Netflix has a problem.
Last year the streaming service found itself a hit with Cheer, which followed Navarro College’s elite cheer team as they trained for the National Cheerleading Association’s championship competition, which sees hundreds of college teams flocking to Daytona Beach for the annual event.
Known nationally as a powerhouse team led by coach Monica Aldama, the cheerleaders attend the small junior college in the sleepy rural town of Corsicana, Texas. The docuseries highlights the athletes’ various heart-touching backstories as they practice day and night, risking breaking limbs as they back-handspring, jump, and perform gravity-defying stunts in order to bring home the coveted championship trophy.
It didn’t take long for cheerleader Jerry Harris to emerge as a breakout star. The always positive 21-year-old became beloved for his inspirational mat talks, leading viewers to root throughout the series for him to make it “on the mat” for the big competition.
He seemed poised for a smooth transition to become a fixture on TV screens. Ellen DeGeneres tapped him to interview celebrities on the red carpet during the Academy Awards for her show and Oprah brought him out during her stop in Dallas for her 2020 Vision tour. He appeared on morning shows and was beginning to land sponsored deals, leading him to announce he was moving into his own place.
But everything unraveled when Harris was arrested in September for production of child pornography, allegedly "enticing” a minor, who was 13 at the time, “to produce sexually explicit videos and photos of himself,” according to federal prosecutors in Chicago.
Harris allegedly admitted to officials he solicited nude photos over Snapchat from up to 15 minors. He also is accused of having sex with a 15-year-old during a cheerleading event in 2019, according to the criminal complaint. It notes Harris first began talking to the boy on Snapchat when the minor was 13.
Harris was hit with fresh charges in December from a seven-count indictment, accusing him of receiving and attempting to receive child pornography, as well as persuading a minor “to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct, and … transmitting a live visual depiction of such conduct.”
The new charges included five minors from Texas, Illinois, and Florida. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His lawyer did not respond to request for comment by the time of publishing.
Harris has remained in jail since his initial arrest and Netflix has issued only one statement on the matter. "Like everyone we are shocked by this news. Any abuse of minors is a terrible crime, and we respect the legal process,” a spokesperson said.
Now, two more men who appeared on Cheer have been arrested on separate charges related to sexual abuse of minors.
Mitchell Ryan, who was a member of Navarro College’s cheer team and is seen on the show, was arrested on Wednesday for aggravated sexual assault of a child stemming from an incident in July 2020, according to the Dallas County Sheriff’s records.
The 23-year-old had his bond set at $50,000 and was released on Friday morning. Ryan had worked at Cheer Athletics, a gym in Plano, Texas, which released a statement that said it first learned of the allegations last year and immediately terminated its relationship with Ryan and alerted the local authorities.
His lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal told the Dallas Morning News the charges have been an “extremely hard challenge for Mitch and his family. Very nightmarish.”
“We want to get this over with because I think at the end, he’ll be cleared on this,” he added. Rosenthal did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment by the time of publication.
On the same day, Robert Joseph Scianna Jr. was arrested in Chesterfield County in Virginia, and charged with taking indecent liberties with a child and use of an electronic communication device to solicit sex, according to a press release from the local police department.
Scianna is a coach and choreographer and appeared in one episode of Cheer for a late-night photoshoot with close friend and Navarro College cheerleader Gabi Butler, who has 1.6 million followers on Instagram. Scianna is not a part of Navarro College’s cheer team.
Officials claim the 25-year-old met a “juvenile male through a social media platform and arranged to meet the juvenile for sex.” He is being held without bail and it’s not clear if he has representation yet.
Over the summer, Scianna was invited to be a guest VIP for a week at the famed Pennsylvania training center Woodward for a cheerleading camp.
After the news of his arrest, the camp swiftly put out a statement, saying it was “shocked and appalled” at the allegations. It noted Scianna didn’t have “any direct coaching responsibility or supervision of the campers” over the summer.
So far, the Pennsylvania cheer camp and Texas cheer club are the only organizations that have addressed the allegations surrounding Scianna and Ryan.
Netflix declined to comment when approached for comment by The Daily Beast.
Coach Aldama deferred comment to Navarro College, which said in a statement “these are serious allegations and out of respect for everyone involved, Navarro College will not comment on an ongoing investigation.” They made note that Ryan left campus in March of 2020 due to the pandemic and didn’t return in the fall.
The production companies involved in making Cheer did not respond to several requests for comment, nor did some of the show’s stars, including Lexi Burmback and Butler.
Corsicana Tumbling Athletics, which offers tumbling classes for girls and boys ages three and up, has at least seven members on staff who have ties to Navarro College’s cheer team, according to its website. Its owner also did not respond to several attempts to reach her for comment.
Unfortunately, the cheer world does have issues regarding sexual abuse of minors.
An in-depth investigation by USA Today in September found that more than 140 men and women who were convicted of sexual misconduct involving minors were still actively involved in cheer circles and not banned from the two cheer governing bodies, USAF and USA Cheer.
In an October motion that sought Harris’ release pending his trial—two months before he was hit with a new indictment—his legal team seemed to say Harris’ alleged actions were a result of his surroundings.
“In the early years of Mr. Harris’s life, he was fully immersed into the ‘cheer’ world where sexual predators were largely unchecked with children of all ages,” the motion read.
“At the time of the purported offense conduct described in the Criminal Complaint, Mr. Harris was in most respects a child himself interacting with other children.”
Considering the apparently prevalent issue, some are shocked by Netflix and Navarro College’s overall wall of silence.
An organizer for the city’s peewee football and cheerleading league admitted to The Daily Beast that locals are distressed over the news, considering the award-winning cheerleading team is a pride of the community, but laughed at the idea that the local council would take any action or make a statement.
When approached for comment, a council member for the city of Corsicana, where Navarro College is located, declined to officially comment on the matter, explaining they were just made aware of the allegations on Tuesday afternoon and “didn’t have all the facts.”
Attorney and advocate for child sex abuse survivors Sarah Klein is representing two minors who brought accusations against Harris. She is also recognized as the first known survivor of prolific sex offender Larry Nassar, a former team doctor for the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team.
“What we’re seeing here—exactly like what transpired in gymnastics—is a systemic and cultural sexual abuse problem at Navarro, but also more broadly the sport of cheerleading,” Klein told The Daily Beast.
“Predators do not exist in a vacuum. Period. It takes enablers—coaches, teammates, trainers, etc.—to turn a blind eye again and again and again in order for pedophiles to thrive the way these men have.”
Adam James Menzies, a tumbler expert and acrobatic coach, knows Scianna from the cheerleading community in Canada. He expressed to The Daily Beast his disappointment that no one is seeming to stand up for the purported victims, adding that the allegations not only hurt the cheer community, but gay men who work in that field.
“They betrayed the trust of those that they work with,” Menzies said. “It’s already hard enough as it is to be a male coach. If anyone doesn't like you for any reason, they have the opportunity to say something or do something that could put you in a precarious situation on a whim.
“We want parents to trust they're putting their kids in the hands of honest and morally upstanding people.”
Daphne Young, chief communications officer of Childhelp, told The Daily Beast that because victims are often silenced and not believed, it’s essential that large organizations and institutions have empathetic outreach.
While Young says that “obviously we want things to play out in a legal course,” she notes “what's needed is a statement of acknowledgement, a statement of action and also a statement of compassion for potential victims.”
“You can use the word alleged but people need to know that if this did happen if there is the circumstance that we care about you and that justice is forthcoming,” she added.
Since the news broke last week, some social media users have called for Netflix and the production companies behind Cheer to address the scandal and cancel the show, asking, “What steps are being taken to protect children?”
“I don't know what happened with Cheer,” Menzies added. “It's just shocking to me. I don't know how they all happen to be in the same show, it’s a crazy coincidence that a bunch of bad eggs ended up together.”