Twelve sex abuse lawsuits filed against cheerleading coaches and gyms in 7 states.

Attorney Alexandra Benevento, center, speaks to reporters during a news conference announcing a cheerleader abuse lawsuit filed in Tennessee Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Adrian Sainz/AP

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Attorney Alexandra Benevento, center, speaks to reporters during a news conference announcing a cheerleader abuse lawsuit filed in Tennessee Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Memphis, Tennessee.

GREENVILLE, SC – 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, South Carolina, was a nice guy. The comment sparked a conversation and a guilt he still can’t shake.

“My daughter said, ‘Mom, it’s not what you think,'” said the woman, who NPR is not identifying to protect her daughter.

That’s when his daughter told him she had been forced to give oral sex to the coach when she was 13.

“I paid for someone to kill for the daughter’s childhood,” the woman said.

Almost a decade later, Rockstar Cheer and Dance is closed. It closed in September after a civil lawsuit accused the owner of sexually abusing minors and allowing several trainers to do the same, including the trainer the mother says abused her 13-year-old boy.

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 handles child pornography, but would not comment on the case.

Since the first federal civil lawsuit was filed in South Carolina, Rockstar has received 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 animation.

The lawsuits, filed in civil court, accuse some of the main cheerleading institutions of conspiracy to fail to protect minors and ask for compensatory and punitive damages. Of the dozens of defendants named, two have been criminally charged. Attorneys who filed the lawsuits say they expect to file even more in other states as plaintiffs continue to file cases spanning decades.

“Like other sports that have had their say, this is an account to cheer for the whole country,” says one of those lawyers, Bakari Sellers.

In the latest lawsuit, filed in late December, a 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 report with cheerleading’s governing body, the United States All Star Federation, or USASF, only to be met with skepticism and a process that was “deeply traumatizing and disturbing “.

A USASF website shows one of CheerForce’s owners, Becky Herrera, as a member of the organization’s voting board, but does not say how long she has served in that role. NPR tried to reach Herrera by calling the gym and was told by a woman who answered the phone that Herrera and her co-owner husband were unavailable for comment. An email to the gym has not been 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 suit alleges she reported the abuse to governing body of USASF cheerleading, but was told there was insufficient evidence. .

“Our clients have been led to believe they are alone,” Sellers said in a news release announcing the Ohio lawsuit. “But nothing could be further from reality”.

In Florida, Sellers and his team have filed three lawsuits on behalf of girls who say a trainer at the now-closed Champion Elite Legacy gym in Daytona Beach touched them inappropriately and exposed himself repeatedly in person and on video . The lawsuits allege that there had been a prior complaint about the trainer to the gym and the USASF, but nothing was done until the police got involved.

Arrest records say the coach, Erick Kristianson, 43, was arrested in August on felony charges of lewd and lascivious display and sexually abusing victims under 16. He posted bond and his case has been continued, records show.

Calls to Kristianson’s attorney were not returned. NPR also tried to contact the gym’s former owner, but email and phone messages left were not returned.

In Georgia, a Stingray Allstars Marietta gym cheerleader alleges in a lawsuit that she was raped by a male trainer two years ago, when she was 15. He accuses the adults in the facility of knowing about the assault but not reporting it. He says an adult cheerleader also sent him nude photos.

Kim Brubeck, manager of sports compliance for the Stingray Allstars, denies the allegations that the adults knew, adding that the coach was fired in February for an unrelated matter. He says the gym contacted police in September, after hearing from the boy’s mother.

The former coach, Robert Stone, 20, was arrested in November on charges 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 to 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 Raleigh Cheer Extreme Allstars cheerleader accuses several coaches of sending her pornographic photos, giving her cocaine and sexually abusing her. He does not 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 did not report it.

Cheer Extreme Allstars owner Kelly Helton says the gym is shocked and disheartened to be named in the suit, 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 offer are the systems in place at our company regarding the safety of athletes,” Helton said in a statement.

In Tennessee, another lawsuit alleges a Premier Athletics Knoxville West coach sent pornographic images to two boys before sexually abusing them.

“I have never felt such total injustice and anger,” says the mother of one boy.

NPR is not identifying the woman to protect her 15-year-old son.

The mother says she learned of the abuse in the fall of 2022, after her son switched gyms. He says the owner of the new gym told him Premier Athletics was investigating reports of abuse and that his son’s name was mentioned. But she says she never heard directly from Premier.

An attorney for Premier Athletics, Chad Hatmaker, says the gym has been improperly implicated in the lawsuit and the trainer was fired.

And in South Carolina, where the first lawsuit was filed, three more have been added on behalf of new plaintiffs. According to the lawsuits, a dozen male and female Rockstar entertainers say they were subjected to drugs and alcohol and sexually abused by seven coaches, as well as the owner, over the past decade. The lawsuits allege it happened in cars, hotels and private homes

“We have people who have attempted suicide, who can’t have relationships with the opposite sex,” Sellers says. “Some have substance abuse problems.”

In addition to reaching out to the gym’s owners, NPR also attempted to contact the 15 trainers and two choreographers named in the lawsuits. Two denied the allegations and the others could not be reached or did not respond 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. But he says trainers and gyms aren’t the only ones to blame for child abuse. The lawsuits allege others responsible.

“They were also harmed by these companies that not only did nothing, but decided they would protect themselves to protect the children,” says Benevento.

The lawsuits say one of those companies is Varsity, the cheerleaders’ dominant commercial force. Varsity, a multi-million dollar company, organizes competitions and sells clothes.

Varsity is owned by Bain Capital. NPR tried to get comment from Bain Capital, but the company did not return emails or phone calls.

The suits say the gyms pay dues to be affiliated with Varsity, and the families of those Varsity-affiliated gyms must pay dues to cheerleading’s governing body, the USASF. Handle 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 dues from families.

The lawsuits accuse the defendants of “knowing their vulnerable young members were at risk and doing nothing to remove criminal trainers, affiliates, gym owners and administrators.”

Attorney Jessica Fickling, who is also on the legal team, says Varsity has created a structure to report abuse, but it’s not keeping kids safe.

“It’s a structure created to give an impression of security,” says Fickling. “Maybe it could work that way. It just doesn’t work that way.”

University spokesman Tom Becker rejects allegations of abuse and civil conspiracy. He says the company does not control the United States All Star Federation and would expect the USASF to investigate allegations of abuse.

USASF did not respond to repeated calls and emails from NPR seeking comment.

In mid-December, Varsity 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 transforming cheerleading from a sideline to competition do not “impose liability on Mr. Webb for the alleged conduct of a handful of rogue bad actors.” .

Is there gender discrimination in sports?

NPR reached out to Webb for further comment on the allegations, but did not hear back. See the article : Atlanta Falcons Operation: Game Time presented by Zaxby’s.

Daphne Young, the director of communications for the non-profit organization Childhelp, says she is not surprised by the allegations. The decades-old nonprofit 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 sex abuse scandal following the conviction of team doctor Larry Nassar. What they learned, he said, is that internal reporting in sports organizations doesn’t always work.

Is there sexism in sports?

“There can be a culture of secrecy, a kind of authoritarian structure,” says Young, who stresses that he can’t speak directly to the allegations against competitive cheerleading. On the same subject : Wake County cheerleaders suspended from competition following allegations of sexual harassment; online petition has started.

She says Childhelp has just launched a service called the Courage First Athlete Helpline, which allows minors and adults to discuss their concerns anonymously and get help.

Gender discrimination in sports is common, as their games are scheduled at less desirable times and are barely discussed in the media. Women’s professional sports teams also earn significantly less than their male counterparts, as their salaries are based on revenue.

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Is there sexism in sports?

What are the gender issues in sport? Gender Pay Inequality in Sports Almost all major sports do not offer equal pay for female athletes. This means that, on average, female athletes earn less than their male counterparts. On the same subject : Beautiful golf influencer Lauren Pacheco is daring in a tiny leather corset. The gender pay gap in sports is perhaps most evident at the soccer World Cup.

Is there gender inequality in sport? There is not only inequality of participation and opportunities, but also of pay. This comes mainly in professional sports, where in almost every case, men make more money than women. Male athletes in basketball, golf, football, baseball, and tennis make anywhere from 15% to 100% more than female athletes.

Which sport has the most gender inequality? The gap is evident in both individual and team sports, but the biggest disparities exist in the prizes related to the latter. Football, along with basketball and baseball, are some of the top sports where the pay gap is longest.

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