July 17, 2024

Two teenage boys say they were sexually abused by their coach at a Knoxville cheerleading gym, and the abuse is part of a pattern of widespread misconduct by coaches, gym operators and the Tennessee-based company behind the explosive growth of cheerleading as a competitive sport nationwide.
In a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Memphis, two teenage boys say a coach at a Premier Athletics gym in Knoxville sexually abused them for years. They say the misconduct was enabled by the gym manager and the company Varsity, which organizes cheer competitions and created the U.S. All-Star Federation, the nonprofit governing body for the sport of competitive cheer.
The two teens say the national cheerleading organizations responsible for safeguarding the welfare of young athletes failed to protect them, and the conditions for abuse are enabled by the business model and governance of competitive cheer.
Their lawsuit describes a hyper-competitive and lucrative system that brought a never-ending pipeline of young athletes into an environment that was ripe for potential abuse.
As part of that system, a Premier Athletics manager allowed a coach to sexually abuse minor athletes for years, the suit says. The teenagers behind the lawsuit were 14 when their coach began grooming them for a sexual relationship.
“We see this pattern of Varsity and USASF accepting money from parents, (in order) to have their children cheer promising an atmosphere of safety, then failing to deliver a safe environment for children,” said Alexander “Ally” Benevento, an attorney with the Strom Law Firm, which is representing the families in the suit.
Benevento was joined by Bakari Sellers, Jessica Finckling and state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, the filing attorney for the federal lawsuit, at a Memphis news conference Tuesday morning.
The coach accused in the suit is described as a star athlete who became a coach at Premier Athletics in 2020. Despite multiple reports he was engaging in sexual relationships with teenagers, including sending them nude photos and soliciting photos, the coach was briefly suspended, but allowed to give private lessons at the Premier Athletics facility through most of September, the suit states.
The lawsuit says one of the teens contacted “local law enforcement.” A Knox County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman denied Knox News’ request to read the reports, but confirmed the department is investigating.
Knox News called the Knox County District Attorney’s Office, which refused to answer questions because, a spokesperson stated, ethical rules prohibit the DA’s Office from commenting on pending investigations. 
The coach’s name does not appear in online court records. Knox News is not naming him because we have not been able to confirm whether he has been charged in court.
Tom Satkowiak, a University of Tennessee Athletics spokesman, said the coach named in the suit “joined the University of Tennessee Spirit Program for the 2022-23 academic year. He was suspended from participation in all spirit activities on Sept. 16 and was formally dismissed from the program on Sept. 27.”
Premier Athletics released a detailed statement Tuesday afternoon refuting allegations made against the gym.
“The lawsuit contained many inaccuracies and false statements that need to be cleared up,” attorney Chad Hatmaker said.
An athlete told the gym manager on June 26 he received inappropriate photographs from the coach, but the complaint was not substantiated by law enforcement, according to Hatmaker.
The coach was fired from the gym, Hatmaker said.
On Sept. 18, Premier Athletics received a secondhand report about an athlete having a sexual relationship with the coach. The athlete, believed to be one of the plaintiffs, Hatmaker said, never reported the sexual abuse to the gym. Premier Athletics told police about both complaints as soon as they were received, Hatmaker said.
More:Cheerleading has a list of people banned from the sport. It was missing 74 convicted sex offenders
The complaint follows a similar lawsuit filed in South Carolina earlier this month. The plaintiffs in that suit also say they were sexually abused at Rockstar Cheer and Dance, a now-closed competitive cheerleading gym in Greer, South Carolina. 
The nine unnamed plaintiffs accuse multiple Rockstar coaches of a range of misconduct, including rape, providing drugs and alcohol to athletes, groping and inappropriate touching, and the exchange of sexual images. In several instances, the abuse occurred when the plaintiffs were minors, according to the lawsuit. 
“They took advantage of many, many young boys,” Sellers said Tuesday. “I have seen disgusting, predatory information. These young boys and their families will be forever altered.”
Like the Tennessee filing, the South Carolina lawsuit also takes aim at Varsity, U.S. All Star Federation and USA Cheer, in addition to Varsity founder Jeff Webb and owner Bain Capital. 
The complaint says the defendants created and operated an exploitative system with little accountability that “propagated a system of young-athlete abuse against innocent victims.” 
Sellers indicated other filings could follow as attorneys dig deeper into accusations.
In a media advisory emailed to reporters Monday, the lawyers for the Knoxville teens called their lawsuit “the latest chapter in the disturbing narrative where teenage athletes were physically, emotionally and sexually abused,” while local gyms and cheer’s governing bodies “allowed it to happen.” 
Rockstar Cheer and Dance and its owner and founder Scott Foster are named in a civil lawsuit filed Aug. 31 in Greenville County, South Carolina, alleging Foster repeatedly “persuaded” an unidentified underage girl who trained at his gym to have sex with him.
Foster died by suicide Aug. 22, according to the Greenville County Coroner’s Office. 
Varsity Spirit released a statement Tuesday, saying the company will continue “listening, learning, and championing safety and security.”
“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,” the company wrote.


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