Read: The brain that wasn’t supposed to heal
As Navarro prepares to compete in the national championship, viewers see multiple concussions and other head injuries. The first concussed athlete casually mentions that this is at least her fifth, and another girl who suffers the latest in her own series of concussions does not see an outside doctor. It’s unclear whether any of them ever do. Instead, she’s told to keep the lights low at home and stay off her phone. Several times during the series, you can spot basic concussion tests being administered to athletes at the edge of the mat while others practice. (I reached out to Aldama and Navarro’s athletic director for more details on the school’s policies on athlete safety but have not yet received a response.)
Researchers are only beginning to understand the long-term impact of these types of repetitive brain injuries, but in football players, doctors have found a pattern of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which changes the physical makeup of the brain and can lead to Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and early death—the kinds of issues that usually emerge once an athlete is no longer a coach’s problem. Public knowledge of CTE has put enormous pressure on football leagues to be more protective of players’ health, but because competitive cheerleading exists mostly in the shadows, controlled almost entirely by a Bain Capital–owned company called Varsity Brands, few outside the sport see its dangers up close, and many of those with intimate knowledge have a vested interest in avoiding negative attention.
In elite competition, where physical danger is omnipresent, athletes have to trust their coaches to evaluate risk and protect them when possible. But on the frequent occasion that one of Navarro’s athletes is injured, Aldama rarely does more than call for the next person to take his or her place in the routine. In a case like TT’s, his injury might endanger others because it compromises his ability to catch falling cheerleaders, called “flyers.” When flyers aren’t caught, they’re often seriously hurt, as in the season’s most grotesque injury: A cheerleader thrown through the air lands on the ground, dislocating her elbow by bending her arm at an unnatural angle. It was the only time in the series that viewers see Aldama explicitly request that one of her athletes visit a doctor.
Read: Football alters the brains of kids as young as 8
As Cheer acquaints viewers with Navarro’s athletes, it becomes harder to watch them be subject to Aldama’s whims. Many of Navarro’s cheerleaders disclose childhood abuse, mental-health struggles, legal problems, family tragedies, and their previous attempts at suicide during the course of the show, and the home they find in cheerleading demonstrates the power of teamwork and community. Sometimes, they get the care they crave in return: Aldama’s coldness toward their physical safety is mixed with occasional warmth about their off-the-mat issues. She helps one cheerleader file a police report about nude photos circulating online of her then-16-year-old self, and she is protective of the squad’s gay athletes, who otherwise might not feel like they belong in a small, conservative town. Many of the cheerleaders refer to Aldama as a mom, and many of them need one: Morgan, the girl terrified to disappoint Aldama by seeking treatment for her ribs, was abandoned by her parents as a child. Jerry, the show’s most ebullient presence and the center of its fleeting joy, lost his mother to cancer. If Aldama understands that her motherlike role in her cheerleaders’ lives encourages them to sacrifice their safety for her—or if she disapproves of their tendency to do so—she never mentions it.