Greg Whiteley Doesn’t Think His Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Doc Is Anything Like ‘Cheer’

For most sports documentarians, a chance to get inside access to the Dallas Cowboys organization would be the gig of a lifetime. But Greg Whitely wasn’t sure he wanted to do it.

For the past two decades, the filmmaker has established himself as one of the most prominent storytellers working in the sports space through projects as varied as “Cheer,” “Wrestlers,” and the “Last Chance U” franchise. “America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” was the kind of opportunity that fell squarely in the middle of his wheelhouse, but Whiteley was concerned that working with the most valuable sports league’s most valuable franchise would inevitably stifle his creative freedom.

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“The Cowboys reached out to me and wanted to know if I’d be interested. Initially, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t. I just didn’t think there was any possibility for us to get what we needed to do the type of documentary filmmaking that we’re used to doing,” Whiteley said during a recent conversation with IndieWire. “Specifically, editorial control. The Cowboys are this massive brand, they’re the most valuable sports franchise in the world. In the past, when we’ve been approached by large brands, that’s always been the sticking point.”

But Whiteley was persuaded to take the job after Charlotte Jones, the team’s executive vice president and chief brand officer, assured him that the team wasn’t looking to interfere with his work. Once he received similar assurances from the NFL, he soon assembled a team and began the eight month process of filming the inner workings of the most prestigious cheerleading squad in American sports.

“America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” takes viewers inside the cutthroat world of NFL cheerleading by following the Cowboys’ squad over the course of preseason tryouts and the 2023 football season. Cheering for the Cowboys is considered by many to be the most coveted cheerleading job in professional sports thanks to the iconic uniforms, massive amount of nationally televised games, and unparalleled brand recognition. But that exclusivity comes at a steep cost. Every cheerleader must re-audition for her job every year, with director Kelli Finglass and head choreographer Judy Trammell scrutinizing every minor aesthetic and performance flaw in each dancer to ensure that nothing short of perfection is allowed on the field.

For the elite few that are ultimately selected, the sacrifice required is immense. Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are paid just slightly more than minimum wage, and most end up working full time day jobs to make ends meet before devoting their evenings to cheerleading. “America’s Sweethearts” highlights both the human drama that goes on behind the scenes and the incredible dedication and athleticism that goes into those iconic sideline performances.

Whiteley had plenty of experience with cheerleading after directing two seasons of the Netflix documentary “Cheer,” which followed junior college cheerleading squads vying for the NCA National Championships. But the filmmaker was quick to downplay the suggestion that “America’s Sweethearts” is a comparable project. He explained that the sport of competitive cheerleading is an entirely separate endeavor from the dance-based performance that the Cowboys cheerleaders put on. As a result, “America’s Sweethearts” felt like an entirely new undertaking.

“I think the only similarity is the actual moniker of ‘cheerleader.’ I don’t think there’s any other similarities,” he said when asked about the parallels between the two shows. “One is a competitive cheer team that I think is probably more closely related to performance gymnastics. And then you’ve got a dance team in the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.”

But while the subject matter is different, the process of extracting compelling individual stories from a large group remains the same. Much like Whiteley’s other films, “America’s Sweethearts” follows several cheerleaders at various stages of their careers and highlights the personal sacrifices that the job requires of them. The filmmaker explained that even after a decade of making sports documentaries, he still doesn’t have the words to describe the alchemical process of finding the right athletes to highlight at the right time.

“There are certain people that just kind of pop to us,” he said. “There’s 36 girls on the team, all of them are interesting, all of them have a story that could be told. So where do you focus? I think they choose us as much as we choose them. There are just certain people who are ready to tell their story, and we’re ready to tell it. It’s a very organic process, I don’t have any specific formula. But there is just a sense you get of a specific person in the earliest moments of filming, and I’ve just learned to trust it. There’s always three or four or five people that you hit it off with. You’re interested in them, and they’re interested in you. It has to be a two way street, because it’s hard to persuade someone to do something like this.”

The finished product could very well be Netflix’s next big documentary hit, thanks in no small part to the allure of the Dallas Cowboys brand. Much like the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise is an endless source of fascination for sports fans of all stripes, no matter how good or bad the on-field football product is. He explained that there’s no other NFL franchise whose cheerleaders could command so much interest — the organization was also the subject of the 16-season CMT show “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team,” which Whiteley has never seen — as the Cowboys’ star logo is the kind of image that has transcended sports fandom to become a pillar of American pop culture.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done a project where I’ll mention to someone, ‘I’m doing a project about the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders,’ and no matter who they are or what walk of life they’re from, their ears perk up,” he said. “Everybody has an opinion, whether they’re a football fan or not. I can’t quite explain it.”

“America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” is now streaming on Netflix.

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