TVCC’s Coaches Talk Cheer, Sportsmanship, and ‘Eff the Judges’

Photo: Netflix

When Cheer’s first season hit Netflix in January 2020, audiences were introduced to a world of Navarro College cheerleading, with its hard-driving routines, effusive mat talk, and outsize personalities. Navarro quickly lost some of its luster, though, as cracks emerged in the team’s unity and once-beloved team member Jerry Harris was charged with multiple counts of sex crimes involving minors. 

With Cheer, season two, fans have been given a new team to flip over with the introduction of Trinity Valley Community College’s scrappy squad. Helmed by the now co-coaching Vontae Johnson and Khris Franklin, TVCC brought scrappy-underdog grit and a “fuck the judges” attitude that some Cheer fans have dubbed unsportsmanlike. They also brought a cadre of confidently excellent Black athletes, a group of “Weenies” with a reluctance to smile, and a family of world-class tumblers. Vulture sat down with Johnson and Franklin to talk about rivalries, Ted Lasso, and Franklin’s new dating prospects.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How do you feel about how TVCC was portrayed on Cheer
Vontae Johnson: I think they did a good job trying to capture the rivalry between the two schools. Going into the filming, that was the agenda. Our whole goal was to trust the process and trust the director, knowing what they were trying to accomplish by showing both sides and making the world fall in love with both teams so they didn’t know who to choose in the end. So I think they did a good job.

If you go on social media to read reactions to Cheer, there are people who think that TVCC isn’t very sportsmanlike, or at least that you’re a lot more concerned with Navarro than they are with you. 
Johnson: We were just answering questions that were given to us during those interviews. We don’t mean any disrespect to anybody. We’ve cheered with half of the people on the [Navarro] team, so we respect that team.

Is it true that TVCC was asked to be a bigger part of Cheer’s first season and declined?
Johnson: We were reached out to by the production to be in season one, but we were just so focused on our championship and trying to get to our safe zone and to compete and have fun. We ultimately decided that it was something that we didn’t want to do at the time. We just wanted to focus on our goals.

I’ve seen some questions about eligibility, with people asking how team members can keep coming back again and again, even though most community colleges are just two years. Can you explain?
Khris Franklin: The governing body of cheerleading isn’t the NCAA. It’s governed by whatever company you’re going to compete at. The basic rule is that you have five total years of eligibility, and you can split them up however you like. Eligibility is determined by if you got to compete that year or not. So you can spend as many as three years at a junior college, and you’ve got a total of five years of overall eligibility. So you could do one year at junior college and four years at a four-year school. With the COVID stuff that happened, eligibility has been extended across all sports. That’s not just us. So some people have gotten to do a little bit more than the five.

Some people have taken issue with the “fuck the judges” bit TVCC includes in its rallying cheer. How would you respond to that criticism?
Johnson: We don’t mean it in literal terms. It’s something that’s been around for decades. It’s a cheer, and it’s a toast kind of thing. We really don’t mean it as in Eff the judges. It’s more of a Who cares what anybody thinks of us? Here’s to us. We’re gonna love us, whether anybody else likes us or not.

Toward the end [of the season], Franklin and myself, we changed the cheer so that it didn’t seem like we were saying, “Screw the judges.” We changed it to “And if the world disagrees, forget them!” Here’s to us, because not everybody’s going to want us to win.

Khris, in the show after your rough first round in Daytona, you’re going over your team’s scores and you say something to the effect of, “The judges are pulling for us. They want us to win.” Do you think that’s true? Could the judges see past all the baggage Navarro was bringing into the competition?
Franklin: I think you could ask that same question and say, “Do you think there was anybody that was judging that was a huge fan of Navarro because they got to see the show?” I’ve judged for a long time. There are some really talented, really smart judges that are up there that don’t have an affiliation with either program. If you look at the school scores and you look at the skills that were done, the scoring this year was pretty right on target. The scores were very high, but the skill levels were also very high. So I don’t think anything was being held against Navarro.

During the season, much was made of the Weenies’ refusal to put on a smile, but then when we got to Daytona, Dee did make an “unh!” face when he hit his stunt. How did you talk to them about that aspect of performing, Vontae, because there was some suggestion by them that “masculine men” don’t smile.
Johnson: I went through a year of cheering with a couple of athletes on the team. Dee was one of them, and so they would see me in practices and they were like, “He’s doing that. He’s competing. He’s actually performing.” For him, I think being able to show him by example gave him that opportunity to be like, Okay, I could possibly do it.

Of course, there’ll always be days where Dee’s just like, “I’m not the best performer.” He doesn’t want to feel like he’s not doing it right. For any guy, it can be like, “Man, I don’t wanna be looked at. I’m not doing that right. I’m letting the team down.” So it was about just letting him feel comfortable, letting him understand that “Hey, no matter what you do, I’m gonna be okay with it. I’m gonna be comfortable with you performing. We need you to perform because we want to be able to hit the score sheet because the judges obviously want you to show that you’re having fun while performing a routine.”

To put a finer point on it, I think the issue a lot of viewers had with the Weenies’ refusal to emote was that it seemed like it was a rejection of the more queer aspects of cheering, or of the performers on a team like Navarro that might be more effeminate or more flamboyant. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with all sides of that argument, but do you understand that critique?
Johnson: At the end of the day, we as coaches want everyone to understand that we’re comfortable with you however you are. No matter what you do, no matter what your preference is, we’re okay with it. We’ve had athletes on our team that brought that performance flamboyancy that brings that character. We’ve also had ones who felt like they wanted to be masculine, which is okay. We’re not here to take any of that from you and make you change who you are as a person, but performing, you don’t have to be on one side or the other. You’re right there in the middle. You just do it in the way that you’re comfortable.

A lot of TVCC defenders have fought back against the unsportsmanlike claims online by pointing out that TVCC has quite a few excellent Black athletes and that often when people say, “That athlete’s too cocky” or “I don’t like that player’s attitude,” they tend to be talking about a Black athlete. Do you think TVCC is a friendlier program for Black athletes?
Johnson: I think TVCC is a friendly program for all athletes. Just because [producers] focused on the Black athletes does not mean that we did not have other athletes who were working their tails off and wanted to shine.

I know that there are people who think that we were cocky, and of course the show was trying to portray that and show the rivalry. The show was meant to pull at your emotions and make you want to cheer for everyone. So of course they highlighted some of our athletes like Dee, but it’s not like we’re that type of team. That’s just the things that you saw.

Khris, have people told you that you look like Coach Beard from Ted Lasso before? Because everyone is pointing that out online.
Franklin: I’ve been getting some screenshots from friends with the picture comparison, and I honestly never really thought about it, but you know, some of them do kind of look quite a bit alike, though his beard’s a little shorter. That was a great show, man. Everybody in it is funny.

There is also a growing swell of people online who want to find you a girlfriend, Khris. Are admirers hitting you up now? Vontae, have you been setting him up? And would you be open to being the new Bachelor, Khris?
Johnson: He needs to be on The Bachelor! We’re going to find him a wife. We’re going to do the whole nine. I am in for all of this.

Franklin: You guys are breaking my mother’s heart. You’re giving her false hope. Come on, now. My poor mother has just been wanting grandkids forever, and she’s getting the big zero from me right now. So don’t get her hopes up.

You have to admit that Cheer is a great platform if you’re looking to put yourself out there. 
Johnson: I guess that’s a side effect of it, but that doesn’t have anything to do with Trinity Valley Cheer.

And forgive me if I’m wrong, Khris, but you’re not on social media, so how is anyone going to get ahold of you?
Johnson: He’s on Instagram and Twitter now!

Franklin: Yeah, our PR person here at the college told me that I probably should get some social media.

I’ve just got too much anxiety about it. When I took this job in 2011, the day I said yes was the day I got rid of my MySpace and my Facebook, and I never got back on. After ten years without social media, it’s kind of a daunting idea to try to be a part of it. But I talked to my little sisters who are 20, 22 and 24 — I’ve got two other sisters that are a little bit older — and I said, “Are you guys interested in maybe having like a family-bonding thing where you guys try to teach me how to do this and help me out a little bit?”

So far, they’ve been great. They gave me a little tutorial yesterday. Today the goal is to try to figure out how to reply to messages on Instagram. I was hoping that maybe there was a way to link it to my email, but they were like, “You can’t do that.”

You’ve got to just stick your toe in. It’s not like anyone expects you to do TikTok dances day one.
Franklin: My little sisters asked me to do that.

Johnson: He should definitely do it.

Franklin: The Santa Claus shuffle. That’s what we’re gonna call it.

Last question: Daytona is in April, and I have to imagine you’re deep in preparation for what’s to come. How are you all looking this season? And are we going to see you working through all of it on Cheer, season three?
Johnson: We are definitely in that process of getting ready for mat selection and for choreographers to come in to help build us a great routine. I think we’re a strong team again, and we’re on the path. We’ll see how that goes, and hopefully we can come back as champions again. As far as season three, we’re so happy about season two and how it’s going, but we don’t know quite yet. We’ll see.

More From This Series

See All
TVCC’s Coaches Talk Cheer, Sportsmanship, ‘Eff the Judges’