USASF, an organization that oversees competitive cheerleading, dictates everything from stunting safety to hair bows. But a USA TODAY investigation found its rules failed to prevent people convicted of sexual misconduct from working in the sport.
A USA TODAY investigation uncovered examples of people who continued working in cheer after being accused or convicted of crimes involving minors.
One after another, a dozen young cheerleaders raced across a springy blue mat and flung themselves into a series of roundoffs and backflips, the thump of their hands and feet reverberating through the open Ohio gym. Mishelle Robinson, the gym owner and coach, called out instructions across the cavernous warehouse.
"Arms up!"Photos of beaming athletes and a line of golden trophies adorned the walls. Among a row of banners, one emblazoned with the acronym USASF denoted the gym’s membership in the U.S. All Star Federation, the national organization that oversees the high-stakes world of competitive cheerleading. USASF’s extensive rules cover everything from stunt safety to hair bows, which"should not be excessive in size."
But its rules didn’t stop someone with Robinson’s criminal record from owning a member gym. The 44-year-old is a convicted felon — who opened a gym sanctioned by USASF while she was on Ohio’s sex offender registry.
A USA TODAY investigation found others who continued working in cheerleading despite charges or convictions for sexual misconduct involving minors.Show captionHide captionMishelle Robinson, owner of Empire All Stars, coaches cheer practice on Aug. 19, 2020 in Ravenna, Ohio. Robinson registered her gym with the U.S. All...
Mishelle Robinson, owner of Empire All Stars, coaches cheer practice on Aug. 19, 2020 in Ravenna, Ohio. Robinson registered her gym with the U.S. All Star Federation, which controls a fast-paced segment of cheerleading that focuses solely on competing.
Sandy Hooper, USA TODAYKale Dunlap, who pleaded guilty to online solicitation of a minor and is facing sexual assault charges, kept coaching and cheering in USASF gyms after being indicted. Patrick Avard was convicted in 2003 of two misdemeanors for exchanging explicit photos with a teenage girl, but he remains one of the sport’s most sought-after music producers.
And Ricky Despain remained in cheerleading even after his 2008 conviction for abusing two girls at his Virginia gym landed him on the sex offender registry. Until earlier this year, Despain owned a gym that at times has been sanctioned by USASF, despite a 2015
Houston Press article that highlighted his past and a January 2019 complaint provided to USASF.Karrah Pope, who Despain was convicted of inappropriately touching when she was 14, said she stopped cheering competitively because she worried about seeing him at events. Because he kept the sport, she lost it.
"I would think that they would want to put their athlete's safety obviously as a top priority," said Pope, now 28."And that clearly was not happening when a registered sex offender was allowed to be there and own a cheerleading organization still."
USA TODAY identified nearly 180 individuals affiliated with cheerleading who have faced charges relating to sexual misconduct involving minors but were not banned by the sport’s two governing bodies, USASF and USA Cheer. More than 140 of them — a group that includes coaches, choreographers and others directly tied to the activity — have been convicted, and 74 are registered sex offenders.
Amy Clark, USASF’s vice president of membership, said her organization has robust child protection policies and"leads the way" on athlete safety.Dozens of cheer coaches convicted of sex crimes not banned from sport by USASF, USA Cheer
USA TODAY finds nearly 180 individuals affiliated with cheerleading who have faced charges relating to sexual misconduct involving minors.Sandy Hooper and Alexis Arnold, USA TODAY"I think you would be hard-pressed to find another youth sports organization that has dedicated the time and the effort that we have to these non-sporting resources," she said.
Yet as of mid-July, the governing bodies had suspended or banned just 21 individuals, according to public-facing lists meant to warn parents and gym owners about potential threats to children. The lists have since grown to 118 names, with nearly all of the new additions coming in the last four weeks from the names provided by USA TODAY.
While some of the individuals USA TODAY identified are serving lengthy prison sentences, many others could walk into a gym today and, under USASF’s policies, start coaching kids. USASF only requires coaches who go backstage or in the warm-up area at competitions to be members and background checked through their system. And though it mandates gym owners conduct their own screenings and background checks for anyone who interacts with a minor, what businesses do with that information is up to them.
Help USA TODAY investigate misconduct in cheerleadingIf you are an athlete, parent, coach, gym owner or someone else with a connection to cheer, we want to hear your story.Tell us your story"We don't get into the hiring at each of those member clubs," Clark said."So each of them have their process. Hopefully each of them have legal counsel that would work with them."
The world of cheerleading extends far beyond girls waving pom poms on the sidelines of football games. More than 3.7 million people participate in cheer, ranging from 5-year-olds at Pop Warner games to collegiate athletes to members of private gyms. At the highest levels, cheerleaders perform athletic, aerial stunts in nationally televised competitions. Cheerleading reached a broader audience in January, when Netflix released"Cheer," a docuseries that chronicled the journey of Navarro College's cheerleaders as they sought a national title.
On Thursday, one of the stars of"Cheer," Jerry Harris, was arrested by the FBI and charged with production of child pornography. According to federal court records, Harris admitted to agents that he solicited and received explicit messages on Snapchat from at least 10 to 15 individuals he knew were minors, had sex with a 15-year-old at a cheerleading competition in 2019 and paid a 17-year-old money in exchange for nude photos. Harris has not responded to requests for comment.
Kristen, a Texas mother whose 14-year-old sons accused Harris of abuse, told USA TODAY she reported the allegations involving her sons to USASF in May and July. USA TODAY withheld Kristen's last name because her sons are minors and alleging abuse. She said she was frustrated the organization didn’t do more.
In a Wednesday email to its members, USASF defended its handling of Kristen’s reports and provided a timeline. It says that after receiving the first report in May, Clark responded to Kristen and asked if she had reported to police, then confirmed a gym owner had reported the allegations."Based on this information — the mandated reporting requirements had been followed and the USASF would follow the process in place, and let the investigation proceed," the timeline reads.
The organization’s own timeline indicates it did not contact Kristen again until after she sent a second report to USASF, eight weeks after her first. USASF suspended Harris on Monday, the same day USA TODAY reported the allegations against him. Harris was in a USASF-member gym as recently as June, according to that gym’s social media account.
Cheerleading illustrationVeronica Bravo, USA TODAYClark spoke with USA TODAY for about 30 minutes in late August, then declined further interview requests. USASF President Jim Chadwick also declined to be interviewed. Neither would discuss specific individuals, including Harris and Robinson, the Ohio gym owner.
Clark and USA Cheer Executive Director Lauri Harris (no relation to Jerry Harris) said their organizations have adopted policies and implemented training courses to prevent and identify sexual abuse in the sport.
Both USASF and USA Cheer made notable changes their websites as USA TODAY conducted its investigation. USA Cheer dropped the word"preferred" from its roster of music vendors and added a disclaimer that it is not responsible for the actions of any company in the directory. Avard’s company, however, remains on the vendor list.
USA Cheer’s banned list has more than quintupled in size since Aug. 25, when USA TODAY shared the findings of its investigation with cheer officials. And USASF now says any coach banned from another sport is also ineligible for USASF membership.
Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, founder and CEO of the advocacy group Champion Women, said the incomplete banned lists represent a stunning abdication of responsibility, particularly in the wake of the recent sex abuse scandal
that consumed gymnastics.Nancy Hogshead-Makar poses for a portrait on Sept. 18, 2018 in Jacksonville, Fla. She is CEO of advocacy group Champion Women.Phelan Ebenhack for USA TODAY"If it’s going to be a tool, you just made it into a toothpick instead of an ice pick," Hogshead-Makar said."You essentially made it meaningless by only having 21 people on there."
USA Cheer banned Robinson in early September. But she still can coach in and own her USASF-member gym in Ravenna, Ohio. In an interview with USA TODAY, Robinson was open with reporters in describing how she started a member gym while on the sex offender registry.
Robinson said her sister is the registered owner with USASF because Robinson knows her 2006 conviction for sexual battery of a high school boy would show up on a background check. She said she buys a spectator ticket and does not go backstage or in the warm-up area of competitions.
She said she assumes USASF knows about her criminal record. Her uncle has been involved with USASF as a member, gym owner and credentialing instructor. Robinson, who was on Ohio’s sex offender registry until March, said USASF has never questioned her involvement in the sport.
"Everyone deserves a second chance," Robinson said."Now, had I gone out there again and re-offended and did it again, no. I would have no right to ever expect anyone to forget or forgive. Never. But the fact is, I didn't."
'That just boggles my mind'USASF and USA Cheer’s abuse prevention policies would appear to lie in those organizations' own hands. But both entities were founded by and still retain strong ties to Varsity Spirit, a for-profit company that dominates the sport.
Varsity — whose empire extends into cheer clothing, camps and competitions — provided the startup capital for USASF in 2003. Four years later, the company created USA Cheer, the national governing body that serves as the umbrella organization for all aspects of cheerleading, including school-based programs, youth and recreational clubs and the U.S. national teams.
Today, USA Cheer has no employees of its own. All six of its staff members are Varsity employees contracted to work for the nonprofit. The same goes for USASF’s president and vice president of events and corporate alliances. Varsity-owned companies also hold a permanent majority of seats on USASF’s board of directors.
John C. Patterson, a former staff member of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center who has consulted with nonprofits on youth safety issues, said he’s never heard of an arrangement quite like the one between Varsity and the governing bodies. He said the company's control of the USASF board means"whatever Varsity wants, Varsity can get."
"With that kind of influence, it seems to me that the company should have an influence over the measures that they take to protect kids," Patterson said. Nicole Lauchaire, a senior vice president at Varsity Spirit, said Varsity helped create both organizations because it believed"oversight and rules and regulations were needed."
"Both those organizations are very much focused on the safety of athletes and athlete protection," she said."And we share in that mission."USA Cheer and USASF have both increased their focus on child protection in recent years.
Clark said USASF in the last three years has implemented a sexual abuse prevention policy, adopted the policies of the U.S. Center for SafeSport and created housing and travel policies designed to minimize the risk of abuse while athletes are on the road.
However, during a July 10 phone call with the mother whose boys accused Jerry Harris of abuse, Clark acknowledged that not all gyms follow USASF’s sexual abuse prevention policy."I am certain that people don't do it," Clark said, according to an audio recording the mother provided to USA TODAY.
USA TODAY IllustrationVeronica Bravo, USA TODAYUSA Cheer Executive Director Lauri Harris said her organization has trained more than 20,000 coaches through its safety certification program, offers a course on identifying the maltreatment of children and launched an online reporting form for abuse allegations.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Harris and USA Cheer Director of Education and Programs Jim Lord said the organization's banned list is just one of many tools used to keep athletes safe. Lord said he visits search engines once a week, using terms such as"cheer coach," "athlete abuse" and"sexual assault," to find people to ban. He said he looks for coaches who abused athletes in their care, but also high school teachers whose victims had no connection to their role as a cheer coach.
"One of my weekly things that I do on my checklist is to go do another search, to see if anything has shown up," he said.Lord's searching resulted in just five names since the list was created in June. The others on USA Cheer's inital list were individuals already banned by USASF.Read more: USA TODAY »
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