For those of us whose athletes were constantly put on the spot to defend their cheer status; “You’re not a cheerleader. What team do you cheer for?” and “Where are your pom-poms?” and, the ever famous, “Cheer is not a sport,” there was a lot of satisfaction yesterday when I turned on NETFLIX and the first show that filled the screen was the trending new docuseries CHEER.
For moms like Debbie Butler, whose well-known, Worlds Champion daughter Gabi is featured in the six episode series, and other longtime all star parents, it was a victory of sorts, the rest of the world would finally see cheer as the true sport that it is.
Today we’re spelling Allstars: V-I-C-T-O-R-Y
If you haven’t binged the first season or had the chance to check it out at all we can tell you that Netflix’s new documentary follows the 2018-19 season of the competitive cheerleaders of Navarro College in Corsicana, TX. Led by Monica Aldama, the small junior college has won 14 National Championships since 2000. All star veterans will recognize prominent industry leaders like competitive cheer event producer Billy Roy Smith and Cheer Athletics’ co-owner Brad Habermel who offer commentary.
In fact, there are as many Cheer Athletics t-shirts worn at practices as there are from Navarro College.
Netflix's press release promoting CHEER says “viewers will join the Navarro College cheerleaders as they face injuries, sacrifice, personal setbacks and triumphs, all leading up to one nail-biting and adrenaline pumping final competition at National Cheerleading Associations (NCA) Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championship."
In other words, a typical All star weekend.
Reviews in the Washington Post and USA Today, and social media activity over the last 24-hours that are overwhelmingly positive had me silently saying to myself “It’s about time” and “finally some respect.” Before the series premiered yesterday, CHEER, executive producer and director Greg Whiteley (Last Chance U) said the Navarro College cheerleading team are the "toughest athletes I've ever filmed."
The Hollywood Reporter wrote “CHEER is an utterly convincing portrait of what is unquestionably a real, and absurdly dangerous, sport” and USA TODAY wrote “There is so much more to the sport than stereotypes and teen movies suggest, and Netflix's incredible docuseries "CHEER," from the producers of the great "Last Chance U," will change minds and maybe hearts about this uniquely American subculture.”
But it’s this paragraph in the Post that has some social media threads focusing on another element of cheer: “Haters gonna hate.”
“Incomplete without a shimmering star, 'CHEER' zeroes in on team member Gabi Butler, whose Instagram fame in the cheerleading world has grown so intense that her parents have devoted their lives to managing and marketing her brand. Butler, however, provides a refreshingly down-to-earth insight into the sport; she believes in it passionately yet rolls her eyes at its constant demands.
“Some of the comments about our family, and me specifically, have been really negative which is really disappointing,” said Debbie Butler, 24 hours after the new series dropped and having read a lot of the Twitter and Instagram comments about her family.
“They are saying 'I am disgusting' and that my husband and I are way too overbearing on Gabi and that is just not true. It's been frustrating. I love all of my kids with every ounce of my being and would do anything for them."
At issue are several things. Some of the criticism is over the notion that Debbie is an over-involved mom who still cooks and cleans for Gabi and manages what her daughter eats.
“If people want to criticize me that's fine, but it bothers Gabi,” she said.
John and Debbie Butler with Gabi at Navarro's NCA victory.
Throughout the series Debbie makes appearances as she normally would, cooking and cleaning her daughter's dorm room and calling to check in on her one morning after she hadn't heard from her the night before. "I'm that mom that doesn't sleep unless I know all of my kids have made it home safe, even my 29 year old!"
In one scene the health conscious mom advises her daughter, who tries to eat mainly vegan, about jackfruit, but as a result of the editing, many critically thought she was directing her to starve herself.
"Gabi is always asking me for things she can eat that go along with her vegan preferences," Debbie said.
And then there's the social media comments that the Butlers are living off of their daughter's notoriety, sponsorship and clinic money.
“My husband is a very successful businessman and owns several businesses that have nothing to do with Gabi. We don’t need Gabi’s money and would never take it from her, “ she says. “Every penny goes into her bank account. She's already put away a very large amount of money. We still continue to support her by paying for her food, cell phone, housing, travel, clothes and the many other necessities of a 22-year old girl, even though she could afford to pay for all of it herself.”
“We treat her no different than we do for all of our children:” Ashley, 29; Amanda, 20; and John Michael, 18.
As she talked it was clear that Debbie was very frustrated with the quick judgments people were making about her family.
“I am a strong woman. My daughter is who she is today in part because of her upbringing. I’m an involved parent, yes, not just of my own children but of many other kids on her teams," she said.
"I try to show them love because some of them don't have parents that are actively involved in their lives" she says as she recounts the many times she and her husband have given advice to and helped pay for tuition and other necessities for some of Gabi's teammates at Navarro so they could continue to cheer.
"Often times Gabi would pay for food for her teammates when they were out to eat because they couldn't afford it", she continued. “I’m not saying this to brag on Gabi, but people have it all wrong.”
Debbie says she got over the “haters” a long time ago but is frustrated because Gabi is taking the heat on social media. Gabi even took to Twitter and Instagram Live to defend her parents and ask that others stop with the negative comments.
“I just want to go on and clear the air a little bit,” Gabi said. “I feel a lot of people are saying my parents are overstepping the line. But there is a fine line between overstepping parents versus caring parents. Their intentions aren’t bad. They aren’t taking anything from me and have helped me more than anyone knows.
“I don’t need rescuing like people are saying,” Gabi said. “I think they don’t understand our family.”
"My family is very different, we’re a very close, tight knit family," she continued. "My parents definitely care.”