sex.
The allegations are harrowing, and several of Harris’ former teammates express shock, confusion and regret that they had no knowledge of the abuse he is accused of committing. Aldama also seems lost for words when questioned about the controversy, explaining that she hasn’t managed to process the horror of seeing a beloved former student – one she considers like her own child –arrested for such terrible crimes.
However, the strongest condemnation of Harris’ alleged crimes comes not from his teammates or coach, but Sarah Klein, an attorney who represents the twins and advocate for victims of sexual abuse.
In her on-camera interview, Klein brilliantly articulates the dissonance that often takes place when a loved one is accused of sexual abuse.
“Listen, I loved Jerry Harris,” she begins. “I watched Cheer just like everybody else. I thought it was such an inspirational, lovely show, and Jerry was my favourite, and I shed a few tears when he shed a few tears; he was loveable. But until you’re behind closed doors with a person, you don’t know them.”
Klein points out how common it is for people close to a perpetrator of sexual abuse to defend their loved one, because they are often unable to reconcile the possibility of someone having a dark, hidden side. She explains how Harris’ closest friends fiercely defended him, claiming that he would never commit a crime like the ones he stands accused of. But ultimately, she explains, no one truly understands the reality of a situation unless you are a victim.
“Coming forward as a survivor is extremely difficult,” she explains. “You put yourself out there to be judged and criticised and called names and shamed and broken. And that’s why a lot of survivors will never come forward, because they’ve already been broken, that they just can’t take any more pain.”
Klein also highlights the immense courage it took for the boys to come forward and publicly share their experiences.
“These boys are still children, and they had the courage to put their faces on this and to speak up, to make sure that this person could never sexually touch a child ever again,” she says defiantly.
Klein goes on to explain that while Jerry has become the “poster child” for sexual abuse within the sport because of his celebrity status, reporting sexual abuse remains deeply difficult and divisive.
“Some people are gonna say it’s great that he was exposed for who he is and what he was doing, and some are gonna say: ‘Not our Jerry! We love him!’” she continues.
“It’s very easy to fall in love with people we feel connected to in some way, to have them on a pedestal and believe they can do no wrong. And stories like this blow that paradigm up.”
In one especially powerful moment, Klein explains that she herself became an advocate and lawyer representing victims of sexual abuse because she was abused for nearly 17 years up during her own competitive gymnastics career. That abuse came at the hands of former Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to over 300 years in jail in 2018 for molesting hundreds of gymnasts including Olympic gold medallists Simone Biles and Aly Raisman in what has become the biggest sexual abuse scandal in sports history.
“I always say that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” she declares. “When you’re in it, it’s very hard sometimes to see red flags.”
Later in the episode, the boys’ mother, Kristen, explains that her sons wanted to speak publicly about the alleged abuse to communicate that victims of sexual abuse do not need to hide their faces in shame. Whatever the outcome of Harris’ trial, it’s a vital message that will be heard loudly and clearly as viewers tune in around the world to watch Cheer.
Cheer season 2 is available to stream on Netflix now.
If you have experienced sexual abuse of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
Images: Getty; Netflix
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