Cheer company Varsity Spirit denies abuse involvement

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)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — 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.