In January 2020, Netflix’s Cheer made a squad of cheerleaders from Navarro College in Corsicana, TX, into full-blown celebrities, seemingly overnight. One of those stars was Jerry Harris, whose rise to fame came to an abrupt end eight months later, when the public learned that he had been arrested on child pornography charges. The news came following an investigation into accusations detailed in a lawsuit filed on behalf of two alleged victims. By December, prosecutors had filed additional charges in the case, including “four counts of sexual exploitation of children, one count of receiving and attempting to receive child pornography, one count of traveling with the attempt to engage in sexual conduct with a minor, and one count of enticement,” as reported by The New York Times.
When Netflix announced that Cheer would return for a second season on Jan. 12, one thing was certain: the docuseries would have to address the allegations against the celebrity it helped to create. That’s precisely what the filmmakers do in episode five, titled “Jerry.” But while the episode is a powerful indictment of the show’s former star as well as a culture that has too often allowed abuse to thrive, it may be triggering for some viewers.
The episode includes interviews with Charlie and Sam, the 14-year-old twins whose allegations launched an FBI investigation; their mother Kristen, whose initial reports to the US All Star Federation went unanswered; and the family’s attorney Sarah Klein, who became an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse because of the trauma she suffered at the hands of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. They’re joined by two reporters from USA Today, Tricia Nadolny and Marisa Kwiatkowski, who began investigating sexual misconduct in cheerleading after receiving a tip from someone who had seen their reporting on the Nassar case.
There are at times graphic descriptions of Harris’s alleged abuse of minors, which included soliciting nude photos from Charlie and Sam, who Harris reportedly knew were 13 at the time. Charlie also alleges that Harris tried to coerce him into performing sexual acts at an event they both attended. The boys describe a power dynamic and pattern of communication that may sound hauntingly familiar to survivors of sexual abuse, especially those who experienced trauma in childhood.
The interviews also shine light on the ways that society — and sports organizations, specifically — often fail victims. “Our investigation found that the way that the US All Star Federation handled the allegations against Jerry Harris was not an anomaly,” Nadolny says in the episode. “We found multiple examples of people who had been accused or even convicted of misconduct continuing to work in the sport, and all of those cases tied back to gaps in the child protection policies within the sport. A lot of those gaps still exist today.”
Though Charlie and Sam say they have no regrets about coming forward, they also acknowledge that the sense of community they had found in cheerleading was “completely ripped away” once the allegations became public. “It definitely has brought into focus for us why so few people come forward and speak out about this, because it is extraordinarily difficult,” Kristen says. “The boys wanted to communicate through their example that we believe very strongly that victims of sexual abuse do not need to hide their faces in shame.”
Their courage is awe-inspiring, and what the filmmakers have done by giving Charlie and Sam a space to tell their story is commendable. However, the episode may be upsetting for those still processing their own trauma or who never felt that they had the support they needed to speak out, so viewer discretion is advised.
If you or a loved one are experiencing sexual assault or domestic violence, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673.