Federal lawsuits accuse the cheerleading industry of sexually abusing children

Published November 8, 2022 at 4:07 AM CST

Federal lawsuits filed in three states paint a grim picture of competitive cheerleading. Six lawsuits describe a culture of drugs and pornography and accuse some cheerleading establishments of failing to protect minors from sexual abuse. This story contains explicit details and language. So if you have to leave, totally fine. We’re still there in 4 minutes. That reports Victoria Hansen of South Carolina Public Radio.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Cheerleading has exploded from the sidelines of games to teams fiercely competing against each other. There are about 4 million competitive cheerleaders nationwide, ranging from young children to college students.

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

BAKARI SELLERS: I’ve probably seen more masturbation videos and nudes than you can ever imagine.

HANSEN: The owner of Rockstar committed suicide a week before the lawsuit was filed. The indictment says he learned that he was under federal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security — or DHS — which deals with child pornography. DHS is not commenting. Since that lawsuit, a dozen Rockstar cheerleaders allege that they have been supplied with drugs and alcohol and have been sexually assaulted. The allegations span a decade. Again, lawyer Bakari Sellers.

SELLERS: What they are going through is unimaginable.

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

A total of 15 victims have come forward in these lawsuits to incriminate 13 coaches and the late owner of Rockstar. NPR attempted to contact the 10 coaches named in the suits. Two deny the allegations. And the others could not be reached or did not respond. It is important to note that no criminal charges have been filed against the defendants in these lawsuits. Lawyer Alexandra Benevento, who works with Sellers, says they have received calls from more than 100 people across the country also claiming abuse at this and other gyms. But, she says, coaches and gyms aren’t the only ones responsible for the abuse of minors.

ALEXANDRA BENEVENTO: They were also harmed by these companies that not only did nothing about it, but decided that they were going to protect themselves instead of protecting these kids.

HANSEN: According to the lawsuits, one of those companies is Varsity. That is the dominant commercial force of cheerleading. Lawyers describe the operation as follows. Gyms pay dues to be affiliated with Varsity. And families in Varsity-affiliated gyms must inform cheerleading’s governing body, the U.S. All Star Federation, pay. The federation handles complaints of misconduct. But the suit says Varsity controls the federation. And the federation has failed to address multiple abuse reports from parents. Attorney Jessica Fickling, who is also part of the legal team, says varsity has created a structure to report abuse, but it does not protect children.

JESSICA FICKLING: It’s a structure set up to give an impression of security. Only it doesn’t work that way.

HANSEN: A spokesperson for the university rejects these allegations. He says the company has no control over 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 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline. Just those three digits, 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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