‘Cheer’ Uses Concussions To Make The Case For Cheerleading
February 2, 2020 10:46 AM   Subscribe

Diana Moskovitz, DeadspinUnnamed Temporary Sports Blog Dot Com: ‘Cheer’ Uses Concussions To Make The Case For Cheerleading
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.
posted by tonycpsu (38 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Leverage creator/showrunner John Rogers pointed out the horrific conditions in cheerleading when discussing why they did an episode of the show on it:
Every year the writers come in with three or four ideas for episodes. Jeremy Bernstein (@fajitas) led with two crime-y ones, and then said "Also, cheerleading."

We'd joked about it before. The auditorium we scouted for another episode was hosting a cheerleading competition at the time, and of course all the guys said "Cheerleading episode!!" Har-de-har. So at first I thought he was joking.

Then he laid out the stats, and all I kept saying was "Jesus Murphy." And then he laid out the reason for the stats, and Downey and I said "That is ... actual villainy." To be fair, I'll admit I was still a little dubious about whether we could make the episode work, so we had Jer present the info to the writer's room.

It was the angriest I've seen the room since Season Two.

Going much further into backstory will take us the closest to "actionable" we've come in a while, so let's just say there are several companies which indeed practice the business model -- by which I mean wide-scale, boggling efficient grift -- we detail in the episode. A hundred-something national championships. Force you to buy insurance that's never paid out. Fighting efforts to increase safety standards, because better safety standards would interfere with their ability to license and profit off cheerleading camps, etc, etc. Pretty girls in wheelchairs because of some assholes in suits. Using the real world model, we went to work.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:01 AM on February 2 [49 favorites]


I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary. Honestly, reading between the lines it’s an indictment of the sport. The coach "cares", but it’s the care that a race horse owner has for their horses: they’re in her care for a reason & that reason is to win competitions. If some of them break along the way, well that was the cost of admission.

It’s kind of horrifying.
posted by pharm at 11:13 AM on February 2 [19 favorites]


I have a lot of friends who play roller derby, another concussion-prone sport which seems to have an uneven relationship with concussion safety. Some teams take head hits seriously, others seem to treat them very casually. Even on the teams with strict safety rules, I’ve definitely seen players and coaches complain about the “bullshit liability rules” blocking them from playing when they want to.

Cheer has been popular in some derby social media circles, and it’s been interesting watching it prompt a lot of conversations (and, tbh, fights) about this topic. I’ve definitely seen a few people get very wrapped up in how good the show is and in the empowering nature of taking women athletes seriously (which is great!), and pushing against any and all criticism. While others have been highlighting the concussion issue and using it to point out issues with their own teams.
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 11:34 AM on February 2 [7 favorites]


Women report more concussions than men do, and are more likely to be diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. I can't believe this style of cheerleading is worth the potential life-altering injury.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:36 AM on February 2 [9 favorites]


One of the arguments against stringent safety regulations in pro sports is that the players are compensated hugely and so it is up to them to manage their own limitations against their paycheck.

Of course, for that argument to work, you have to ignore how many professional-path male athletes are dropped from rosters, never make the team, lose sponsors or never get sponsors, to have the kind of financial cushion that might make that tradeoff "worth it."

So, when you're talking about sports and people, men and women, who dedicate a huge portion of their lives to pursuing the sport, you have to talk about the economics. I don't like the idea of limiting a woman's potential in sport. But by not compensating them to a fair degree let alone an overwhelming degree (as reserved for top athletes of male-dominated fields), what is the point?
posted by amanda at 11:41 AM on February 2 [10 favorites]


The discussion of this show on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast was nuanced and interesting, as was Linda Holmes' accompanying review. One point that was raised in the podcast was that while the coach does seem to deeply care about and know the kids, she also seems to believe that "getting the win" is the same thing as helping the kid, or that doing anything to get the win is the same as doing anything to help the kid. Seems like a dangerous attitude.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:42 AM on February 2 [11 favorites]


Off topic: I thank you for introducing me to the purgatory blog of Deadspinners.
posted by indianbadger1 at 11:47 AM on February 2 [9 favorites]


Seems like a dangerous attitude.
Seems like the default mode for Coaches of any "sport".
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:49 AM on February 2 [10 favorites]


Yeah, it's interesting, I really liked Cheer, but I also thought that the whole situation was a lot more fucked-up than some people seem to perceive it to be. Almost all of these kids are dealing with some kind of major trauma involving parental loss or abandonment, and then here is Monica, who presents herself as a stern but caring parent figure, and all you need to do to earn her approval is give 100% and risk your health and safety. If you are willing to risk paralysis or death, then she will give you the love that you didn't get because your single mom died, or your single mom went to prison and left you in the care of someone who lived with a child molester, or your mom skipped town and your dad and his new wife decided that you and your brother should be banished to a trailer. I understand why the team-members worship Monica, but she's kind of a monster. I don't really think that the show sugarcoats it, but maybe it does, because a lot of people seem to have taken really different impressions from it than I did.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:01 PM on February 2 [49 favorites]


That NPR review also touches on something that I’d noticed: the glaringly obvious disparity between the predominantly black men on the floor and the long haired white women placed at the top of the pyramid.
It's disappointing, too, that there's essentially no examination of one of the facts about the team that's blindingly obvious: a lot of the boys on the team are black, but the girls are overwhelmingly white. Particularly given a scene in which Aldama admits that she favors one girl over another to participate in a routine in part because she has "the look," there's a very big open question about what Aldama thinks "the look" of a cheerleader is, exactly. That question may have any number of answers, but not asking it — not raising it — feels like a missed opportunity.
It’s never commented on, never mentioned, but it’s undeniably there & the omission of any mention of it within the documentary feels as if it’s something the documentary-maker was determined not to touch on. Like the concussion issue, perhaps they felt that it wasn’t their place to ask questions - just to put it all on screen and let viewers draw their own conclusions.

ArbitraryAndCapricious: I think everyone involved thinks that they are doing good & are blind to the potential cost because it’s “just one of those things” like concussion in professional sports used to be (and still is to some extent). The potential for life-altering injuries is treated as if it’s some uncomprehending capricious force (like the weather) rather than an inevitable outcome of the choices made by the coach & the industry she is working within.
posted by pharm at 12:11 PM on February 2 [21 favorites]


aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh

I have long-term post-concussion syndrome (I slipped on the ice and landed on my head, but I had several concussions already under my belt) and sports that encourage head injury drive make me so, so angry. So much of the protocol is based on the short term (how is someone doing 15 minutes? An hour? A week? after their concussion) and not on the long term. What happens when a cheerleader who seems OK based on the report of a coach or staff who want her back on the team, on a team she really wants to be back on, starts having issues with memory of executive function months later? Or has sleeping problems for months? Or feels pressured to downplay her problems with light or sound sensitivity to keep doing what she loves doing. Or, what happens when a former cheerleader (or anyone who does contact sports as a teen) has a bad injury or car accident later? Concussions are cumulative - the more you have, the harder they are to recover from.

Part of this anger is directed at the fact that so much research on concussions and other mild traumatic brain injuries (the “mild” refers to how long someone is unconscious after hitting their head, not the actual impact of the head injury) is devoted to getting players playing again. To making better helmets and other gear. To perpetuating the culture of sports. Most mTBIs come from falls or accidents. Many others result from domestic abuse and other violence. But there’s so little that focuses on actually living with a concussion or post-concussion syndrome and so much attention on how to keep sports going - it’s really frustrating.
posted by heurtebise at 1:35 PM on February 2 [41 favorites]


I had post-concussion syndrome for a few years, heurtebise (I might be over it, knock on wood). It's so frustrating to read about people taking it lightly, isn't it? They act like it's a sprain, as if taking it easy for a day will clear it up.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:56 PM on February 2 [13 favorites]


The Atlantic: Cheer Is Built on a Pyramid of Broken Bodies:

Days after finishing Cheer, Netflix’s popular new docuseries about a cheerleading team’s pursuit of its 14th national championship in 19 years, two scenes keep replaying in my head...

[description of 2 horrible incidents of injured athletes not getting proper medical attention]

Those two scenes are notable in the explicit indifference Aldama shows to the safety of the athletes in her charge, but they’re not exceptional in the context of Cheer’s brutality or the limited protection and medical support Navarro’s injured athletes appear to receive. While watching the show, I felt as if I had been pranked; I had given it a try after watching Twitter explode with effusive praise for Navarro’s athletes and the team’s take-no-prisoners female leader. The actor Reese Witherspoon found Aldama so inspirational that she cried. An opinion piece at NBC News hailed her as the kind of decision maker America needs. The Cut interviewed her about her daily routine.

Fans got one thing right: Cheer’s hardworking, eager-to-please athletes are indeed transcendent. But Cheer doesn’t let their victories shine. Instead, the series tells one of the oldest, darkest stories in American sports—of athletes with no pay and little support breaking their bodies again and again, all for the greater glory of an authority figure they dare not question.

posted by mediareport at 2:11 PM on February 2 [20 favorites]


Aldama lost me completely when she made the kid who injured his back at another competition do a full run through, even though he was suffering. Injuring him more is not a reasonable punishment, one. And two, he was one of the guys on the floor catching the girls falling from two stories in the air... thereby risking her safety because he ticked off the coach. She's not trying to make them better. She's trying to win at all costs, no matter what she says.
posted by headspace at 3:04 PM on February 2 [12 favorites]


What is the endgame in cheerleading? I know with most sports, it’s to get to one of the top tiers, NFL, NBA, etc., but where do you go with cheer?

The only sport that has cheerleaders that I know of is football and, generally, it doesn’t seem like they are well-known enough to make that worthwhile.

I won’t say it’s not a legit sport and they do work very hard to get ... somewhere, but what is the point?
posted by drivingmenuts at 3:24 PM on February 2 [4 favorites]


I don't think they needed to go at all further into "the look": it's made very clear that the look is conventionally attractive white women with long flowing hair, lots of makeup, good teeth.

Everyone I spoke to saw Aldama as a villain, for what it's worth. One who probably thought she cared and was doing her best for them, but she was not. The lack of response to serious injuries, the "no second chances ever", ugh.

The show was fascinating, and I liked most of the kids and few of the adults, but so much of it was just very yikes -- the amount of religious stuff everywhere was absolutely startling.

A friend of mine was a gymnast to cheerleader (high school, college) and eventually had to quit from all the concussions. I just had one (car accident, minor) and it's changed how I can be around screens and artificial lights.
posted by jeather at 3:28 PM on February 2 [7 favorites]


Also I didn't know how exactly true that Leverage episode was.
posted by jeather at 3:30 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


What is the endgame in cheerleading?
2 minutes 15 seconds at Nationals.
That's it. Then it's all over, unless you land one of the few poorly-paid positions in the cheerleader-industrial complex.
posted by Floydd at 3:35 PM on February 2 [12 favorites]


I wonder how much of the reason for the absence of gear is the maintenance and importance of "the look".

" it doesn’t seem like they are well-known enough to make that worthwhile"

They are not. They are essentially volunteers who are subject to draconian rules regarding their dress, social media presence and conduct - they aren't their team's peers, they can't even socialize with them.
posted by Selena777 at 3:35 PM on February 2 [9 favorites]


They should rename American football to “Gladiatorial Football”, as it is essentially a blood sport.
posted by acb at 4:09 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


SNL highlighted the coaches' irresponsibility w/r/t these injuries in a "Cheer" sketch just last week.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:15 PM on February 2 [5 favorites]


> I won’t say it’s not a legit sport and they do work very hard to get ... somewhere, but what is the point?

Ideally, they like it for itself. I know plenty of people who take their sports seriously but there's no bigger goal beyond that.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:24 PM on February 2 [8 favorites]


They are essentially volunteers who are subject to draconian rules regarding their dress, social media presence and conduct - they aren't their team's peers, they can't even socialize with them.

Yep. Previously on professional cheerleading.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 5:52 PM on February 2 [3 favorites]


It's confusing, because they're both called cheerleading, but competitive cheerleading and professional cheerleading aren't the same thing. These people have a totally different skill-set from professional cheerleaders, who are more like dancers and less like acrobats than competitive cheerleaders are.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:01 PM on February 2 [13 favorites]


Matt Stoller’s excellent newsletter, Big, had a couple of great issues last month looking at cheerleading from a market concentration and monopolization standpoint. I’m on mobile and not sure I can find them in the archive but theu are worth looking at.
posted by gauche at 6:13 PM on February 2


but where do you go with cheer?

Straight into an exciting career as a pharmaceutical company sales rep:

T. Lynn Williamson, Napier's cheering adviser at Kentucky, says he regularly gets calls from recruiters looking for talent, mainly from pharmaceutical companies. "They watch to see who's graduating," he says.

"They don't ask what the major is," Williamson says. Proven cheerleading skills suffice. "Exaggerated motions, exaggerated smiles, exaggerated enthusiasm -- they learn those things, and they can get people to do what they want."

posted by mediareport at 7:20 PM on February 2 [16 favorites]


> ArbitraryAndCapricious: It's confusing, because they're both called cheerleading, but competitive cheerleading and professional cheerleading aren't the same thing. These people have a totally different skill-set from professional cheerleaders, who are more like dancers and less like acrobats than competitive cheerleaders are.

Yeah, competitive cheerleading and professional cheerleading have the same relationship as competitive wrestling and professional wrestling.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:16 AM on February 3 [3 favorites]


where do you go with cheer?

There's a scummy Bay St business-lads club that its highlight dinner of the year is getting to paw at national-league cheer teams. Even now.
posted by scruss at 4:55 AM on February 3


SNL highlighted the coaches' irresponsibility w/r/t these injuries in a "Cheer" sketch just last week.

WTF SNL? It's one thing to skewer rich and powerful celebs and politicians, these are just teenagers, some of whom the show makes quite clear have had some pretty challenging circumstances. Not cool in any way.
posted by newpotato at 5:03 AM on February 3


they aren't their team's peers, they can't even socialize with them.

I'm not a sports person, so fwiw: this is such a strange thing to read. What are the reasons given for this separation?
posted by doctornemo at 5:56 AM on February 3


Presumably avoidance of rumors and "scandal," which is laughable in light of what the NFL teams get into on their own.
posted by Selena777 at 6:20 AM on February 3 [5 favorites]


Sigh.
posted by doctornemo at 10:18 AM on February 3


I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary. Honestly, reading between the lines it’s an indictment of the sport. The coach "cares", but it’s the care that a race horse owner has for their horses: they’re in her care for a reason & that reason is to win competitions. If some of them break along the way, well that was the cost of admission.

I've spent time art the track and Cheer is much, much worse. No race horse trainer is knowingly racing or working an injured horse, the problem with animals is they don't always tell you they are hurt. This woman has kids telling her in actual words they are hurt and in pain and is pushing them anyway. It's incredible these programs haven't been sued into oblivion, tbh.
posted by fshgrl at 10:53 AM on February 3 [8 favorites]


Ideally, they like it for itself. I know plenty of people who take their sports seriously but there's no bigger goal beyond that.

In my book, that's the only reason I can begin to comprehend for the existence of sports in the first place. There's just a hole in my brain where other people have the bit that isn't baffled by the fact that there are professional sports. I mean, the very phrase sounds like an oxymoron.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:19 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


No race horse trainer is knowingly racing or working an injured horse, the problem with animals is they don't always tell you they are hurt

Just to put the bow on this, as far as I've been able to find, wild horses suffer the same fate from physical injuries as racehorses. Racehorses might have a higher incidence of certain injuries (lower-leg breaks) that result in euthanasia, but this is not restricted to the domesticated animals. Feral horses would just starve or be preyed upon after stepping in that gopher hole.

The problem with horses is that over 1/3 of the bones in their entire body are in their legs, and over half of their bodyweight is supported by their front legs. This makes fractures difficult to treat (where humans are involved). Horses mostly stand, dozing for rest rather than getting deep sleep. Since horses are prey animals, they are not inclined to just lie down and pass out for extended periods (though they do get REM sleep for short periods).

So a horse breaks a leg. How do you keep it off its feet? Slings are not a magic bullet, they are mostly used for short periods of time with minor injuries. You can't make a horse lie down, and even if you could there is a risk of twisted intestines, which is also commonly fatal (even with surgery). Sometimes doctors can quickly install plates and screws and create a structure that normal horses can survive in until the bones knit, but this is also an imperfect solution and not really possible with major breaks. It's sad, but horses are simply complicated animals, and thoroughbreds are bred to be hyper, so they're even less likely to keep a shattered ankle immobilized for two months.

(h/t Fancy Veterinary doctor friend)

Participating in cheer, on the other hand, does rest on choice, and all sports have lore and legend about performing while injured.

I have a story about marching band (itself a Spirit discipline like cheer): during a rest period in practice, a friend with a high belt in Judo tried a new flip move on me where my shoulder landed on his heel while in a kneel (not what was supposed to happen). I heard a crack, and when we started practice again, the snare drum that hung from my shoulders caused quite a bit of discomfort! I'm pretty sure it was a fractured collarbone! Never even telling anybody ("I'm OK" I told my friend), I continued on with my life, our weekly practices got gradually less and less uncomfortable, and that's just the way it went.

My philosophy is that sports are exactly where these choices are made. Rock climbing deaths, American football concussions, just playing rugby at all, etc. all involve physical exertion at varying amounts of strength attributable both to practice and impairment. And not all injuries are a problem, watch a gymnastics competition and count the ankle and knee wraps and braces. However, when coaches encourage this stuff, to me seen most infamously in American football, is a bad thing. Being sidelined sucks, but getting kicked out for injuries should not be the alternative to performing injured.

Make no mistake, though, everybody wants to "get the win," and how good you are comes in two forms: being the best at your position, and being a member of a winning team. One is a personal choice and the other is a collective choice (more or less), and the hyphen between these two conditions is where the choice to play injured or not occurs. That said, I would love for there to be something like stand-ins in stage theater, which would reduce the pressure to heal quickly at the expense of additional complexity in achieving team goals.

If you are willing to risk paralysis or death, then she will give you the love that you didn't get because your single mom died, or your single mom went to prison and left you in the care of someone who lived with a child molester, or your mom skipped town and your dad and his new wife decided that you and your brother should be banished to a trailer

Sadly, a story pretty much this appears in the Netflix series "I Am A Killer," which is about the stories of death row prisoners. It might be split among a couple different origin stories, but it's in there. This of course doesn't excuse the culture and coach behavior of cheer and other injury-prone sports coaches, but given the alternative...
posted by rhizome at 3:40 PM on February 3 [2 favorites]


This whole thing made me cry. I tried out for cheerleader in a small TX school, where part of the try out was a popularity vote. I was a poor kid with no resources, but I wanted to show "school spirit" and make friends. Cheer seemed like a cool thing to do. I saved up money to take a class (with my science teacher) and she told me I was short and confronted me in class to ask my mom for the rest of the money. I didn't make the squad because I literally had NO talent, or support. Eff cheerleading, the brain damage, emotional damage and nightmares it can cause. Those poor kids.
posted by lextex at 7:42 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


It sounds like you dodged a bullet, lextex, though I'm sure it didn't feel that way at the time.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:35 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I have a real problem with activities that cost money that all the kids don't have being a part of public school. I mean, I know that's become even more the norm since I was in school, but it's just setting kids up for heartbreak and alienation in a place where they're required by law to be. It's like rounding poor kids up and forcing them to stand outside the toy store watching rich kids go in and buy Xboxes.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:17 AM on February 4 [6 favorites]


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