‘Arms up.’ As the instructions came, over a dozen young cheerleaders started racing across a springy mat one after another and later flung themselves into a set of backflips and round-offs. In the open Ohio gym, the cheerleader’s feet and thumb were reverberating. The coach and gym owner Mishelle Robinson started calling out instructions all over the cavernous warehouse.
The walls were adorned with a line of golden trophies and photos of beaming athletes. There was a row of banners, and one was emblazoned with an acronym USASF that was denoting the membership of the gym in the US. The national organization All-Star Federation is behind overseeing the high-stakes and competitive cheerleading world. The extensive rules from USASF cover almost everything starting from stunt safety to hair bows. It tells everything about ‘what should be and should not be excessive in its size. The rules failed to stop someone like Robinson with a criminal record from owning a membership gym.
Robinson is a 44-year-old and convicted felon. He opened the gym after getting sanction by USASF, but at the time, she was on Ohio’s sex offender registry. Now, a USA TODAY investigation can find others who are continuously working in the world of cheerleading even though they have convictions and charges for sexual misconducting where minors where involved. Mishelle Robinson owns Empire All-Stars, and she coaches cheer practice in Ravenna, Ohio. The gym is registered with U.S. All…SANDY HOOPER, as per USA TODAY report. There is one more who pleaded guilty in the online solicitation, Kale Dunlap, where minor was involved, and she is facing sexual assault charges. But she kept cheering and coaching in USASF gyms after indicted.
In 2003, Patrick Avard was convicted of two misdemeanors, and it was for exchanging explicit photos. The photos were exchanged with a teenage girl, but he continued to be one of the sport’s popularity and best music producers. Even after conviction for abusing two girls in 2008, Ricky Despain continued in cheerleading. He abused girls at his gym in Virginia, and due to which, he landed on the sex offender registry. In the early months of this year, Despain started a gym, and USASF sanctioned it. Even though the Houston Press article in 2015 highlighted his background and complained about USASF in 2019, he owns a gym. Despain abused Karrah Pope, and he touched her inappropriately when she was 14. Later she stopped cheerleading completely. She is worried about meeting him at events, and since he kept the sport, she couldn’t.
Pope said, “I think that there must be importance to an athlete’s safety more than anything. But, it is not happening since a registered sex offender is now allowed to own a cheerleading organization and be there in sports.” Now, USA TODAY has identified almost 180 individuals affiliated with cheerleading and are faced or facing charges completely connected to sexual misconduct. The charges are mostly involving minors, but they are not banned by sports or governing bodies like USA cheer and USASF. Over 140 of these individuals are either choreographers or coaches, and many others are tied to activity in one or another way. Out of 180, seventy-four are registered sex offenders. USASF’s vice president of membership, Amy Clark, said, “Our organization has solid child protection policies, and all the policies ‘lead the way’ when it comes to athlete safety.’
USA TODAY has reported nearly 180 people affiliated with cheerleading but has faced charges directly related to sexual misconduct where minors were involved. She said, “The organization has dedicated the effort and time on non-sporting resources.” Even after the report, by mid-July, there were only bans or suspension of 21 individuals by governing bodies. The public-facing lists were meant to warn gym owners and parents regarding potential threats to their children. The plan has now become big and includes 118 names. Almost all the new additions in the list came in the last four weeks, and they were provided by USA TODAY. Some of the individuals mentioned by the USA TODAY report are found to have to serve lengthy prison sentences. Some of them walk into the gym today, and they start coaching kids under USASF policies.
The background checking done by USASF is carried only for coaches present in the warm-up areas and backstage. They are checking everything for these coaches. Even though there must be a mandated rule that gym owners should perform their background checks and screenings, it doesn’t seem that everything is happening correctly. Clark said, “We don’t involve in hiring at every member club. Hence each of them follows their process. But every club has legal counsel, and it works with them.” We need to understand that the world of cheerleading is much more than girls waving pom-poms standing on the sidelines of football games. There is an estimate that over 3.7 million people participate in cheerleading. The age ranges from five years, and they are involved in games like Pop warner to members of the private gyms to collegiate athletes.
When we consider the highest levels, the cheerleaders are nothing but athletes. They perform aerial stunts primarily in nationally televised programs. In January, cheerleading reached a broader audience. It was when Netflix released a docuseries called ‘Cheer.’ The series chronicled the entire journey of cheerleaders from Navarro College as they sought a national title. One of the stars of ‘Cheer,’Jerry Harris, on Thursday, was arrested by the FBI. He was charged with child pornography. Based on federal court records, He admitted to agents that he solicited. He received messages on Snapshot from over ten individuals, and all were minors. He had sex with a cheerleader who was just 15 years old in a cheerleading competition in 2019. He paid money in exchange for nude photos for a 17-year-old. Now, Harris is not ready to give a response or comment for requests. 14-year-old sons of Kristen accused Harris about abuse and stated to USA TODAY. Her second name was withheld in USA TODAY reports since both sons were minor, alleging abuse. She is utterly frustrated since the organization didn’t do anything more.
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