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Memphis-based Varsity named in federal lawsuit over sexual abuse in cheerleading

The lawsuit claims the business model and policies for the cheerleading organizations have created a system allowing abuse, and sexual abuse, of the young athletes.

MEMPHIS, Tenn — A new federal lawsuit has been filed against Memphis-based Varsity Brands and Varsity Spirit, which runs competitions, and the U.S. All Star Federation, the country's cheerleading governing body.

The lawsuit filed in Memphis alleges Varsity, along with founder Jeff Webb, the USASF, USA Cheer, and others were negligent in allowing predatory behavior from coaches and gyms, violating the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization ACT of 2017. Others named in the lawsuit include Charlesbank Capital Partners and Bain Capital.

The lawsuit claims the business model and policies for the cheerleading organizations have created a system allowing abuse, and sexual abuse, of the young athletes involved.

Abuse claims in Knoxville

The lawsuit claims another defendant in the lawsuit, Premier Athletics based in Knoxville, Tennessee, allowed a coach to abuse cheerleaders, while “under the control and authority” of Varsity, USASF, USA Cheer and others named in the suit. It claims an athlete and coach who had achieved star status with the gym, sexually abused underage athletes while still being promoted as a star with the company.

The lawsuit, brought anonymously by two teenage boys and one boy's mother, alleges that the coach sent nude pictures and masturbation videos and instigated nonconsensual sexual acts.

In a statement to the AP, Premier Athletics Knoxville West said it was “inaccurately implicated" in the lawsuit, in which the majority of the allegations are said to have occurred before current ownership purchased any gyms.

In the statement, Premier Athletics said it heard June 26 from an athlete who reported receiving inappropriate photos from the coach. According to the statement, Premier suspended the coach and immediately made a report to local law enforcement and USASF, neither of whom substantiated the complaint. Premier fired the coach, according to the statement.

Premier said it heard Sept. 18 from one athlete that another athlete had a “physical relationship” with the coach. After reporting that allegation to local law enforcement and USASF, Premier said, it did not contact the alleged victim's family to avoid any accusations of interfering with an investigation.

Premier Athletics received reports in late May or June, but the coach continued to access the gym as recently as this month, according to the boys in the lawsuit. 

Varsity Spirit told ABC 24 it did not and does not own Premier Athletics, and has not owned any other gym since August 2021. The company also said the coach in question was never an employee of Varsity. They also said "no reports of suspected misconduct were ever reported to Varsity, and there is no allegation in the complaint that anyone ever told Varsity about their concerns."

This comes on the heels of lawsuit in South Carolina alleging sexual abuse at a cheerleading gym.

“This lawsuit makes it clear that we’re not talking about some isolated incident in South Carolina,” said attorney Bakari Sellers. “This is a nationwide epidemic of abuse that infects all of competitive cheerleading enabled and concealed by Varsity Spirit, the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF) and Bain Capital.”

Claims of a system that perpetuated abuse

“We’re talking about a financial empire based on physical, emotional and sexual abuse,” said Tennessee State Rep. John Ray Clemmons. “As these companies are announcing hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments to grow that empire, these young athletes are being abused and, instead of protecting them, Varsity Spirit, USASF and USA Cheer either ignored and dismissed these allegations or quietly allowed the abusers to relocate to a new gym or facility without parents knowing the truth.”

The lawsuit contends the USASF was promoted as a way to prevent athlete harm, but that the organization failed to investigate or “operate as intended.” It claims USASF, Varsity, USA Cheer have all failed to enforce suspensions and bans of coaches, choreographers, or music producers “known to have committed child sexual abuse.”

According to the lawsuit, many Varsity-affiliated coaches and representatives have been accused of sexual abuse. It also claimed a list of more than 150 suspensions and bans online does not contain important information and is not updated regularly.

The lawsuit also claims the groups failed to do background checks as they said they would or follow procedures for bans and suspensions over sexual abuse. And it claims the online forms created to report abuse are burdensome for athletes at more than 15 pages long.

Lawsuit claims it’s all about money for Varsity

The suit goes on to claim that Varsity had an “elaborate plan” to “anoint specific coaches and disregard safety protocols” in order to “create a pipeline of young athletes,” which the suit claims was worth billions of dollars to the company.

According to the lawsuit, a single season of competitive cheerleading can cost $3,000 to $7,000 for one athlete, while some spend upwards of $20,000 for traveling, uniforms, and more in one year. It said there about four million competitive cheer athletes throughout the U.S., creating a business worth billions of dollars annually.

The suit said athletes cheering for a Varsity-affiliated gym must buy uniforms, accessories, and more from the gym, which is signed to multi-year supply contracts. The athletes also pay monthly and yearly fees. The complaint alleges athletes are not allowed to change gyms within the Varsity system without permission, which “inhibits athletes from reporting misconduct.”

The lawsuit alleges that for competitions, athletes and family must stay at Varsity-chosen hotels and pay the rates Varsity has established, or face disqualification, referred to as “stay-to-play.”

The complaint also said gyms will have one-on-one coaching or closed choreography sessions where parents are not allowed to attend. It said athletes are encouraged to travel with the gyms’ representatives rather than parents as well “to relieve the financial burden from families.”

The lawsuit said all of this worked to create a system which led impressionable young athletes into spending lots of money while being promised prestige and celebrity status, eventually becoming what’s known as “Cheerlebrity,” and part of an American Idol-style competition created by Varsity and its coaches.

Altogether, the lawsuit said it all adds up to a system which brings in money for the defendants while putting young athletes in harm’s way.

Read the full lawsuit HERE.

Responses to lawsuit

Varsity Spirit sent ABC24 the following statement: "First and foremost, our concern is for the survivors and their families. Children should be protected and safe at all times, and no child should ever be exposed to the kind of abhorrent behavior and abuse alleged in the complaint(s). Our life here at Spirit is cheer, and we want our sport to be safe for all athletes. We are outraged that predators took advantage of cheerleading programs to abuse innocent children. We reject any accusation that Varsity Spirit enabled such unthinkable behavior. We are committed to supporting survivors and their pursuit of justice against those individuals responsible. We will keep listening, learning, and championing safety and security to best protect children in this sport." 

USA Cheer sent the following statement to ABC24: "What is alleged to have occurred is tragic and we are heartbroken for any victims of abuse. Sexual abuse and misconduct in all forms is reprehensible and has no place in sport or society. USA Cheer will continue to work with the entire cheer community and all relevant agencies to rid it of bad actors and hold those responsible to account. We encourage anyone with allegations of misconduct to view our athlete protection resources and reporting system. https://usacheer.org/safesport."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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