Netflix recently released its new documentary series “Cheer” to general acclaim and overwhelming popularity. The show, which follows the cheer squad at Navarro College as they prepare for the national collegiate cheer championships, has captivated the world, with social media exploding in support for team members and popular entertainment accounts posting about them as if they were celebrities.
Although there are many factors that go into the show’s wide appeal, one thing that may contribute is the refreshing look that it offers into the world of collegiate cheer. The show has the usual interpersonal drama and intrigue of any good story, but more than anything, it follows a group of world class athletes as they train for their championship. And to attribute this level of skill, dedication and passion to cheerleading, a sport that has traditionally been seen as a supporting player to other sports, is new for some viewers.
“Most people who never cheered before, or don’t know anything about cheer think we just sile and wave pom poms 24/7 when in reality, we go through a lot behind the scenes” says UNO cheerleader Paris Ford. “ [The series] showed that cheer is a SPORT. It brought light upon the cheer world even more.”
For the cheerleaders at UNO, “Cheer” represents an important opportunity to clear up misconceptions about their sport on a platform that reaches millions of people. Although UNO’s squad does not compete in the exact same way as Navarro does, they too work hard, practice frequently, and put their own health and safety on the line for their routines.
“We don’t practice as much as Navarro does, because we’re not a competition team, but we do have three practices a week,” says UNO cheerleader Jada James. “One practice is dedicated to stunts and the other two are dedicated to workouts. Working out is important, because we do have to hold and throw girls up in the air. Cheerleading requires a lot of strength and motivation. You have to be strong enough to lift girls in the air and strong enough to be able to push yourself. As a team, we all have to motivate each other to keep going and to keep pushing through.”
At UNO, the cheerleading squad, just like the one at Navarro, supports bigger billed sports like basketball and serves as spirit leaders for community events. However, the difference is that UNO’s squad does not get the opportunity to compete in cheerleading specific competitions, which are shown to be the most rewarding and exciting events in the series. This discrepancy, according James, stems from a difference in funding and support between programs like the one at Navarro and UNO’s.
“A whole lot is expected of us, because we’re mainly doing things ourselves,” says James. “If we want something done, then it’s up to the team to make it happen. We don’t have the encouragement and funding like Navarro does, so it’s harder for us to be able to do things like compete, have a tumbling team, have a reliable place to practice and even be able to recruit people to our cheer program.”
For those UNO students who enjoyed “Cheer,” the differences in levels of support for the program at a cheer-focused school like Navarro and UNO are evident. According to James, an increased focus on UNO’s squad could be beneficial for everyone.
“Being a cheerleader at UNO, I’ve realized that cheerleaders aren’t seen as anything more but basically a prop,” says James. “If you want to have a well-rounded university who has these athletic programs that attract people to the school, then why not give the cheer program a chance and see what we could do for the university? We just don’t have enough people in high enough places who believe that we can be D1 cheerleaders like the other athletic programs.”
Even with the differences in cheer cultures at schools like Navarro and UNO, cheer is a sport that is mentally and physically demanding to its all of its athletes. And according to those athletes at UNO, anyone who still does not recognize cheer as a sport is not paying attention.
“I would ask [cheer skeptics] to lift up a 150+ lbs girl, throw her up in the air, come back with a sprained wrist and do the same thing over again,” says Ford. “Hit a back tuck for me, fracture your ankle and continue to do it. I would ask them to get thrown in the air, fall and hit the ground 20 to 30 ft. in the air, and get right back up to do it again.”