COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — The latest lawsuit in a series alleging sexual misconduct spread over competitive cheerleading alleges that officials allowed two choreographers to continue working after they were investigated for sexual abuse.
Snowing accounts of alleged cheerleader abuse have led to increased scrutiny around the sport since the founder of an elite South Carolina cheerleading gym reportedly killed himself in late August amid an abuse investigation. The latest case brings the number of accusers to 20.
The lawsuits paint a sordid picture of a sports scene in which coaches use their power to share drugs and initiate sex with underage athletes while a network of institutions provides weak or non-existent oversight.
A federal complaint filed Monday in Ohio broadened the scope of the escalating scandal beyond the Southeast. Together, the unidentified plaintiffs across six states – all represented by South Carolina-based Strom Law Firm – accuse the sport’s governing bodies and major competitive institutions of failing to protect underage athletes from -detailed abuse.
In the latest case, two men who were contracted to provide training at an Ohio gym invited a 17-year-old male cheerleader into their hotel room after midnight in late July 2016, the suit alleges. . She says that the cheerleader refused their invitations to drink alcohol, and that the men, who were then 24 and 25 years old, had sex with the young man several times despite his attempts to leave. The gym called a meeting with the boy to discuss any potential inappropriate conduct but took no action, according to the lawsuit.
The actor says he sent details of the meeting in an anonymous email to two gyms in California and North Carolina in June 2020. After a US All Star Federation case manager touched base, the plaintiff made a formal report and subsequently cooperated with Ohio law enforcement officials, according to the lawsuit.
Ohio law enforcement did not seek charges because the plaintiff was over 16 — the state’s age of consent — at the time, according to the lawsuit.
The USASF suspended the two accused employees pending a third-party investigation, according to the lawsuit, which adds that the minor provided details of their meeting on September 23, 2020, a Zoom call with an authorized representative of -USASF.
On November 19, 2020, both men were removed from USA Cheer’s public list of ineligible coaches, the lawsuit says. The USASF and USA Cheer created the registry after allegations in 2020 that Jerry Harris — a prominent coach who appeared on a popular Netflix show — had solicited sex from two children, the lawsuit says. Harris eventually pleads guilty to sex crimes.
But a recent journalistic investigation suggests that the list is not complete. In September 2020, USA Today reported that the registry lost dozens of cheerleading coaches who had been criminally accused or convicted of sexual abuse.
In a Nov. 23, 2020 call, a USASF attorney told the boy in the Ohio case that a detective said he could not pursue charges without any witnesses, according to the lawsuit. The lawyer said that because of this, “the hands are tied” of the USASF.
Each lawsuit names the USASF, USA Cheer, and Varsity Spirit, a subsidiary of Varsity Brands, as defendants. Lawyers argue that as the dominant provider of competitions and cheer camps and through its effective control over oversight bodies, Varsity Spirit failed to provide the safe environment it advertised.
USASF and USA Cheer were both created with interest-free loans from Varsity to govern the growing sport.
Varsity Brands — which also faces separate antitrust lawsuits — denied any wrongdoing while expressing support for the cheerleaders who alleged abuse. Varsity Spirit acknowledged that it provided “necessary support” to establish the USASF. But the company rejects notions that it controls the governing body, emphasizing its independence from the start. Varsity Spirit recently retained high-powered counsel to consider defamation claims related to the lawsuits.
“To be clear, Varsity stands with the survivors and their quest for justice,” Varsity Brands said in a statement. “We are angry that predators have taken advantage of cheerleading programs to abuse innocent children. We deny any accusation that Varsity Spirit allowed such unthinkable behavior.”
The USASF did not respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday.
The scandal engulfed the cheerleading world as the competitive season begins. After the allegations surfaced at South Carolina’s Rockstar Cheer, 10 gyms across the Carolinas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New Jersey said they would drop the Rockstar name and brand. A North Carolina public school system has banned its athletes from participating in competitions run by Varsity Spirit, WRAL-TV reported. Most recently, Georgia police obtained an arrest warrant against a coach accused of raping a 15-year-old boy, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.