Federal lawsuits accuse cheerleading industry of sexually abusing minors

Published on November 8, 2022 at 4:07 AM CST

Federal lawsuits filed in three states paint a grim portrait of competitive cheerleading. Six suits describe a culture of drugs and pornography and accuse some cheerleading institutions of failing to protect minors from sexual abuse. There are details and clear language in this story. So if you need to go out, fine by all means. We will still be here in 4 minutes. South Carolina Public Radio’s Victoria Hansen reports.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Cheerleading has exploded from the side of the games to teams that are fiercely competing against each other. There are approximately 4 million competitive cheerleaders across the country, from toddlers to college students.

HANSEN: In this video, cheerleaders from the Rockstar gym in Greenville, S.C., flip, spin and throw each other high in the air. The gym won a world title in 2019. But in September, the facility was suddenly closed after a lawsuit accused the owner of sexually abusing cheerleaders, including minors. Bakari Sellers is one of the attorneys who filed the suit.

Sellers BAKARI: I’ve probably seen more masturbation videos and nude pictures than you can ever imagine.

HANSEN: The owner of Rockstar killed himself a week before the lawsuit was filed. The suit says he learned he was under federal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security — or DHS — which handles child pornography. DHS will not comment. Since that suit, a dozen Rockstar cheerleaders allege they were supplied with drugs and alcohol and sexually abused. The allegations cover ten years. Again, attorney Bakari Sellers.

SELLERS: Can’t imagine what they’re going through.

HANSEN: In another case in Tennessee, two boys say a Knoxville West Premier Athletics coach sent them pornographic photos and sexually abused them. Lawyers for the gym say it was inaccurately linked, and the coach was fired. In North Carolina, a teenager accuses two coaches at the Extreme Cheer Allstar Gym in Raleigh of sexually abusing him and giving him cocaine. The owner of that gym says she is upset by the allegations.

In total, 15 victims have come forward in these lawsuits to accuse 13 coaches and the late owner of Rockstar. NPR attempted to contact the 10 coaches named in the suits. Both deny the allegations. And the others could not be reached or did not respond. It is important to note that no criminal charges were filed against the defendants in these lawsuits. Attorney Alexandra Benevento, who works with Sellers, says they have received calls from more than 100 people across the country alleging abuse at these gyms and others as well. But, she says, coaches and gyms are not the only ones to blame for the abuse of minors.

ALEXANDRA BENEVENTO: These companies also harmed them, not only did they not do anything about it but they decided that they were going to protect themselves to protect these children.

HANSEN: The lawsuits say Varsity is one of those companies. That’s cheerleading’s dominant commercial force. Lawyers describe the operation like this. Coaches pay dues to be affiliated with Varsity. And families at Varsity-affiliated gyms must pay cheerleading’s governing body, the USA All Star Federation. The federation handles complaints about misconduct. But the suit says Varsity rules the federation. And the federation has failed to address numerous reports of abuse from parents. Attorney Jessica Fickling, who is also on the legal team, says the varsity has created a structure to report abuse, but it doesn’t keep children safe.

JESSICA FICKLING: It’s a structure that was put in place to give a sense of safety. It just doesn’t work that way.

HANSEN: A varsity spokesperson denies these allegations. He says the company is not in charge of the US All Star Federation and would expect it to investigate allegations of abuse. The Federation did not respond.

For NPR News, I’m Victoria Hansen in South Carolina.

INSKEEP: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 for the suicide and crisis lifeline. Just those three digits, 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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