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‘Cheer’ Uses Concussions To Make The Case For Cheerleading

As the final scenes roll through Cheer, the six-part Netflix documentary on the many-times-over-championship cheerleading squad at Navarro Junior College, the camera closes in on the squad’s official coach and unofficial mother Monica Aldama. Aldama is back where our series began, sitting in a nondescript college gym, watching young women cheer and tumble, taking notes with a pen. She tells another coach, “You’re looking for potential.” The song “Snowqueen of Texas,” the suggestion as subtle as a sledgehammer, plays right before the credits roll.

If you’ve ever read or watched anything about sports, the contours of Cheer will feel old and familiar, like a book you’ve read before but always enjoy revisiting. Series director Greg Whiteley also helmed Netflix’s Last Chance U, so he knows what viewers expect and how to deliver it. There’s the small-town setting, in this case Corsicana, Texas, population about 23,000. There’s the athletes with traumatic childhoods, saved by their sport. There’s the steely coach, Aldama, who gives them the love and discipline they need, as well as lieutenants enforcing her vision. There are athletes trying to keep up their grades while school practices and competition, for which they are not paid, consume their lives. There’s even a sprinkling of what Jesus would do. The entire series builds to a big prize on the line, countless things going wrong, and a last-minute near catastrophe.

And, this being about athletes, there are a lot of injuries, including concussions.

Within the first 20 seconds, you hear “ouch” from cheerleader Morgan Simianer. Cheerleader Lexi Brumback tells us: “There are sometimes I’ll accidentally land wrong and it’s just, it’s terrible pain. But it’s worth it. I mean, I was saved by cheer.” Before the title card appears, a voice tells viewers, “You’ve got to be checked in. That’s how you get hurt, that’s how things mess up.” From there, the injuries pile up.

Before the first episode ends, two cheerleaders are evaluated for concussions. At least one is shown on camera being told to stay in a dark room, not look at her phone, and sit out the rest of the day—common advice after a suspected concussion—but later viewers see her still at practice, although not participating. Then another cheerleader falls. Someone says “We’re knocking ’em out left and right.” Athletic trainer Cameron Hieb tells another trainer, “Monica’s gonna love me when I hold out three of her girls.”

In episode two, cheerleader Allie Ross says “this is my fifth concussion” and then explains it away as “nothing really new for me, but in the grand scheme of things it’s cheerleading and that’s usually what happens to get it perfect.” Aldama later refers to cheerleaders who are medically held out of competition as “these two girls that can’t do anything.”

Cheer doesn’t hide the sports brutality; it shows the taped-up body parts, the bruises, the wincing, and the cheerleaders ignoring any advice from doctors that involves not cheering. Author Natalie Adams appears and speaks about the sport’s high number of catastrophic injuries. If anything, the show seems to offer the constant agony as a sort of evidence for the sport’s leigtimacy: These must be real athletes if they get hurt this often and play through this much pain. This is not a new argument. I heard similar from cheerleaders at my own high school in the late 1990s.

What policies Navarro might—or should—have in place to make cheerleaders safer aren’t heavily addressed. Oversight of the sport largely is handled by the Bain Capital Private Equity-owned Varsity Brands. Matt Stoller wrote an excellent wrap-up of how Varsity became the Standard Oil of cheerleading, but the shortest way to illustrate the direness of the situation is knowing that regulation by the NCAA, a cartel created as a tool of wage suppression, is viewed as a possible solution. (College cheerleading is “not a sport for which the NCAA provides or enforces rules,” according to the NCAA’s own documents.)

But that ignores one other possible layer of accountability — the National Junior College Athletics Association, which includes Navarro. The most recent NJCAA handbook online recommends that each member school “develops and implements a concussion management plan for all student-athletes.” It also outlines a concussion testing protocol.

Knowing they had to have something, I submitted a public records request for Navarro’s concussion protocol, concussion policy, and rules or policies regarding athlete safety that applied to the cheer team. The school replied with three documents: Their concussion assessment plan, their return-to-play rules for concussions, and their traumatic head injury policy.

Here’s how Navarro’s concussion assessment plan works, according to the document. Each athlete is supposed to do “baseline neurocognitive testing” before they start. They use the “IMPACT concussion management system” for that. An athlete suspected of having a concussion “should be removed immediately from competition for evaluation” and they may not return until to play until they are cleared. Here is the rest of how testing is described:

Screencap via Navarro College Concussion Assessment and Management Plan

These are the return-to-play guidelines for an athlete.

Screencap via Navarro College Concussion Assessment and Management Plan

The full policy is embedded below.

Next is the return-to-play protocol. It offers five steps for athletes returning from a concussion: aerobic conditioning, then sport-specific exercise, then returning to the sport without contact, followed by full contact, and finally full clearance. If each step can be done “with no return of symptoms during exercise or within 24 hours,” then the athlete can move on to the next step. The policy is embedded below:

The final document provided is the traumatic head injury policy. It says that paramedics should be contacted if a traumatic head injury “renders an athlete unconscious.” One exception is allowed: “[I]f the Certified Athletic Trainer and/or Team Physician witness the mechanism of injury and determine it is not medically emergent or necessary to transport the athlete to the hospital.” It adds that any loss of consciousness means an athlete should “be removed immediately from competition and treated accordingly via the Navarro College Concussion Assessment and Management Plan.” The rest of this document is embedded below.

Did we see these policies enforced in Cheer? The truth is, I can’t be sure. I watched all six episodes in a row and took notes on discussions about concussions, athlete safety, and injuries. The documentary shows you horrifying falls, lets you hear the thuds and the screams. A few times I saw what were glimpses of what are presented as concussion testing: standing on one leg, closing your eyes and touching your nose with each hand. But the focus after any fall, concussion or not, wasn’t on testing. It’s on the mandatory punishment: a drop means everyone has to do 50 push-ups. Cheer treats concussions much the same way a football or hockey broadcast treats them: an event happening on the sidelines, nothing worth paying that much attention.

(In an interview with E! News, Aldama said the show cut out “all the precautions we take for safety, the progressions that we do, the times that the kids are sitting out, or they’re getting treatment.” She brings up Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa playing after an ankle injury, saying when you’re an elite athlete “you push your body to limits that just your average person doesn’t do.)

As in other sports with regular head trauma, Cheer reaches the ugly nadir of athletes’ brain injuries—the pressure to please their coach is all-consuming. Athletes in other sports have found ways to fake their way through concussion tests and get back on the field. Why would Navarro cheerleaders be any different?

The point of Cheer, the glory of Cheer, is how persuasively it makes the case for treating cheerleading as seriously as any other sport. Cheerleaders! They’re athletes too! And they are true American athletes, with the rampant exploitation, and broken bodies and brains to prove it.