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Mothers detail sexual abuse in competitive cheerleading as SC attorneys target third state

cheerleading stock photo
Shutterstock
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Shutterstock

South Carolina attorneys expand allegations of sexual abuse, drugs and pornography in competitive cheerleading as mothers share pain of abuse.

As a single mother of two, she held down several jobs so her daughters could compete for a prominent cheerleading gym, Rockstar Cheer and Dance in Greenville. She even worked part time at the gym.

But a casual conversation in the car about a coach quickly became concerning.

“I said, ‘he just seems like a nice guy’ and my daughter said, ‘Mom, he’s not what you think’.'”

The mother pulled over and pried for details, until her daughter finally revealed the coach, she praised, had forced her to perform a sex act when she was 13-years-old. Another coach, the girl said, had inappropriately touched her and sent sexually explicit photos.

The mom says her daughter, now an adult, still suffers from emotional trauma from the abuse eight years ago.

“I paid for someone to murder my daughter’s childhood.”

The mother, whose name is not being used to protect her daughter’s identity, says reports to authorities and cheerleading’s governing body were ignored.

Now, those two Rockstar coaches and several others are named in a series of federal civil lawsuits. The suits filed in South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina not only allege coaches sexually abused minors, but gyms and some of cheerleading’s top institutions engaged in civil conspiracy in failing to stop it.

South Carolina

At Rockstar alone, a dozen male and female cheerleaders say they were supplied with drugs and alcohol, and sexually abused in cars, hotels and private homes.

“What they’re going through is unimaginable,” says attorney Bakari Sellers, with the Strom Law Firm in Columbia. He’s one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit against Rockstar.

The Greenville gym closed after the suit was filed in September and following the August suicide of its owner. Sellers says the owner killed himself after learning he was under federal investigation.

Strom Law Firm attorneys file cheerleading lawsuit in TN
Adrian Sainz
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Associated Press
Sellers and his team have since filed a similar lawsuit in Tennessee. This one alleges a coach at the Premier Athletics Knoxville West gym sexually abused two boys.

Tennessee

Sellers and his team have since filed a similar lawsuit in Tennessee. This one alleges a coach at the Premier Athletics Knoxville West gym sexually abused two boys.

The mother of one of those boys, a 15-year-old, says she just learned about the abuse in September. Her son was physically threatened if he told. She too says she reported the abuse to cheerleading’s governing body but has yet to hear back about an investigation.

“I’ve never felt such injustice and rage,” says the mom who we are not identifying to protect her son.

An attorney for Premier says the gym has been inaccurately implicated, adding the coach was fired.

North Carolina

Another lawsuit filed last week in North Carolina alleges a teenager at the Cheer Extreme Allstars gym in Raleigh was given cocaine by a coach and sexually abused by another. The suit says the boy’s complaint to a third coach was ignored.

The owner of Cheer Extreme says the gym has no comment.

It is important to note, no criminal charges have been filed against the people or businesses named in these lawsuits.

Attorney Alexandra Benevento, who works with Sellers, says the team has received more than 100 calls from people who also report abuse at these gyms, and others across the country. But, she says, coaches and gyms aren’t the only ones to blame for the abuse of minors.

“They were also harmed by these companies that not only didn’t do anything about it, but decided they were going to protect themselves over protecting children,” says Benevento.

The Institutions

She says one of those companies is Varsity. The lawsuits accuse it and others of engaging in civil conspiracy in failing to protect minors.

A multi-billion-dollar enterprise, Varsity is cheerleading’s dominant commercial force in the U.S., organizing competitions and selling apparel. Attorneys say Varsity also controls cheerleading’s governing body, the U.S. All Star Federation or USASF.

The USASF, the lawsuits allege, has failed to address multiple reports of abuse with questionable coaches continuing to teach or moving to other gyms.

So, who is protecting children?

“It’s a structure put in place to give an impression of safety,” says attorney Jessica Fickling who also works with Sellers.

“Perhaps it could work that way. It’s just that it’s not working that way.”

Varsity spokesperson, Tom Becker, rejects the accusations. He says Varsity does not control USASF and would expect it to investigate allegations of abuse.

USASF did not respond to calls and emails.

Attorneys say they expect to file more lawsuits in other states.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.