GREENVILLE, S.C. — It’s been eight years since a South Carolina mother told her daughter she thought her cheerleading coach at Rockstar Cheer and Dance in Greenville, S.C., was a good guy. The comment sparked conversation and guilt that still can’t be resolved.
“My daughter said, ‘Mom, he’s not what you think,'” said the woman, who is not being identified by NPR to protect her daughter.
Then her daughter told her that she was forced to perform oral sex on the bus when she was 13 years old.
“I paid someone to kill with my daughter’s childhood,” said the woman.
Almost a decade later, Rockstar Cheer and Dance has closed. It was shut down in September after a civil lawsuit accused the owner of sexually abusing minors and allowing several coaches to do the same, including a coach who a mother says molested her then 13-year-old daughter.
The lawsuit says the owner killed himself in late August after learning he was under federal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security. NPR has confirmed his death, but does not know if his suicide was related to the federal investigation.
DHS deals with child pornography, but will not comment on the case.
Since that first federal civil lawsuit was filed in South Carolina, Rockstar has been hit with three more.
Similar lawsuits have also been filed in six other states, naming five gyms, 15 trainers and two choreographers.
In all, 12 lawsuits on behalf of 21 plaintiffs allege a culture of sexual abuse, drugs and pornography in competitive cheerleading.
The lawsuits, filed in civil court, accuse some of cheerleading’s leading institutions of conspiracy for failing to protect minors and seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Of the ten defendants named, two were criminally charged. Attorneys who filed the lawsuits say they expect to file even more in other states as prosecutors continue to highlight cases that have been going on for decades.
“Similar to other sports that have had their fights, this is a showdown for fans across the country,” says one of those lawyers, Bakari Sellers.
In the latest lawsuit, filed in late December, the former cheerleader says a trainer at the CheerForce Simi Valley gym in Moorpark, Calif., gave her drugs and alcohol and had sex with her when she was 15. She says she was too terrified at the time to report the abuse.
But last year, she says, she came forward and filed a complaint with cheerleading’s governing body, the USA All Star Federation, or USASF, only to be met with skepticism and a “deeply traumatizing and upsetting” process.
The USASF website indicates that one of CheerForce’s owners, Becky Herrera, is a member of the voting committee for the organization, but does not say how long she has held that role. NPR tried to contact Herrera by calling the gym and was told by a woman who answered the phone. Herrera and her co-owner husband could not be reached for comment. The e-mail gym was not answered.
In another lawsuit filed in November, a former Ohio cheerleader says two male choreographers repeatedly had sex with him in a hotel room in 2016. The lawsuit says he reported the abuse to the USASF cheerleaders’ governing body, but was told there was insufficient evidence. .
“Our clients were made to believe they were alone,” Sellers said in a press release announcing the Ohio lawsuit. “But nothing could be further from the truth.”
In Florida, Sellers and his team filed three lawsuits on behalf of girls who claim a trainer at the now-closed Champion Elite Legacy gym in Daytona Beach inappropriately touched them and repeatedly exposed himself in person and on video. The lawsuits allege that there was already a complaint against the trainer to the gym and USASF, but no action was taken until the police got involved.
Arrest records say the coach, 43-year-old Erick Kristianson, was taken into custody in August on charges of lewd and lascivious exposure and molestation of victims under 16. He posted bail and his case continued, according to records.
Calls to Kristianson’s lawyer were not returned. NPR also tried to reach the gym’s former owner, but no one responded to email and phone messages left.
In Georgia, a cheerleader at the Stingray Allstars Marietta gym alleges in a lawsuit that two years ago, when he was 15, he was raped by a male coach. He accuses the adults in the facility of knowing about the attack but not reporting it. He says that an adult cheerleader also sent him nude photos.
Kim Brubeck, head of sports compliance for the Stingray Allstars, denies allegations that the adults knew, adding that the coach was fired in February for an unrelated matter. She says the gym contacted police in September, after hearing from the boy’s mother.
The former coach, 20-year-old Robert Stone, was arrested in November on a charge of aggravated sodomy, according to the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office.
Court records show he posted bond in early December and lives in Tennessee. NPR reached out to Stone and spoke with his father, who said he would contact his son’s attorney, but NPR has not heard from the attorney.
In a North Carolina lawsuit, a former Cheer Extreme Allstars cheerleader in Raleigh accuses several coaches of sending pornographic photos, giving her cocaine and sexually abusing her. He doesn’t name the adults who committed the abuse, but he does name the gym owner and two other trainers who he says knew he was being abused but didn’t report it.
Cheer Extreme Allstars owner Kelly Helton says the gym is surprised and extremely disheartened to be named in the lawsuit, stressing that safety is a top concern.
“The complaint does not name the alleged abusers, which makes it difficult to respond, but what we can provide are the systems in place at our company regarding athlete safety,” Helton said in a statement.
In Tennessee, another lawsuit alleges that a coach at Premier Athletics Knoxville West sent two boys pornographic images before sexually abusing them.
“I have never felt such complete injustice and anger,” says the mother of one boy.
NPR is not identifying the woman to protect her 15-year-old child.
The mother says she found out about the abuse in the fall of 2022, after her son changed gyms. She says she was told by the owner of the new gym that Premier Athletics was investigating reports of abuse and that her son’s name had been mentioned. But she says she never heard directly from the Premier.
Premier Athletics attorney Chad Hatmaker says the gym was falsely implicated in the lawsuit and the coach was fired.
And in South Carolina, where the first lawsuit was filed, three more were added on behalf of new plaintiffs. According to the lawsuits, a dozen male and female Rockstar cheerleaders say they were drugged, drugged, and sexually abused by seven coaches, as well as the owner, over the past decade. The lawsuits say it happened in cars, hotels and private homes
We have people who have attempted suicide, who cannot establish relationships with the opposite sex, says Sellers. “Some have addiction problems.”
In addition to reaching out to the gym owners, NPR also attempted to contact the 15 trainers and two choreographers named in the lawsuits. Two have denied the allegations, and the others have either been unavailable or have not responded to calls, emails and direct messages on social media.
It’s important to note again that only two people named in the lawsuits, the Florida and Georgia coaches, have been criminally charged.
Attorney Alexandra Benevento, who works with Sellers, says they’ve been inundated with calls from people across the country who also allege abuse at cheerleading gyms. However, she says that not only trainers and gyms are guilty of abusing minors. The lawsuits also name other responsible parties.
“They were also damaged by those companies that not only did nothing about it, but decided to protect themselves instead of protecting children,” says Benevento.
The lawsuits say one of those companies is Varsity, a dominant commercial force in cheerleading. A multi-billion dollar company, Varsity organizes competitions and sells apparel.
The university is owned by Bain Capital. NPR tried to get a comment from Bain Capital, but the firm did not return emails or phone calls.
The lawsuits allege that gyms pay membership fees to be affiliated with the University, and families at those University-affiliated gyms are required to pay dues to cheerleading’s governing body, the USASF. Handles abuse complaints.
The lawsuits say Varsity controls USASF and that USASF has failed to address multiple reports of abuse even as it continues to collect fees from families.
The lawsuits accuse the defendants of “knowing their young vulnerable members were at risk and taking no action to remove criminal trainers, affiliates, gym owners and administrators”.
Attorney Jessica Fickling, who is also on the legal team, says the University has created a structure for reporting abuse, but it doesn’t protect children.
“It’s a structure set up to give the impression of security,” says Fickling. “Maybe that’s how it could work. It just doesn’t work that way.”
University spokesman Tom Becker denies the allegations of harassment and civil conspiracy. He says the company does not control the USA All Star Federation and expects the USASF to investigate allegations of abuse.
USASF did not respond to repeated calls and emails from NPR seeking comment.
In mid-December, university founder Jeff Webb took legal action to clear his name. He and several other defendants, including Varsity, filed motions to dismiss the first South Carolina case.
Webb’s lawyers say he has no ties to South Carolina and that his contributions to the transformation of cheerleading from a sideline to a competition do not “impose responsibility on Mr. Webb for the alleged conduct of a handful of bad actors.”
NPR reached out to Webb for further comment on the allegations, but did not hear back.
Daphne Young, head of communications for the non-profit organization Childhelp, says she is not surprised by the allegations. The decades-old nonprofit organization fights child abuse through education, services and a national hotline.
“What we know from the work we do is that the pain never goes away,” says Young.
Young says Childhelp met with survivors of the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal following the conviction of team doctor Larry Nassar. What they’ve learned, she said, is that internal reporting within sports organizations doesn’t always work.
“There can be a culture of secrecy, a kind of authoritarian structure,” says Young, who stresses that she can’t speak directly to the allegations against competitive cheerleading.
She says Childhelp has just launched a service called “Courage First Athlete Helpline”, which allows minors and adults to anonymously talk about their problems and get help.
Copyright 2023 NPR. For more information, visit https://www.npr.org.
What’s the difference between cheer and All Star cheer?
All-star cheerleaders generally have a higher skill level than high school cheerleaders and take classes focused on tumbling, gymnastics and cheerleading to improve their skills. Read also : NFL Cheerleading Salaries 2022 | For Match Fees (Confirmed) | revealed. They don’t cheer for sports teams or other events, so cheering is more performance-based than school spirit-building.
What does all star mean in cheerleading? All Star Cheer is a cheer discipline that involves athletes performing a 2 1/2 minute routine consisting of tumbling, stunting, pyramids, dancing and cheer segments.
What are the different levels of cheerleading? Traditionally, here’s the breakdown:
- Little ones: from four to six years.
- Mini: From five to eight years.
- Youth: From five to 11 years old.
- Juniors: From five to 14 years old.
- Senior: from 11 to 18 years (Depending on the level. This minimum age increases next year)
What age should you start all star cheer?
“I’d say seven to eight is a good time to start. Around that age they really know what they want. To see also : Providence City Cup high school football games need a better plan. Tumbling before that would be a plus, but competitive cheer should start around that age so they don’t get too shy and have that ‘ obrin’.”
At what age can you start All Star Cheer? Youth: from five to 11 years old. Juniors: from five to 14 years old. Seniors: from 11 to 18 years (depending on the level. This minimum age increases next year)
Is All Star cheer harder than football?
What is the hardest sport for girls? In addition, basketball is arguably the most difficult sport for a girl. On the same subject : Beckville High School Announces Homecoming Court | News | panolawatchman.com. On a rectangular court, two teams of at least five players compete in a team game of basketball.
Who has more concussions cheerleading or football? In November, the American Academy of Pediatrics identified cheerleading as having one of the highest rates of concussions during practice, second only to boys’ soccer.
Is Allstar cheerleading the hardest sport? “Between football, wrestling, cage fighting and all that, cheerleading is by far the hardest sport I’ve ever played and the most painful,” Don told the Standard Examiner.
Is Allstar cheerleading hard?
All-Star cheerleaders work hard and have a lot of training. Cheerleaders usually train four to six times a week to be more competitive and stronger for bigger competitions. All-Star cheerleaders travel around the world to various competitions to win trophies, banners and offers.
At what age should you start rooting for all stars? “I’d say seven to eight is a good time to start. Around that age they really know what they want. Tumbling before that would be a plus, but competitive cheer should start around that age so they don’t get too shy and have that ‘ obrin’.”
Is All Star cheerleading harder than gymnastics? Gymnastics is more difficult than cheerleading, mainly because of the required physical strength and willpower that you will have to give up to perform such tasks in gymnastics. Furthermore, it has been proven that gymnastics is the hardest sport on the planet, both mentally and physically.