The general public may think of cheerleading as a “sexy” activity involving attractive women and the strong men who hold them in the air. However, competitive cheerleading is an active and intensely competitive sport involving children as young as 5 years old. Now Cheer star Jerry Harris has been federally charged and civilly sued for sex abuse after admitting to soliciting pornographic images from members of his team. The lawsuit is shining a light on an industry whose record of responding to sex abuse complaints is shady at best.
The idea of cheerleading brings to mind young women in short skirts and pom-poms standing on the sidelines of a high school football or basketball game rooting for their team. However, competitive cheerleading is an athletic sport unto itself. According to the USA Today, more than 3.7 million people participate in cheerleading competitions every year -- from age 5 through college -- including both boys and girls. At its highest levels, competitive cheerleading involves college athletes performing aerial gymnastics on nationally televised competitions.
The world of competitive cheerleading has been given a spotlight by the popular web-streaming service, Netflix. Its documentary series Cheer, released in January 2020, followed Navarro College’s cheerleading team through a year of competition. But now that spotlight has revealed some ugly secrets hiding in the sport’s shadows.
On Thursday, September 17, 2020, Jerry Harris, celebrity youth cheerleading coach and star of the Cheer series was arrested by the FBI and charged with producing child pornography. The victims of his sexual abuse were 10 to 15 minors, including 14-year-old twin brothers who were on Harris’s cheerleading squad. Charlie and Sam (whose last name is anonymous) reported that Harris had put them through more a year of sexual harassment, both online through Snapchat, and at cheer competitions. The pattern of sexual abuse began when he was 19 and they were only 13 years old.
Based on the twins’ reports, the FBI began an investigation that revealed Harris had solicited explicit imagery from 10-15 known minors, had sex with a 15-year-old during a cheerleading competition, and paid a 17-year-old for nude photos. Harris, now 21 years old, has admitted his involvement. The boys’ mother has now filed a lawsuit against Harris, as well as against the athletic company Varsity Spirit, which runs the cheer competitions, USA Cheer, and the United States All Star Federation (USASF).
The two organizational defendants are responsible for regulating the sport of competitive cheerleading. The lawsuit alleges that they have been ignoring complaints of sex abuse in competitive cheer, and not doing enough to protect the young men and women who compete in the sport.
That complaint is supported by the USA Today’s investigation of competitive cheerleading published earlier this year. According to the report, the USASF and USA Cheer had nearly 180 people affiliated with their youth cheerleading organizations who had been charged or convicted of sexual misconduct involving minors. That included more than 140 convicted sex abusers and 74 registered sex offenders including choreographers, coaches, and gym owners. The report said that as of mid-July, the governing bodies had just 21 individuals on its public-facing list of suspensions and bans -- a list designed to warn parents and gym owners about potential threats to their children. However, during the two months of the USA Today’s investigation, that list grew to 118 names, mostly due to the newspaper’s efforts to identify sex offenders and child molesters associated with the organization.
The lawsuit against Harris, USASF and USA Cheer says that, “a systemically exploitative environment that has been bubbling within the All-Star Cheer community for years.” Harris is said to have taken advantage of that environment. According to Dana Moore Storms, a former cheerleading coach and cheer-mom, who spoke to Teen Vogue about the lawsuit:
“I think that the culture of the sport kind of created an unfortunate perfect breeding ground for children to be taken advantage of. . . . The focus at cheer competitions with security has been more [about] who is walking in the door than what the people inside the door are doing.”
USA Cheer released a statement saying it “takes any allegation of sexual misconduct very seriously” and does “everything possible to safeguard our kids.” However, the lawsuit alleges that USASF, USA Cheer, and Varsity Spirit were informed of Harris’s sexual harassment, exploitation, and molestation of children in the past, and failed to investigate the claims or monitor his activities. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the CEO of Champion Women, told Teen Vogue:
“‘It’s like any other youth-serving organization,’ she says. ‘Wherever you find two ingredients, you’re going to find sexual harassment and abuse. One is children. The other is power.’ Putting policies in place to protect minors, and enforcing those policies, is ‘expensive, it’s time consuming, it costs relationships and strife within an organization. But it has to be done.’”
The competitive cheerleading lawsuit, if it prevails, will demonstrate that having the policies in place is not enough. Organizations like USA Cheer must be held accountable for doing the work of enforcing them to protect student athletes from sexual abuse by their coaches, gym owners, and other adults.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we know how ard it can be to come forward and report sex abuse when it happens, especially in the context of teenage athletes. If you have been abused because of your participation in a sport such as competitive cheerleading, we will help you get the justice and compensation you need to move on. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.