Cheerleading Industry Faces Influx of Sexual Abuse Lawsuits, Some Involving Minors and Pornography
A growing number of sexual abuse lawsuits are being filed against celebrity cheer coaches and gyms nationwide, involving allegations that cheerleaders were sexually assaulted and sometimes exploited.
The plaintiffs, listed only as John Doe’s in the complaints, are primarily young male cheerleaders, who allege they endured systemic coercion, sexual abuse and exploitation as minors while on the competitive cheerleading circuit.
Many of the coaches accused in the lawsuits, such as Dominick Frizzell, Jason McCartney and Scott Foster, were considered “Cheerlebrities” with large social media followings and television appearances.
Foster, the owner of Rockstar Cheer gym, in South Carolina, committed suicide after allegations and a lawsuit were filed in August.
One recent complaint (PDF), filed in late October, details how a cheerleader, as an underage teenager, was coerced into a sexual relationship with an older coach, received sexually explicit photos and advances from other coaches, and was given cocaine. Many of these incidents occurred in front of other coaches, gym staff and cheerleaders, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
The defendants in the lawsuit include Varsity Brands, LLC, Varsity Spirit, LLC, U.S. All Star Federation (USASF), USA Cheer, Charlesbank Capital Partners, LP, Bain Capital, LP, Jeff Web, Cheer Extreme Raleigh, LLC, Kelly Helton, Randall Helton, Chase Burris and Shawn Wilson.
Sexual Abuse Allegations
The plaintiff indicates the abuse started only a year after he had joined Cheer Extreme Raleigh to cheer for an Elite Worlds team. At that time an older male coach initiated a sexual relationship with him, after convincing him to join the team through social media conversations. The boy was about 15 or 16 at the time.
According to the plaintiff, everyone at Cheer Extreme Raleigh knew or should have known there was inappropriate contact.
“On regular occasions, Plaintiff John Doe 1 would hang around socially with the older coach and the other coaches, owners, and administrators from Cheer Extreme, including Defendants Kelly Helton, and Defendants Burris and Wilson, where the coach would caress Plaintiff John Doe 1, hug him and touch him in front of the other Cheer Extreme adults,” the lawsuit states. “Around the same time, a coach from Cheer Extreme Kernersville found Plaintiff John Doe 1 on snapchat and began sending Plaintiff John Doe 1 nude photos.”
He says at least once, the unnamed adult coach pressured him to use cocaine.
The story is very similar to other lawsuits filed in recent months in lawsuits involving at least 15 victims, who have alleged sexual abuse by 14 different coaches at multiple well-known cheerleading gyms throughout the country.
Another complaint (PDF), filed against Foster on October 11, two months after his death, indicates Foster knew the 15-year-old was being sexually abused by another coach, and provided him with alcohol, cigarettes, and cocaine.
Sexual Assault Problem Across the Cheerleading Industry
The revelations and lawsuits have shaken the cheerleading industry, which faces allegations of ignoring obvious signs of sexual misconduct by coaches involving minors, while raking in obscene profits by forcing parents to pay for hotels, equipment, lessons and transportation; at inflated prices.
In August, U.S. All Star Federation, which manages and runs cheer competitions nationwide, issued a press release (PDF) addressing the complaints and urged its members to report incidents of suspected abuse.
“We are continuing our efforts to promote safety for all of our members and help them understand that they should report any allegations to law enforcement as well as to USASF,” the press release states. “If you know something, do not assume it has been reported. This assumption is often why things go unreported and therefore are not investigated.
Critics of the organization, including many of the plaintiffs, say there is little way the organization could not have known about the culture of sexual abuse, and rarely investigated or responded to reports when they were submitted. The group has refused to comment on the specific allegations of the lawsuits themselves, as the national organization is a defendant in many, if not all, of those filed so far.
Sexual Abuse of Minors in Sports
The cheerleading sexual abuse lawsuits mirror allegations raised in similar complaints brought in recent years throughout the gymnastics industry.
In December, USA Gymnastics reached a $380 million settlement with more than 500 survivors of sexual abuse by former Olympics gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar.
According to testimony presented by more than 150 women and girls, Nassar sexually molested young female gymnasts during medical examinations since at least the early 1990s in his role as a team physician and assistant professor at MSU, and as a USA Gymnastics Medical Coordinator.
Many of the women, who call themselves the Sister Survivors, indicate they told USA Gymnastics officials, Michigan State University (MSU) staff, and others about Nassar’s behavior, but were discouraged from reporting the incidents. Some testimony even suggested officials told the survivors they simply did not know the difference between sexual assault and a medical examination. However, after victims began to step forward publicly, the abuse finally got over-due attention and Nassar was arrested, tried, and found guilty on multiple charges.
Similar allegations have been made against Jr. ROTC programs, and the Olympic diving industry.
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