CLEVELAND — A former Northeast Ohio cheerleader says he was sexually abused by several coaches when he was a teenager. A lawsuit filed Monday in Ohio’s Northern U.S. District Court is the latest in a series of cases against several major organizations in the competitive cheerleading world.
Sex abuse allegation in competitive cheerleading
At least 20 survivors in six states have filed similar sex abuse lawsuits against the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF), Victory Brands, LLC, their affiliates and staff, alleging they put corporate profits ahead of athlete safety and welfare.
“Our clients have been led to believe that they’re alone,” said Strom Law civil rights attorney Bakari Sellers. “But nothing could be further from the truth, and we want them to know that they are not alone.”
Northeast Ohio case
The Ohio lawsuit names a “John Doe” plaintiff from Lorain County, who trained at USASF member gyms in Avon Lake and Brecksville. In 2016, when he was 17, court documents say two adult choreographers contracted by Varsity Brands were messaging the teen cheerleader through an app.
John Doe said after he initially refused, he eventually met the 24-year-old and 25-year-old at their hotel in Westlake. There he declined offers of liquor from the defendants and ultimately had sex several times with the men, though he was reluctant and attempted to leave several times. The lawsuit alleges both coaches were aware the cheerleader was underage at the time.
The Ohio John Doe filed an official complaint with USASF in 2020. The organization temporarily suspended both choreographers and triggered an investigation. Local Ohio law enforcement investigated but declined to file criminal charges against the men. The lawsuit says they were both removed from USASF’s restricted and ineligible list and allowed to work with young athletes again.
The series of lawsuits are placing blame on the choreographers, as well as USASF, Victory Brands and their affiliates, for putting the underage cheerleaders at risk. They’re seeking a jury trial and punitive damages for pain and suffering.
“Our firm has a long history of supporting victims of sexual abuse, providing them with a voice when others would silence them. We very much look forward to giving our client the same opportunity,” said attorney Chelsea Weaver of Cooper & Elliott, LLC.
A Varsity Brands spokesperson issued the following statement to News 5:
"The Strom Law firm continues to make unfounded allegations against Varsity without providing a shred of evidence. One month ago, we asked the firm to provide evidence of their multiple false and defamatory statements about Varsity. They have not. Instead, they have changed their allegations in subsequent legal filings to walk back their claims. This about-face validates what we have said all along: the Strom Law Firm has exhibited reckless disregard for the truth in making claims about Varsity that are unsupported by any evidence. To be clear, Varsity stands with the survivors and their pursuit of justice. 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."
USASF has not yet responded to a request for comment.
What parents should know about sexual abuse
Donisha Greene, the Director of Community Engagement at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, said conversations about sexual abuse, though often uncomfortable, should be happening at home.
“Listen to your child and give them control over the conversation, which can make them feel more comfortable,” she said.
She encourages parents to keep an open line of communication and watch for indications that something is wrong.
“The warning signs are vast and wide. They may seem like normal things, but something as simple as your child becoming withdrawn or very clingy, mood swings - rage, fear, anger,” Greene explained.
She also said it’s important to believe your child’s concerns and take them seriously. If problems arise, Greene said to report them law enforcement and seek help from trauma-informed care resources, such as the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.
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