Last fall, a USA TODAY investigation revealed pervasive failures in cheerleading’s child protection policies and detailed allegations against one of the sport’s most prominent celebrities, Jerry Harris. Cheerleading’s governing bodies responded by working to shore up athlete protections and banning more than 140 coaches and athletes who had been accused of misconduct.
Nearly a year later, little else has changed. USA TODAY found individuals accused of — or even charged with — sexual misconduct still work and compete in the sport. Some have continued to work with young athletes even while suspended by the governing body of competitive cheerleading, the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF).
A new USA TODAY investigation has exposed how weaknesses in the sport’s child protection policies play out in one powerhouse cheerleading company, Cheer Extreme, where a coach continued to work with kids despite facing alarming criminal charges. Read that investigation here.
But other gyms and cheer organizations have failed to enact and enforce athlete protection policies, pointing to broader problems across the sport. For example:
- North Carolina gym owner Nicholas Sweeney was suspended by USASF in January while under law enforcement investigation relating to his conduct with athletes, including allegations that he’d taken photos of athletes and told one of them she could take off her underwear when changing into a uniform, according to information provided to police. In an email to parents, USASF said Sweeney, 47, would be prohibited from coaching athletes in the program. But parents emailed USASF and its investigator more than a dozen times voicing concerns about Sweeney’s continued presence in the gym, sharing photos and videos as evidence. Sweeney denied wrongdoing, and law enforcement closed its investigation without charges, saying no one had disclosed a crime. But Sweeney remained under USASF suspension and, earlier this week, was permanently banned from the sport. Prior to being banned, he told USA TODAY that he was abiding by the terms of his suspension while continuing to be in the gym. “I stopped coaching all my teams. I stopped coaching classes. I have not done anything in the gym with any USASF athletes,” said Sweeney, adding that he has been coaching high school cheer teams in the gym. He did not respond to a request for additional comment about being banned by USASF. As of Friday afternoon, his co-owner Darlene McNabb said Sweeney was in the process of selling his shares of the company to her, in light of his permanent ban. She said he is no longer allowed in the gym under any circumstances.
- Jose Alvarez is facing two felony cases in Texas in which he is accused of sexually assaulting one teenage cheerleader and soliciting explicit photos from another, according to court records, police records and interviews. The 28-year-old was banned by cheerleading’s governing bodies in September. But Alvarez competed in April at the National Cheerleaders Association’s collegiate competition. His team from Sam Houston State University was later disqualified. A spokeswoman for Varsity, which operates the competition, told USA TODAY the school was disqualified when Varsity received information that an ineligible athlete had participated but did not respond when asked how Alvarez was able to register and compete while banned. Sam Houston State spokeswoman Stephanie Knific said prospective students are required to disclose felony convictions and that the student in this case, whom she did not name, has not been convicted of a crime. Knific said the university accepted the disqualification. Alvarez declined to comment through his attorney, Shane Phelps.
- Empire Cheer and Dance was banned in October after owner Mishelle Robinson, a former sex offender who had been convicted of sexual battery of a teenage boy, registered the Ohio gym under her sister’s name. But Empire took part in a December cheer competition and registered for another in January after successfully reapplying for USASF membership by using a slight variation of the gym’s name. It has since been suspended again. Robinson could not be reached for comment.
USASF officials declined to be interviewed. In a statement, the organization said it has implemented more stringent reporting and educational policies for members and taken “significant steps” to respond to reports of misconduct.
USASF said, “we continuously look for ways to improve athlete protection.”
Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tricia L. Nadolny are reporters on USA TODAY’s national investigative team. Marisa can be reached at [email protected], @byMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855. Tricia can be reached [email protected] or @TriciaNadolny.