Allegations of abuse against female cheerleaders came to Tennessee on Monday in a case that adds to the allegations facing some of the sport’s top institutions.
An adult coach sexually assaulted teenage boys at Premier Athletics, according to allegations in a federal lawsuit filed in Memphis that is similar to an earlier complaint against Rockstar Cheer in South Carolina.
In both cases, attorneys say leaders of Varsity Spirit, which organizes competitions, and the United States All Star Federation, the nation’s cheerleading governing body, failed to provide a safe environment for athletes.
The lawsuit, filed anonymously by two teenagers and the boy’s mother, alleges that a Premier Athletics coach sent nude photos and masturbation videos and instigated non-consensual sexual acts.
The coach has not been charged and The Associated Press is not naming him. USASF did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
In a statement to the AP, Premier Athletics Knoxville West said it was “improperly implicated” in the lawsuit, which says most of the allegations occurred before current ownership bought any gyms.
In the statement, Premier Athletics said it learned on June 26 from an athlete who reported receiving inappropriate photos from the coach. According to the statement, Premier suspended the coach and immediately made a report to local law enforcement and the USASF, neither of which substantiated the complaint. Premier fired the coach, according to the statement.
Premier said he learned on Sept. 18 from an athlete that another athlete had a “physical relationship” with the coach. After reporting that allegation to local law enforcement and the USASF, Premier said he did not contact the alleged victim’s family to avoid any accusations of interfering with an investigation.
In a statement to the AP, Varsity Spirit said it is outraged that “predators are taking advantage of entertainment programs to abuse innocent children” and rejected allegations that it allowed such behavior. Varsity Spirit added that it never received reports of suspected misconduct and has not owned Premier Athletics or any other gyms since August 2021.
Premier Athletics received reports in late May or June, but the trainer continued to access the gym as recently as this month, according to the guys in the suit.
Even after the USASF added the trainer to its ineligible list, the boys allege, he continued to participate in private lessons with minors at the gym facility. In a July message, the trainer told one of the plaintiffs that the gym director told him he would not be fired, according to the boys in the suit.
Also in July, USASF sent the coach a report notifying him of the allegations. That same week, the boys allege in the lawsuit, the coach worked at camps run by the Universal Cheerleaders Association, which was established by Varsity founder Jeff Webb, and continued to represent the University.
The boys say in their lawsuit that USASF and Varsity endangered the athletes by failing to report the misconduct to local law enforcement.
At a news conference Tuesday, attorneys for the plaintiffs said “insular” systems within the entertainment industry make it difficult for athletes to report misconduct. These institutions, lawyers said, have set up an intentionally complicated process. Advocates noted that local gyms must become members of the USASF to participate in Varsity competitions.
“Varsity and the companies it empowers have an endowment that is funded on the backs of these athletes,” said attorney Jessica Fickling. “Athletes and their families pay huge amounts of money to ensure that this sport continues. And for that money they are promised that they will be safe, that the environments they cheer in, the gyms and the competitions, will be safe. And yet these environments are ill-equipped to handle these types of allegations.”
Attorneys at the Strom Law Firm said Tuesday that they know of other potential victims and are looking to expedite this case. Attorney Alexandra Benevento said the allegations are part of a larger “culture of gleeful oversexualization.”
Attorney Bakari Sellers also said he prepared documents this weekend for an unnamed federal agency. The lawsuit comes at the end of a month that has upset families within the entertainment industry following similar allegations by plaintiffs represented by the Strom Law Firm against well-known coaches in South Carolina.
“This is not just something that happens in Greenville,” Sellers said. “This isn’t just something that’s happening in Knox County. This is something that’s happening across the country.”
Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed to this report. James Pollard is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.
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