The Navarro cheerleaders practice their routine in the docuseries 'Cheer.'
Courtesy of Netflix
Updated: March 10, 2020 2:10 PM EDT | Originally published: March 4, 2020 3:17 PM EST

Watching Netflix’s Cheer is not for the faint of heart. In Greg Whiteley’s six-part documentary series, which built up an enthusiastic fanbase after hitting the streamer in January, the young athletes of Navarro College’s 14-time national championship-winning cheerleading team repeatedly lift, throw and catch flying teammates, many of them already nursing injuries and at risk of exacerbating them. Often, these stunts don’t go as planned — bases holding flyers high in the air shake before the whole formation of bodies collapses to the ground. Concussions abound, as do ankle injuries and swollen, twisted limbs.

Some moments in the series are particularly difficult to watch. When athlete T.T. Barker arrives at practice with a back injury after ignoring coach Monica Aldama’s advice against competing with another team, Aldama still makes him participate in practice. As his coach seeks to teach a lesson about commitment, Barker winces and grunts in pain, hoisting flyers overhead. Finally, he collapses to the mat, crying.

Cheerleading, like most sports, carries an inherent risk for injury. But on Cheer, which chronicles the Corsicana, Texas, junior college’s preparation for the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) championship competition in Daytona, Fla., the risk of this particular sport is laid bare. Whiteley, who previously directed the football-focused docuseries Last Chance U on Netflix, has said he marvels at the tenacity of these athletes. “They’re the toughest athletes I’ve ever filmed,” the documentarian told the Wrap in an interview. “It’s not even close. And that’s no slight to football players.”

But unlike football, cheerleading is not officially recognized as a sport — neither by the NCAA nor by U.S. federal Title IX guidelines.

The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research (NCCSIR) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reports that for both high school and college athletes, the number of female cheerleaders’ direct catastrophic injuries — which the organization defines as “any severe injury incurred during participation in a school/college sponsored sport” — was second only to football players, based on data taken annually from 1982 to 2018. Football has retained its number one spot over the decades, while cheerleading has managed to dramatically lower its rate of catastrophic injuries in recent years. Still, cheerleading has had a higher rate of injury over time than 23 of the 24 sports recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the exception being football.

‘Still too underdeveloped and disorganized’

“Only probably half of the [U.S.] high school athletic associations consider [competitive cheerleading] a sport,” Natalie Guice Adams, author of Cheerleader!: An American Icon and the director of the University of Alabama’s liberal arts school, who was featured in the Netflix series, tells TIME. “The courts have continuously ruled that it cannot be counted as a sport under Title IX.”

Title IX, the section of the Education Amendments of 1972 requiring that men and women be treated equally academically, prohibits gender-based discrimination in sports. When Quinnipiac University in Connecticut cut its women’s volleyball team in 2009, the school elevated the cheerleading squad to varsity sport status in order to comply with Title IX. Though the cheer team participated in both competitions and supported the school’s other teams on the sidelines, the volleyball team won its lawsuit against the university, claiming that the activities were not reciprocal sports. In his 2010 decision, U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill wrote, “Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX; today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.”

Quinnipiac appealed the ruling, but a federal appeals court upheld it in 2012. “Like the district court, we acknowledge record evidence showing that competitive cheerleading can be physically challenging, requiring competitors to possess ‘strength, agility, and grace,'” the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote. “Similarly, we do not foreclose the possibility that the activity, with better organization and defined rules, might someday warrant recognition as a varsity sport. But, like the district court, we conclude that the record evidence shows that ‘that time has not yet arrived.'”

What’s more, most competitive cheerleading teams are co-ed, which also poses a problem for Title IX compliance, as programs without equal opportunities for both men and women could be in violation of the law.

‘You don’t do a sport, you just get to look pretty’

One main problem standing in cheer’s way is its original raison d’être: supporting a college or university’s other teams. When the activity began in the latter half of the 19th century, it was only for men. But over the next hundred years, it evolved into the female-dominated activity that formed the basis for the popular stereotype of girls and women cheering in short skirts and waving pom poms (see: Heathers, American Beauty). Cheerleading as a competitive sport — one that leads to higher rates of injury and requires great athleticism — only began in the 1990s, according to Adams.

Some competitive cheerleaders feel that this stereotype still undermines their credibility as athletes. “People usually associate cheerleaders with privileged girls who grew up with easy lives,” says Lexy Medeiros, a high school senior from Massachusetts who is a back spotter on her cheerleading team and hopes to compete with her college team next year. Medeiros says this plays into the way other athletes tend to discredit her sport. “It’s annoying, especially when kids at school are like, ‘Oh, you don’t do a sport, you just get to look pretty,'” she tells TIME.

On Cheer, the men and women of Navarro’s team only care about one competition — the NCA championship in Daytona, sponsored by its parent company Varsity Spirit, owned by Bain Capital — for which they spend all year preparing. But in between practices and minor meets with other Texas-based teams, they cheer for Navarro’s football, men’s basketball and women’s volleyball teams. Experts say mandatory shows of support for other students inherently makes these athletes seem secondary and detracts from their opportunities. “You don’t want a competitive cheer team where sideline cheer is also a requirement of that team,” Sarah Axelson, the senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), tells TIME. “You want that it’s a strictly competitive cheer team, that they have a number of competitions throughout the season, that they have a similar number of opportunities to compete compared to other varsity athletic programs.”

And while watching Cheer may convince viewers that competitive cheerleading teams like Navarro are the norm, Adams says “they are not the majority of cheerleading squads in the country,” most of which mainly do sideline cheer. Varsity, which organizes the major collegiate championship, estimates that only 10 percent of high school cheerleaders compete. Medeiros finds it frustrating that her team has to spend so much time cheering on her school’s football and basketball teams. “I’d rather be practicing for a competition than wasting our time,” she says. “I know that was the point, originally, of cheerleaders — to cheer for the boys — but it’s not my favorite thing.”

There’s also no professional equivalent for the sport. Though athletes like Navarro’s could theoretically go on to cheer for professional sports teams — like the Laker Girls, for example — the women on those squads tend to come from a dance background, and there’s no competitive aspect. Even if these athletes do “go pro,” the situations that await them are fraught. In recent years, there have been multiple lawsuits brought by former professional cheerleaders accusing their employers of underpayment and mistreatment. “I and my fellow cheerleaders were treated as the lowest of the low,” Hannah Turnbow, a former Houston Texans cheerleader who sued the NFL team in 2018, said in a press conference at the time. Ainsley Parish, another former Texans cheerleader, added that they were “harassed, bullied and body-shamed for $7.25 an hour.” Similarly, a former NBA dancer sued the Milwaukee Bucks in 2015, alleging that she had been paid less than minimum wage.

A future with STUNT

But after decades of these athletes being literally relegated to the sidelines, it’s possible that all this could change as soon as this year. USA Cheer, a non-profit organization that governs cheerleading activities across the U.S., created a new women-only sport called STUNT, which “removes the crowd-leading element and focuses on the technical and athletic components of cheer.” Essentially, it’s cheerleading on the main stage, not the sidelines, and it was specifically developed to meet Title IX requirements.

In order to become eligible for the NCAA, a sport needs to meet certain requirements, including high participation numbers and sponsorships, a representative for the organization told TIME. One way in is through the NCAA’s Emerging Sports program, which has already approved the similar sport of acrobatics and tumbling for Divisions II and III. Division I will vote this spring, according to an NCAA representative. (Though acrobatics and tumbling is similar to cheerleading, its athletes differentiate themselves from cheerleaders and the activity is now specifically represented by 30 college programs, according to University of Oregon’s student-run publication.)

The NCAA is reviewing STUNT’s recent application to the program, and if accepted, the sport will have 10 years to fulfill the championship status requirement — having a minimum of 40 varsity programs nationwide — before it’s officially recognized, like its predecessors, beach volleyball, rowing and ice hockey.

Becoming an NCAA-sanctioned sport “advances the opportunity and the quality of the experience for the women participating,” says Axelson, because it allows teams to compete across the country, under the same guidelines and regulations, and increases the sport’s exposure. The lack of NCAA recognition means there are few to no available scholarships, so cheerleaders, as Medeiros points out, “don’t get the opportunities that other sports get.”

NCAA support would also provide a better sense of legitimacy for cheerleaders who literally put their lives in danger for their sport. “A lot of people do think that we just shake pom poms,” says Medeiros. “They don’t understand that we compete.”

If the activity does one day become an NCAA-regulated sport, it won’t be without precedent. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which governs 250 colleges and universities, made competitive cheerleading a championship sport in 2016, and 74 schools currently sponsor a competitive cheer program under NAIA regulation, according to a representative for the NAIA.

A steadily decreasing risk of injury

In Cheer‘s penultimate episode, Morgan Simianer, one of the series’ main subjects, sneaks to the emergency room between practices. She’s struggling with what the cheerleaders often dub “ribiosis,” or extreme rib pain caused by spinning and falling down from the air only to be caught by your teammates’ bony arms. At the hospital, doctors warn Simianer that the repeated stress on her ribs could permanently damage or even kill her, but she leaves and continues to practice before going on to compete in the NCA competition, which took place last April.

When asked about her decision to ignore medical advice, Simianer told Vogue in an interview that she doesn’t regret it, and that she’s healed. “Gymnasts are a different species. We care so much about the sport and our team. We will do anything to help our teammates,” she said. Though Simianer refers to herself as a gymnast, data indicates her competitive world is actually more dangerous. “Those moments can be challenging, but I always remind myself that I know what kind of pain my body can handle.” Now, both Simianer and Barker are back at Navarro, practicing for their next Daytona championship competition in April (between appearances on The Ellen Show and sharing sponsored posts on Instagram).

Despite the overwhelming amount of team-wide injuries depicted on Cheer, experts say the sport isn’t as dangerous as it might seem — and parents shouldn’t shy away from getting their kids involved in the sport. While it’s second to football as the most dangerous sport over a 40-year period, data indicates that it’s become safer in the last two decades, NCCSIR director Kristen Kucera told TIME. Last year’s annual report showed that competitive cheerleading only amounted for 1.2 percent of sport-related injuries between July 2017 and June 2018, while football injuries made up 54.1 percent of the total. According to another report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, cheerleading ranked 18th most-dangerous out of 22 high school sports in 2016.

“Looking at the data that’s been published so far, the risk of cheer overall injuries is pretty low,” says Emily Sweeney, a pediatric sports medicine doctor at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “I think the most important thing we can do is making sure that the kids are safe at practices and competitions.” Though the NCAA doesn’t regulate the sport, both USA Cheer and Varsity, which organizes the majority of the nation’s biggest cheer programs, including summer camps, told TIME that safety is a top priority for these athletes. Varsity said in a statement that it follows USA Cheer’s safety guidelines to create their educational and scoring rubrics. “[The industry] is making good strides in trying to modify risk and decrease risk, but there’s always still more work that can be done,” Sweeney says.

Write to Rachel E. Greenspan at rachel.greenspan@time.com.

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