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Federal lawsuits accuse cheerleading industry of sexually abusing minors

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Federal lawsuits filed in three states give a grim portrait of competitive cheerleading. Six suits describe a culture of drugs and pornography and accuse some cheerleading institutions of failing to protect minors from sexual abuse. This story contains explicit details and language. So if you need to go away, totally fine. We'll still be here in 4 minutes. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen reports.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Cheerleading has exploded from the sidelines of games to teams that compete fiercely against each other. There are some 4 million competitive cheerleaders nationwide, from young kids to college students.

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HANSEN: In this video, cheerleaders from Rockstar gym in Greenville, S.C., flip, twist and toss each other high in the air. The gym won a world title in 2019. But in September, the facility suddenly closed after a lawsuit accused the owner of sexually abusing cheerleaders, including minors. Bakari Sellers is one of the attorneys who filed the suit.

BAKARI SELLERS: I have probably seen more masturbation videos and naked pictures than you ever want to imagine.

HANSEN: Rockstar's owner killed himself a week before the lawsuit was filed. The suit says he'd learned he was under federal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security - or DHS - which handles child pornography. DHS will not comment. Since that suit, a dozen cheerleaders from Rockstar allege they were supplied with drugs and alcohol and sexually abused. The allegations span a decade. Again, attorney Bakari Sellers.

SELLERS: What they're going through is unimaginable.

HANSEN: In another case in Tennessee, two boys say a coach at Premier Athletics Knoxville West sent pornographic photos and sexually abused them. Lawyers for the gym say it's been inaccurately implicated, and the coach was fired. In North Carolina, a teenager accuses two coaches at the Extreme Cheer Allstar Gym in Raleigh of sexual abuse and giving him cocaine. That gym's owner says she's disheartened by the allegations.

In total, 15 victims have come forward in these lawsuits to accuse 13 coaches and the late Rockstar owner. NPR tried to contact the 10 coaches named in the suits. Two deny the allegations. And the others couldn't be reached or didn't respond. It's important to note that no criminal charges have been filed against the defendants in these lawsuits. Attorney Alexandra Benevento, who works with Sellers, says they've received calls from more than 100 people across the country who also allege abuse at these gyms and others. But, she says, coaches and gyms aren't the only ones to blame for the abuse of minors.

ALEXANDRA BENEVENTO: They were also harmed by these companies that not only didn't do anything about it but decided that they were going to protect themselves over protecting these children.

HANSEN: The lawsuits say one of those companies is Varsity. That's cheerleading's dominant commercial force. Lawyers describe the operation like this. Gyms pay dues to be affiliated with Varsity. And families at Varsity-affiliated gyms have to pay cheerleading's governing body, the U.S. All Star Federation. The federation handles misconduct complaints. But the suit says Varsity controls the federation. And the federation has failed to address multiple abuse reports from parents. Attorney Jessica Fickling, who's also on the legal team, says varsity has created a structure to report abuse, but it doesn't keep kids safe.

JESSICA FICKLING: It is a structure put in place to give an impression of safety. It's just that it's not working that way.

HANSEN: A varsity spokesperson rejects these accusations. He says the company does not control the U.S. All Star Federation and would expect it to investigate abuse allegations. The federation did not respond.

For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in South Carolina.

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INSKEEP: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline. Just those three digits, 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.