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The Disturbing Truths of Competitive Cheerleading

Netflix “Cheer” star Jerry Harris was arrested on Sept. 17, 2020, on charges of child pornography and sex solicitation from minors.

The internet became obsessed with the world of competitive cheerleading this past January as a result of Netflix’s docu series titled “Cheer.” “Cheer” follows a charismatic, spunky team of cheerleaders from small town Corsicana, Texas, as they pave their way to the national cheer championship. Throughout the show, viewers came to know and love several members of the team, with perhaps the most memorable being Jerry Harris. Jerry, 21, was not only an incredibly driven athlete, but also the ultimate hype man for his teammates and the biggest softie. It’s for these reasons that Harris’s arrest on such heinous charges came as an immense shock to “Cheer” fans.

The accusations against Harris came from 14-year-old twin brothers, Charlie and Sam (Their last names were withheld due to their minor status). Charlie alleged that when he was just 13, he received a follow request from Harris, then 19, on Instagram. This was the beginning of their communication, one where Harris frequently asked for nude or sexually suggestive photos from Charlie, some requests of which Charlie obliged, believing Jerry would be upset with him when he refused. Charlie stated that he explicitly told Harris his age. The two cheerleaders would often see each other at competitions, and Charlie shared that there was even an incident in February 2019 where Harris cornered him in a bathroom and failingly pleaded for sex.

When Charlie’s mother, Kristen, became aware of Charlie’s relationship with Harris, her initial decision was to simply cut Charlie off from Jerry and not go to the police. Months later, Kristen changed her mind when she discovered that both her sons had been sexually assaulted by one of their coaches. At that moment, Kristen realized that this situation was bigger than just Harris. She reported the “Cheer” star to the US All Star Federation (USASF), the largest organizer of youth cheerleading and dance. After the first reporting had no effect, she reported Harris again, had a phone call with USASF’s VP, and finally wrote the VP an email. Still, she got nowhere. It wasn’t until the boys’ story was released into the media that Harris was finally suspended from All Star activities. 

Not long before this, USA TODAY had coincidentally begun an investigation into competitive cheer’s apparent leniency towards protecting their cheerleaders. The news outlet found that close to 180 people within the cheer community had previously been charged with sexual misconduct towards minors, but USASF had done nothing about it. Even more horrific, 74 of those 180 people are registered sex offenders. USASF claims to make the safety of their cheerleaders a priority, but the vice president even admitted to Kristen during their phone call that, in regards to USASF’s sexual prevention policy that had been implemented across all their gyms, she’s “certain that people don’t do it.”

The US All Star Federation leaves its individual gym owners in charge of who is allowed to be around their cheerleaders. Sometimes, however, the gym owner is the one to be concerned about. One example can be found at a USASF gym in Ohio, owned by Mishelle Robinson. Robinson, 44, was convicted of sexual battery of a high-schooler in 2006 and was listed on Ohio’s sex offender registry until this past March. Mishelle is upfront about her past with every member of her gym, and she believes there’s nothing wrong with her operating a gym, as she has never reoffended. It’s unclear if, and how long, the USASF has known about this. A coach in Texas, Kale Dunlap, did not own a gym but was hired into one despite previous sexual assault charges. Even after being indicted, the USASF did not ban him, and he continued to frequent their gyms until he was sentenced to prison months later.

The USASF’s lack of attentiveness to the individuals owning and coaching within their gyms is deeply concerning. With hundreds of offenders’ names being identified and more survivors coming forward with their stories, awareness of this deep-rooted issue within the cheering world is starting to gain traction. In regards to USASF gyms’ attempts at bettering their programs, a woman in the cheer community commented, “…it’s not always for the safety of the athletes. It’s more of just how they can win.”

As of Sept. 21, Jerry Harris remains in custody, and the FBI is asking any more victims of his to come forward.

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