RALEIGH, N.C. — More people has came forward in the growing sexual abuse scandal against Memphis-based Varsity Spirit.
Attorneys filed new federal lawsuits in Florida on behalf of three young athletes who they allege were sexually abused by a coach at Champion Elite Legacy cheerleading gym in South Daytona, Florida.
The lawsuits are just the latest against the Memphis-based cheerleading corporation, which oversees amateur cheer and dance competitions nationwide.
The lawsuits accuse the brands, Varsity Spirit, Bain Capital and the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF), of putting corporate profits ahead of their responsibility to protect teenage athletes.
In early November, Varsity fired back at the law firm responsible for filing the suits, saying the claims linking them to the abuse cases were made "without any factual basis."
Attorneys representing Varsity Spirit sent a letter to the South Carolina-based Strom Law Firm, which is representing cheer gym sexual assault survivors in the suits against the company, demanding they stop all outside communication regarding Varsity Spirit and its affiliated brands relating to the lawsuit until they provide evidence linking Varsity with the abuse allegations.
Abuse claims in Florida
The three lawsuits announced Nov. 18, 2022, by the Strom Law Firm involve three young athletes at Champion Elite Legacy cheerleading gym in South Daytona, Florida. All three lawsuits accuse a 43-year-old coach at the gym of sexual abuse - Erick Kristianson, who was arrested in July 2022 on charges of molesting a minor and more.
The first lawsuit involved a girl who said the coach would take her family on trips, and he eventually moved into an apartment owned by the family. The lawsuit said the coach paid special attention to the girl, and eventually her family noticed her behavior and mannerisms changing. The lawsuit goes on to say the girl eventually showed her mother recordings of the coach "engaged in sexually abusive behavior" with her and others, and that he would grope and fondle her and expose himself.
The second lawsuit involves the 13-year-old sister of the first, who said the coach would fondle and grope her, expose himself, and masturbate, as well as bring out sex toys around the children.
The third lawsuit involves a young girl who said the coach would take her and her friends on trips to amusement parks, masturbate around them, bring out sex toys around them, and show them his genitalia. The lawsuit said the coach's nickname included "creepy" around the gym. The girl claimed he would grope and fondle her. According to the lawsuit, she and her friend also recorded a Facetime where the coach exposed himself, in order to prove the abuse.
The lawsuits also claim the gym did not take appropriate action to deal with complaints when parents and athletes came forward.
Abuse claims in Georgia
The latest lawsuit announced Nov. 11, 2022, involves a 15-year-old boy at Stingray Allstars in Marietta, Georgia. It claims the boy began cheering at 12, and had reached out to the gym due to its reputation in the cheerleading world.
The suit claims the boy moved to the Atlanta area and lived with one coach. It claims another coach who was 18 at the time, invited the boy to his apartment, then raped him, knowing he was a minor. It claims the other coach with whom the boy lived knew about the assault and failed to report it to law enforcement.
The lawsuit claims that when other athletes at the gym learned of the assault, they began to solicit the boy for sex. The suit said another adult cheerleader sent sexually explicit pictures. The suit said the boy began drinking to deal with the trauma, and was then reprimanded for the drinking. The suit claim still another coach knew what had happened and also did not report it.
Abuse claims in North Carolina
The alleged abuse survivor, referenced as “John Doe 1,” was a teenager at the time of the abuse, the attorneys said in a lawsuit filed in late October 2022..
According to the lawsuit, the survivor reported the abuse to coaches at Cheer Extreme Raleigh, including All Star Coach and Director Chase Burris, but nothing was ever done to stop it and the police were never notified.
The lawsuit goes on to allege that Cheer Extreme coaches and administrators were often present as one of John Doe 1’s abusers would openly touch and caress him.
“At this point, we are seeing a pattern,” said Bakari Sellers, one of the attorneys representing "John Doe 1" in this new case. “These entities have every chance to protect their athletes from sexual predators but, until a family goes public and the information can no longer be shuffled to the side or into a file somewhere, they do nothing. It turns my stomach every time.”
Abuse claims in South Carolina
Attorneys filed federal lawsuits Tuesday, Oct. 11, in Greenville, South Carolina, on behalf of three additional abuse survivors in the ongoing Varsity Spirit abuse scandal.
In addition to the three survivors, one male and two female, new allegations have come to light against an additional coach, as well as coaches previously named in a prior lawsuit involving the Varsity Spirit abuse scandal. Allegations include sexual abuse, but also include a system where young athletes were exposed to and desensitized to drugs and alcohol.
According to the suit filed by Jane Doe 8, Scott Foster, the former owner of a cheerleading gym in South Carolina, exposed young athletes to drugs and alcohol, as well as "predatory conduct" by coaches, during travel competitions where they had little to no adult supervision.
Foster later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on August 22, 2022, which, according to the lawsuit, opened many allegations against him.
As alleged by Jane Doe 9, who cheered for Rockstar when she was a minor, her coaches at Rockstar repeatedly exposed her to the same pattern of drug use, gross intoxication and sexual abuse, all while she continued to compete for them.
Abuse claims in Knoxville
The original lawsuit claims another defendant, 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 ABC24 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."
Statement from Varsity Brands regarding the allegations in South Carolina and Knoxville:
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 complaints.
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.
Alongside all those who love cheer as much as we do, we will keep listening, learning, and championing safety and security to best protect children in this sport.