A few weeks ago, I finished episode six of Cheer on Netflix. It was, quite possibly, the best documentary series I’ve ever seen. Certainly, it’s the best one on Netflix.
As I posted on social media over the week-and-a-half that I was watching it, friends posted about Jerry being their favorite, how Jerry was the best ever, and how we need to “protect Jerry at all costs.”
As the series unfolds, we see Jerry “make mat” through endless positivity, support for the entire team, and a distinct patience for waiting his turn. There are times where he is reluctant to advocate for himself and needs coaching from friends to do so. He has experienced massive loss in his life, but has a network who supports him through it.
There was something about the way that Jerry was portrayed that didn’t sit right with me, though, and I still can’t quite put my finger on it. There was nothing he did or said that was wrong, per se, but I wondered whether the filmmakers were crafting a positive black orphan trope and juxtaposing it against LaDarius. And if they were doing that, to what end?
From the moment we’re introduced to LaDarius, he’s described as “over the top.” Indeed, his personality reminds me of many friends I’ve had over the years: outspoken, expressive, assertive, and confident. Those qualities have also been described as arrogant, aggressive, mercurial, and even persnickety. I know, because I’ve been called these things, too. So have my former students, who were all young adults who had lives much like LaDarius.
I like Jerry. Jerry will be alright. Who is going to protect LaDarius?
As I watched LaDarius in Cheer, I couldn’t help but reflect on the career of Kobe Bryant and the “Mamba Mentality.” There is an indisputable excellence about LaDarius as an athlete and performer which is apparent from his very first scene in cheer, and before, when his sideline cheering went viral in 2018.
LaDarius is a damn good cheerleader. Periodt. When it comes to the skills, the personality, the stage presence, the sharpness–he’s got it all. He makes a comment early on in the series where he basically says he doesn’t expect everyone to be as good as him, but they could at least be the best they can be.
That hit me hard. Sure, it was a harsh thing to say if one is unequipped to handle criticism, but sometimes the hard things must be said. In my own life, I find myself working hard, operating at 100 percent, and somehow being successful. And no, I don’t do it always do it gracefully or graciously. I happen to find that a constant positive attitude is for the birds. I get frustrated when the people I trust to do their part don’t–and even more frustrated when they’re not at least apologetic about it.
In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself saying “Really? So you’re just going to make me approach you with this difficult conversation?”
I get tired of always being the one who has to step up, step forward, take the risks. You know why? Because when you take the risk in certain environments, you lose out to insecure people.
I could write books about chapter elections I’ve lost in my fraternity after being the most demonstrably qualified person for a position. Same with various regional or national committee appointments. The people don’t want highly qualified. The people want nice.
I’m not nice. I’m thoughtful. I’m candid. I’m empathetic. But I am not nice.
My former students are not nice, either. Many have not yet learned the finer art of code-switching. And you know what? I don’t care that they say “shit” or “fuck” or “nigga” when we’re having a conversation, because I know what they mean.
My former students have been through things. They’ve seen things. They have lived more life in 20 years than I have in 40. And I find that to be okay. Life has not treated them nicely, and I’m okay if they are not always nice.
I care, instead, that they are good.
There is time to love the Jerrys of the world, whose good aligns neatly with their nice. And Jerry has earned his spot as the darling of Cheer.
But we can’t overlook that LaDarius–like Kobe–has undeniable skills. It’s okay for him to be confident in those skills. He has earned the right to state, un-ironically and as a matter of record, that he is likely the best cheerleader on the squad.
And just because he is the best and knows it doesn’t cancel out his need to be loved or validated or appreciated, as a human being, as a cheerleader, and as a man.
I think, based on the show and subsequent media appearances, that his coach, Monica Aldama, is probably the right person at the right time to cultivate in LaDarius the skills and values he needs to make it to the next level, whatever that may be. From this show, and from Monica, I’ve learned a lot about leadership that I’ll be applying in my next endeavors.
So when you think of a Jerry, who might be seen as the heart and soul of a squad, don’t ignore a LaDarius–the blood and bones. You need both to make a team. You might feed them differently, but you still feed them both. You might thank them differently, but you still thank them both. At the end of the day, it takes both skill and spirit to be a champion.
As for me, I’m just a washed up cheerleader, a has-been co-captain from the 90s with a knee that pops when I walk. But I know who LaDarius is. I might have been him. I might still be. And I’m just looking to do my thing, my way–just like him.