Cheer company Varsity Spirit denies abuse involvement

Nov 2, 2022, 11:59 PM | Updated: Nov 3, 2022, 12:41 pm
FILE - Attorney Alexandra Benevento, center, speaks with reporters during a news conference announc...

FILE - Attorney Alexandra Benevento, center, speaks with reporters during a news conference announcing a cheerleader abuse lawsuit filed in Tennessee on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. The American cheerleading company behind the sport’s top uniforms, camps and competitions is evaluating a possible defamation case against lawyers who have named the enterprise in a series of federal lawsuits alleging sexual abuse at gyms across the Southeast. In a letter sent Tuesday, Nov. 1, defamation attorney Thomas Clare accused civil rights attorney Bakari Sellers and lawyers with the Strom Law Firm of making false and defamatory statements about Varsity Spirit’s relationship to the alleged sexual abuse of cheerleaders by coaches at gyms in South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina.(AP Photo/Adrian Sainz, File)

(AP Photo/Adrian Sainz, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The American cheerleading company behind the sport’s top uniforms, camps and competitions is vehemently denying accusations that the enterprise helped facilitate alleged sexual abuse at gyms across the Southeast outlined in a series of federal lawsuits, and has hired a high-powered defamation lawyer to look into the case.

Varsity Spirit has been named as a defendant in multiple lawsuits brought in three states by civil rights attorney Bakari Sellers and lawyers with the Strom Law Firm; the lawsuits allege widespread sexual abuse of cheerleaders by coaches at various gyms in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The lawsuits allege leaders at Varsity Spirit — as the dominant provider of cheer competitions and camps — failed to provide a safe environment. The coaches were not employed by Varsity Spirit but, according to the lawsuits, some of the alleged abuse happened in hotels selected by Varsity while teams were attending Varsity competitions. The lawsuits contend Varsity didn’t implement or enforce procedures to protect athletes from drugs, alcohol and abuse.

The company denies those accusations, resting responsibility with the individual gyms and coaches named in the lawsuits.

Varsity Spirit and lawyers representing the victims have also disagreed on how strong the connection is between Varsity Spirit and the gyms where the coaches worked. For example, the lawsuits say gyms pay annual or monthly fees to Varsity whereas Varsity says gyms do not pay annual or monthly fees, but have paid to attend competitions and wear certain apparel.

The cheerleading powerhouse retained Thomas Clare, who gained distinction as the co-counsel for Dominion Voting Systems, which has accused Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani — allies of former President Donald Trump — of defamation for falsely claiming the election was stolen.

In a letter Tuesday to Sellers and his firm also given to the AP by Varsity Spirit, Clare said the law firm had been making “blatantly false” claims about Varsity Spirit in what amounts to “sham litigation.”

“As Varsity Spirit has previously and repeatedly stated, its concern, first and foremost, is for the survivors and their safety, and Varsity Spirit wholeheartedly supports survivors in their pursuit of justice against the individuals responsible,” Clare wrote. “The fact that brave men and women have come forward to make specific allegations of abuse against individual coaches, and others employed and supervised by gym owners, does not give you license to make blatantly false public claims about Varsity Spirit…”

Specifically, Varsity Spirit took issue with a recent court filing in which Sellers alleged the company served “as a central player in the scheme to host exploitative events where minor athletes were subjected to sexual abuse and assault under the influence of drugs and alcohol.” Clare also took issue with another allegation in the court filing that Varsity Spirit’s environment “promoting free access to underage minors for the purpose of sexual solicitation was the method by which Defendants recruited new gym owners, coaches, choreographers, videographers, and other affiliated personnel.”

“What information, evidence, or factual basis do you possibly have to support this patently untenable claim as it pertains to Varsity Spirit? We urge you to provide any information you have to us–and also to make that evidence public–immediately,” Clare wrote in the letter.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Sellers said the legal team encourages sexual abuse survivors in cheerleading to continue sharing their experiences.

“We are committed to our clients and vigorously prosecuting these cases and take our responsibilities to the clients and the court very seriously,” Sellers said. “We hope this does not have the effect of chilling those who have suffered abuse from coming forward.”

Varsity Spirit hosts 400 competitions every year, and 300,000 athletes participate annually in the company’s camps, according to Tom Becker, who works with a consulting firm assisting the cheerleading company with media inquiries.

News of the alleged abuse first spread in early September when attorneys with Strom Law filed their first federal lawsuit accusing multiple cheerleading coaches in Greenville, South Carolina, including one who had recently died by suicide, of sexually abusing at least six boys and girls. Over the next two months, six more coaches were named and three more survivors of the alleged abuse came forward in that case. The attorneys also filed federal complaints for teenage survivors of sexual abuse by cheer coaches at gyms in Memphis, Tennessee, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

So far, no arrests have been made in any of the cases. Attorneys for the abuse survivors say federal agencies — who asked them to remain unidentified — are investigating the allegations. Officials have not indicated whether they are involved.

___

James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Associated Press

Police: Vandalism suspected in North Carolina power outage

MOORE COUNTY, N.C. (AP) — Authorities in North Carolina believe vandalism may have caused a power outage that affected thousands of customers Saturday night. A mass power outage in several communities beginning just after 7 p.m. Saturday “is being investigated as a criminal occurrence,” the Moore County Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post. “As […]
1 day ago
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, plays with children who have been d...
Associated Press

US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The head of U.S. intelligence says fighting in Russia’s war in Ukraine is running at a “reduced tempo” and suggests Ukrainian forces could have brighter prospects in coming months. Avril Haines alluded to past allegations by some that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisers could be shielding him from bad news — […]
1 day ago
FILE - Croatia and Canada fans cheer ahead of the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia an...
Associated Press

Fans’ wild World Cup fashion draws praise, scorn in Qatar

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The World Cup in Qatar has become a political lightning rod, so it comes as no surprise that soccer fans’ sartorial style has sparked controversy. Forget your classic soccer jerseys – the streets of Doha have been transformed into a chaotic runway show in terms of fashion. Visitors from around the […]
1 day ago
A woman wearing a face mask looks at masked man holding a dog as they walk through a reopened open ...
Associated Press

China reports 2 new COVID deaths as some restrictions eased

HONG KONG (AP) — China on Sunday reported two additional deaths from COVID-19 as some cities move cautiously to ease anti-pandemic restrictions following increasingly vocal public frustrations. The National Health Commission said one death was reported each in the provinces of Shandong and Sichuan. No information was given about the ages of the victims or […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

IS claims attack at Pakistan embassy that wounded guard

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for last week’s shooting at the Pakistani embassy in Afghanistan in which the head of the mission escaped unharmed but a guard was wounded. In a brief statement late Saturday, IS claimed two of its fighters attacked “the renegade Pakistani ambassador and his guards” while they […]
1 day ago
FILE - In this Tuesday, March 22, 2016 file photo, police and rescue teams are pictured outside the...
Associated Press

Survivors of Brussels suicide attacks seek closure at trial

BRUSSELS (AP) — Jaana Mettala was six months pregnant and on her way to work when the bomb exploded in the heart of Brussels’ European Union quarter. She suffered severe burns, but Mettala and her baby survived — 32 other people did not. It’s now more than six years since the deadliest peacetime attacks on […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Cheer company Varsity Spirit denies abuse involvement