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Published August 18, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Cheerleading show gets three cheers

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

I can’t believe I watched a docuseries on cheerleading.

Before baseball and basketball returned to television, I stumbled onto “Cheer” on Netflix. While I admittedly started watching out of desperation, that’s not why I ended up binge-watching all six hours in two days.

“Cheer” turned out to be a surprisingly captivating series about a sport - yes, a sport - in which the slightest misstep can mean a broken bone, a concussion … or a lost championship. It’s filled with human drama. And it features a Texas school.

The series follows the thrills and spills of the nationally-ranked cheer team from Navarro College in Corsicana as it prepares for the National Cheerleading Championships held annually in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Navarro is at the top of the pyramid when it comes to cheerleading. It has won 14 national championships in the junior college division as well as five “Grand Nationals” for the highest score of all teams in the competition.

This isn’t the cheerleading you grew up with. Cheerleading has developed from mere sideline boosterism into a billion-dollar competitive sport of its own. Teams try to outdo each other with risky pyramids, baskets, throws and tumbles.

Unlike other college sports, cheerleading has no professional league after college, so the Florida championships are the highest-level event for cheerleaders.

Competitive tension runs throughout the series. The team practices for months, but only half of the 40-member team will “make mat,” or be selected for the starting squad. Then the entire season comes down to just one two-minute, 15-second performance at the national championships.

(You can keep reading. I won’t spoil the ending of the series for you.)

What helps keep you glued to the television are the poignant stories of the athletes at the center of the show. They share stories of overcoming poverty, sexual abuse, parental neglect and tragic loss. You root for them not to fall on the mats … or in life.

Jerry Harris is so committed to cheerleading he performed the day after his mother died of cancer.

La’Darius Marshall tells of his brother beating him because he was gay.

Morgan Simianer was abandoned by her parents and struggles with feelings of inadequacy.

Gabi Butler is a “cheer-lebrity” who arrives at Navarro with endorsement deals and has to balance practice with photo shoots.

“The secret to the series is these kids and how interesting they are,’” the director, Greg Whiteley, told the Los Angeles Times.

Whiteley, who documented the struggles of junior college football players in the series “Last Chance U,” calls the Navarro cheerleaders “the toughest athletes I have filmed.”

Then there is the coach. Monica Aldama graduated from Corsicana High School and earned a finance degree from the University of Texas at Tyler. A cheerleader in college, she took the position of coach at Navarro to stay close to her extended family.

Aldama has made Navarro’s program the best in the nation. She mixes a tough-as-nails approach when it comes to making decisions about the team with being a compassionate, nonjudgmental mentor when it comes to her charges.

Although she describes herself as a conservative, Aldama talks in “Cheer” to her pastor about defending her male cheerleaders, many of whom are gay.

“I want to make sure they feel loved no matter what,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I will have their backs no matter what.”
If you aren’t convinced yet that the show is worth trying, maybe this will do the trick.

Not only has the show been nominated for six Emmys, the team got its own dedicated segment on “Saturday Night Live,” a sure sign of being a pop-culture phenomenon.

Despite its success, there are no plans as of this writing for a second season. Guess why? The pandemic has forced cancellation of the Florida championships.

Just when we found something to cheer about.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)