But on Wednesday, as the second season of “Cheer” arrived on the streaming platform, Harris remained at the Metropolitan Correctional Center of Chicago, where he is awaiting trial on federal child pornography charges. Harris, 22, was arrested in September 2020 following an FBI investigation into allegations he repeatedly solicited sexually explicit photos and videos from boys he knew to be underage. Three months later, Harris was indicted on additional charges, alleging he solicited sex from minors at cheerleading competitions.
Harris’s absence and the horrific crimes of which he’s accused loom large over the second season of “Cheer,” most notably in the fifth episode, titled “Jerry,” in which his cheer colleagues emotionally recount finding out about the allegations. The episode also features interviews with two of Harris’s alleged victims — twin teenagers who say he began asking for sexually explicit photos in private online messages when they were 13 and he was 19 — and their mother, who reported Harris’s alleged behavior to the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF) and, eventually, to the FBI.
Here’s how “Cheer” tackles the allegations against its most memorable athlete.
Hearing from the alleged victims
The twins, who sued Harris in September 2020, were not named in the criminal complaint because they are minors. But they appear on camera and are identified by their first names, Charlie and Sam, as they detail the predatory relationship they allege Harris instigated on social media, and the ways it affected their lives.
“He asked how old I was, and I told him that I was 13,” Charlie recalls in the episode “Jerry.” Immediately, he says, Harris asked him for sexually explicit pictures. Charlie sent the photo because he looked up to Harris, a star in the cheer community even before Netflix came calling, and wanted Harris to like him. Initially, they messaged in secret — it would be months before he told his brother what was going on — and Charlie says he felt “ashamed and embarrassed” about their exchanges, which began in 2018.
The following year, Charlie met Harris for the first time at a cheerleading competition, where he says Harris cornered him in a bathroom and repeatedly tried to coax him into having sex. Charlie refused, and waited until after he and Sam competed to tell his brother that Harris had tried to pressure him.
“It was haunting almost to hear. … it just made me so angry and it made me lose even more faith, I guess, in having a safe community in cheer,” Sam says. “And then Jerry started messaging me, too. It made me feel super uncomfortable, and he would just continually just push.”
The twins struggled in school and were scared to tell their mother, Kristen, what was happening because they knew how popular and beloved Jerry was within their sport. It wasn’t until Kristen happened to see a concerning text message from Harris on Charlie’s phone that the boys began to open up. Kristen says she was horrified to discover sexually explicit material — including a video of a man, who Charlie identified as Jerry, masturbating — in a password-protected section of her son’s Snapchat.
This was around the same time Harris’s popularity surged because of the first season of “Cheer.” Charlie says it was seeing Harris engage in a lively virtual chat with Joe Biden on the campaign trail in June 2020 that led him to want to go public with the allegations. Initially, Kristen says, she called the co-owner of the Plano, Tex., gym where Harris had trained, but the owner was skeptical of the claims, so Kristen then submitted a report through the USASF website.
Nothing came of that report, Kristen says. But her sons told her more details about what had happened over the course of the next few months. When Charlie told her about the bathroom encounter at the competition, she made another report on the USASF site. Kristen says it wasn’t until she reported the abuse to the FBI that anyone got back to her.
“After we spoke out, pretty much all sense of community was ripped away from me and Sam,” Charlie says.
“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.”
Ultimately, the twins say they have no regrets about coming forward. “I want to be the start of a change in cheer,” Charlie says.
Reactions from friends and teammates
“Cheer” recalls how the cheer community learned of the allegations against Harris at a particularly difficult time. The annual Daytona Beach, Fla.-based competition they had prepared for was canceled due to the pandemic, leaving many without the community and athletic outlet they cherished. For those closest to Harris, news of the charges against him compounded the disconnect they were feeling.
La’Darius Marshall, a fan favorite from “Cheer’s” first season — which depicted the duo as close friends — recalls scrolling through news of Harris’s arrest and thinking, “This can’t be true” before breaking into tears.
Gabi Butler, a prominent flyer and another of Harris’s close friends, says she felt “like someone had just died.”
“I kind of just sunk into a hole,” says James Thomas, a tumbler for Navarro College’s cheerleading team who says he had no indication that Harris was behaving in predatory ways. “And cried and cried and cried and cried.”
There are also several interviews with cheerleading coach Monica Aldama, another breakout star of the docuseries, who went on to compete in “Dancing With the Stars.” It was while Aldama was preparing for her first live performance on ABC’s reality dance competition that she learned of the charges against Harris.
“The executive producer came up to me and showed me her phone, and asked me if I had seen the headline in the news that day,” Aldama recalls. “It was like an out-of-body experience at the time. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
Allusions to wider issues in the cheer community
“Cheer” makes numerous references to Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison in 2018 for sexually abusing dozens of gymnasts over the decades he spent as the U.S. national team doctor. Nassar’s case exposed systemic issues within gymnastics and spurred urgent calls for change in the sport.
The “Jerry” episode points to similar systemic issues within competitive cheerleading, where legal adults often compete alongside children. The episode features interviews with USA Today investigative reporters Tricia L. Nadolny and Marisa Kwiatkowski, who previously reported on Nassar and were urged by readers to look into similar issues within competitive cheerleading. The pair broke the news that Harris was being investigated for allegedly soliciting sex from minors in a story that featured interviews with Charlie, Sam and Kristen.
“Our investigation found that the way that the USASF handled the allegations against Jerry Harris was not an anomaly,” Nadolny says. “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,” Nadolny adds.
The episode also features one of Nassar’s victims, Sarah Klein, now a victims rights lawyer who represents Sam and Charlie in their lawsuit against Harris. (The lawsuit also names USASF, Cheer Athletics and Varsity Spirit, a Tennessee-based cheerleading company, as defendants.)
“Jerry has become sort of the poster child for this within cheer because he was very high profile. And some people are going to say it’s great that he was exposed for who he is and what he was doing,” Klein says. “And some people are going to say, ‘Not our Jerry, we love him.’ "
“It’s very easy, when we fall in love with people we feel connected to in some way, to have them on a pedestal and to believe they can do no wrong,” Klein adds. “And stories like this blow that paradigm up.”
Divisions on whether to support Harris
Nadolny recalls that at Harris’s bail hearing, his attorney proposed an arrangement in which Harris would be released into house arrest and “supervised by a group of mothers who he met through the cheerleading world.”
But, she says, “prosecutors strongly objected to that plan,” in part because Harris had at one point gotten rid of his cellphone after catching wind of the investigation but, upon obtaining a new phone, continued to actively contact minors. “Harris exhibits all the signs of a serial child predator and unless and until he receives significant mental health sex offender treatment, he will remain a danger to any child he encounters, either online or in person,” prosecutors said in court documents. The judge agreed and ordered Harris incarcerated until trial.
Despite the disturbing evidence against Harris, the cheerleading community is somewhat divided on whether to continue to support him. Aldama, who has faced criticism for her public response to the charges against Harris, says the former cheerleader sent her an “optimistic” letter that she has yet to respond to.
“My head’s battling the ‘He did wrong’ versus this person I know,” Aldama explains. “And I can’t wrap my head around what I even need to think and how I should feel. … I don’t know what I would say.”
Butler, meanwhile, says she “can’t” and “won’t” turn her back on Harris.
“I don’t agree with what he was accused of or condone it at all, and it is very unfortunate and it breaks my heart, but it’s literally like your family,” Butler says, tears streaming. “How are you going to just hate your family?”
For Marshall, who shared his own harrowing experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse on the show (and later struggled with his trauma being shared so widely), processing the allegations against his onetime BFF and roommate is even more personal. “I would have snatched him up if I ever would have known about any of this stuff,” Marshall says. “I feel like it would have been worse than him going to jail.”
“I don’t care how famous you are, I don’t care how much money you got, how much people love you, that don’t give you the right to do stuff like this,” he says. “Especially when one of your best friends, you know, went through something like that.”