‘Cheer’ deals with Jerry Harris’ arrest, but it was USA TODAY reporters who exposed the sport’s problem. Here’s how. – USA TODAY

I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

“Cheer” is one of the top shows on Netflix right now.

When you get to the fifth episode of the second season, you’ll see USA TODAY investigative reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tricia Nadolny, who broke the story about season one “Cheer” star Jerry Harris being accused of soliciting sexually explicit photos and sex from minors. 

More than that, they found failures across the sport of competitive cheerleading, including how the governing body, the U.S. All Star Federation, delayed investigations and failed to prevent those accused or convicted of crimes from working in member gyms. USASF has since hired an outside firm to strengthen its policies and enforcement.

The Netflix documentary series follows cheer squads from Navarro College and Trinity Valley Community College in Texas as they train for a national competition. Watching season two of this hit show, the reporters noticed appearances by four more individuals currently suspended by the sport’s governing bodies. And to be clear, they weren’t there in the context of the show dealing with sexual abuse — they were working with athletes, cheering or on camera talking about the world of competitive cheerleading.

Among them was choreographer Brandon Hale, who our reporters have investigated in the past. Hale has twice been suspended by USASF, the first time when he was accused of having sex with a 17-year-old cheerleader, an allegation he denied. He was reinstated after authorities declined to file criminal charges. Hale was suspended again last year after being arrested in Mexico for allegedly pushing his boyfriend off a third-floor walkway.

In a statement posted on social media last week, governing body USA Cheer said it had notified Netflix that people on its suspended list had appeared on the show, calling their appearance a “presumed oversight.”

“It crystallizes the problem right there — they basically can’t film a season of ‘Cheer’ without this happening,” said USA TODAY investigative editor Matt Doig.

‘I really think you need to take a look at cheerleading’

Kwiatkowski was one of the reporters for The Indianapolis Star who broke the story of Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts. “I had a source reach out and say, ‘I saw what you did with gymnastics, I really think you need to take a look at cheerleading.'”

She and Nadolny started with the list of people banned from participating in the sport. At the time, the governing bodies’ lists had fewer than two dozen names on them.

“For a sport as big as cheerleading, Marisa and I both just had that gut feeling of, ‘That is a really small list,'” Nadolny says. “There are clearly people who have been credibly accused or convicted of misconduct who must not be on this list. So we started looking for those people.” 

They identified nearly 180 individuals affiliated with cheerleading who had faced charges relating to sexual misconduct involving minors but were not banned by the sport’s two governing bodies, USASF and USA Cheer. More than 140 of them – a group that includes coaches, choreographers and others directly tied to the activity – had been convicted, and 74 were registered sex offenders.

Part of the issue, the reporters say, was a loophole in the rules. 

USASF only required coaches who go backstage or in the warmup area at competitions to be members and background checked through its system. It did require gym owners to conduct their own screenings and background checks for anyone who interacted with a minor, but what businesses did with that information was up to them. 

Kwiatkowski interviewed Ohio gym owner and coach Mishelle Robinson, who described how she started a member gym while on the sex offender registry.

Robinson said her sister was the registered owner with USASF because Robinson knew her conviction in 2006 for sexual battery of a high school boy would show up on a background check. She said she bought a spectator ticket and did not go backstage or in the warmup area of competitions.

Also, at the time of our investigation, Kwiatkowski said, USASF had a process for investigating complaints, “but we found they weren’t following their process. People were waiting months, sometimes even more than a year to get a response to these allegations. And meanwhile, that person was continuing to work. Sometimes they’d be fired from one gym in the middle of that process and then they’d end up at another gym.”

Since our investigation, USASF and USA Cheer combined names into one list, which now has nearly 200 names, the reporters said. 

First interview with two alleged victims

Kwiatkowski and visuals editor Sandy Hooper interviewed twin boys, Charlie and Sam, and their mother, Kristen, at their Texas home in August 2020. They had text messages they said were from Jerry Harris requesting nude photos or sex. 

Charlie told our journalists his interactions with Harris left him struggling with anxiety. He lost sleep, his grades suffered and he cried at school. USA TODAY agreed to withhold their last name because the boys, then 14, were minors and alleging abuse.

“It was just eating me alive,” Charlie said. “It was just making me so gross and uncomfortable. Every time I saw his name or something like that, I was just cringing about it.”

Kristen said she filed two reports with USASF. She said her first report — sent May 15 — got a brief response from USASF Vice President of Membership Amy Clark. She said she did not hear from Clark again until she filed a second report on July 9. Clark set up a call with Kristen for the next day. During that call, Clark indicated the organization was opening an investigation, according to an audio recording Kristen provided USA TODAY.

The allegations were also reported to Varsity Brands, a private company involved in cheerleading. Harris is accused of asking one of the brothers to have sex with him in 2019 at two Varsity cheerleading competitions. In Aug. 1 letters to police in Florida and Texas, Varsity’s chief legal officer reported the information to authorities.

The reporters said Kristen grew frustrated by the lack of action. Harris was still involved in cheer, and his fame was near its peak. At the beginning of August, she contacted the FBI.

On Sept. 13, the FBI raided Harris’ home looking for evidence. The same day, we published our first story on the allegations. Also that day, USASF suspended Harris from participation in All Star activities.

After the FBI left the home, our journalists knocked and then left a note at Harris’ front door outlining the allegations against him and asking him for comment. We did not hear back from him.

According to federal court records, Harris later admitted he solicited and received explicit messages on Snapchat from at least 10 to 15 individuals he knew were minors, had sex with a 15-year-old boy at a cheerleading competition in 2019 and paid a 17-year-old money in exchange for nude photos.

Harris remains in federal prison awaiting trial. 

Why does this keep happening? Why do organizations wait to investigate or fail to take quick action when faced with allegations of sexual misconduct? 

“I think a lot of these organizations — like gymnastics, like the Catholic church — are top-down, and the people at the top are not usually questioned,” said Doig. “And if people below them start questioning people at the top, there are repercussions.

“Parents should be on guard for that type of thing. If you can’t question the people at the top, if you can’t ask reasonable questions like ‘How are you going to protect my kids?’ that should be a big red flag.”

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Support journalism like this – subscribe to USA TODAY here.