Varsity Spirit, already besieged by a trio of antitrust lawsuits accusing it of operating as an illegal monopoly, is now being made to defend against litigation stemming from a child sex abuse scandal in competitive cheerleading.
The Bain Capital subsidiary’s latest legal hazard follows the Aug. 22 death of Scott Foster, a former cheerleading gym owner who died by suicide while reportedly under criminal investigation for having sex with minors in multiple states.
Foster’s South Carolina-based gym franchise, Rockstar Cheer and Dance, is a member of Varsity’s top-tier “Family Plan” rebate program. According to multiple sources, Rockstar regularly spends seven figures each year on Varsity events and uniforms. Foster had also previously sold a cheer competition company he owned, World Spirit Federation, to Varsity in 2006. Late Tuesday night, Rockstar’s Greenville, S.C., gym, which Foster ran, announced in an email that it was closing its doors indefinitely, according to a WXIA-TV in Atlanta.
Last week, two new lawsuits from Foster’s alleged victims and their parents—one in federal court, one in South Carolina’s Court of Common Pleas—accused Varsity and its affiliated companies of routinely turning a blind eye to credible allegations of sexual misconduct by Foster and other coaches against underage athletes.
In response to a series of written questions, Varsity spokesperson Susan Crumpton told Sportico in a statement: “All of us at Varsity Spirit are deeply saddened, shocked, and enraged to hear of the allegations of predatory conduct and abuse by Mr. Foster. First and foremost, our concern is for the victims and their families; no child should ever be exposed to the kind of abhorrent behavior and abuse he and others are accused of committing.”
The federal sex-abuse suit, representing four female and two male accusers, is being handled by the Columbia, S.C.-based law firm of Bakari Sellers, the Democratic politician and CNN contributor.
It names as defendants the estate of Foster; his wife and business partner, Kathy; Rockstar Cheer and Dance; Varsity Brands and its cheerleading subsidiaries; Bain Capital; Charlesbank Capital Partners, which sold Varsity to Bain in 2018; and the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF), cheer’s long-recognized governing body that was founded and funded by Varsity.
Last week, Kathy Foster released a statement saying she was “heartbroken” over the allegations.
“I hope the survivors are seeking and receive the support they need,” she wrote. “I am sympathetic to their stories, and will cooperate with all involved to make sure our athletes learn and grow in a safe environment.”
Scott Foster was suspended by the USASF in 2018 after videos circulating on social media showed him drinking with cheerleaders below the legal age of consumption; the Greenville Rockstar gym was also put on probation. However, the lawsuit alleges that, nevertheless, Foster continued to be permitted to attend Varsity- and USASF-sanctioned competitions, during which time he was able to further his “illicit conduct.”
In her statement, Varsity’s Crumpton said: “As the facts make clear, any accusation that Varsity Spirit sanctioned an ongoing commercial relationship with Rockstar Greenville—or any other customer—despite knowledge or awareness of sexual misconduct is false and at odds with our focus on athlete safety. We reject the claim.”
In a telephone interview, Sellers described the disciplinary action against Foster as “bullshit” and that the facts will ultimately show “he was still very much a part of his program,” despite the appearance of being sidelined.
Sellers said his firm, Strom Law, plans to add additional plaintiffs to the South Carolina action as early as this week, and then “shift efforts to other jurisdictions” in the coming months. Currently, according to Sellers, the list of accusers who have approached his firm numbers well into the dozens.
“A lot of people compare this to Larry Nassar, and I am not sure that is an accurate comparison,” Sellers said, referring to the former Michigan State and Olympic sports doctor convicted of assaulting dozens of young gymnasts. “Larry Nassar was one sick mother—-er. Imagine having hundreds of sick mother—-ers.”
The Foster saga recalls a set of circumstances roughly a decade ago, which has not previously been reported, involving a Varsity employee who committed suicide following accusations of inappropriate conduct with minors.
In 2009, Mark Warrick Jr., a coach and general manager of Varsity’s Premier Athletics cheerleading gym in Murfreesboro, Tenn., was the subject of misconduct complaints by multiple parents of his cheerleaders. A much-beloved and influential coach in the area, Warrick was alleged to have engaged in emotionally abusive and inappropriate behavior, which included licking the faces of his underage athletes and, in at least one instance, commenting on a cheerleader’s breasts.
Warrick’s mother, Georgia Warrick, acknowledged that he may have engaged in some of these acts, but insisted that there was never any harm to it.
“I don’t think he had done it very often but he might have done it just playing around,” Georgia Warrick told Sportico. “I do remember him putting his hand over girl’s faces and kissing his hand—just cutting up, while the parents were standing there.”
Mark Warrick’s most persistent complainant was the mother of a 12-year-old cheerleader who alleged that, in addition to her daughter having her face repeatedly licked by the 30-something coach, Warrick would sometimes grab the daughter’s hand and call her his girlfriend.
As an alleged sexual abuse victim, Sportico is declining to name her.
Feeling that Warrick’s immediate supervisors were not taking her complaints seriously, the mother says she brought them to Varsity officials, namely John Newby, the executive vice president and general manager of the company’s All Star division. The mother detailed to Newby the alleged misconduct, which she explained had taken a detrimental toll on her daughter’s emotional and physical well-being. (An email sent to Newby was referred to the Varsity spokesperson.)
According to emails obtained by Sportico, Newby told the mother that Varsity would be conducting an internal investigation into the allegations.
Warrick was suspended amid the investigation and was eventually transferred to another Premier Athletics gym in Cool Springs, Tenn., about a 45-minute drive away. That gym happened to be the same facility where the accuser’s school cheerleading team practiced. Upon discovering this, the mother pressed Varsity to make certain Warrick would not be at the facility at the same time the daughter practiced there. Varsity agreed to “put in place procedures to minimize the possibility,” according to an email Newby sent to the mother in April 2011.
Newby wrote: “Because of your concern we conducted another internal investigation and multiple personal interviews. Although we have concluded that we do not have a legal obligation to implement the procedures below, we are motivated to do what we can to alleviate any apprehensions that you and (your daughter) may have.”
Despite those assurances, Warrick was regularly in the daughter’s presence at the gym, according to written complaints sent to Varsity by the mother, another parent, and their school cheer coaches. Under mounting pressure, Varsity fired Warrick a month later.
“While these events occurred more than 12 years ago, Varsity Spirit can confirm that it undertook an investigation of Mr. Warrick in response to these allegations,” Crumpton said in the company statement this week. “That investigation led to his suspension and eventual termination.”
According to Georgia Warrick, Mark’s suicide, in August 2014, came after he had broken up with his significant other. “That was the icing on the cake,” she said, “but the cake was losing the [Varsity] job.”
As with the three pending federal antitrust lawsuits—all of which are seeking class-action status—the sex abuse cases contend that the cheerleading industry effectively lives in the palm of Varsity, and that the sports’ putative governing bodies, such as the USASF, have served the company’s interests to the harm of the market and its young participants.
The expanding legal shadow over Varsity comes as another closely aligned nonprofit organization, the International Cheerleading Union, is pushing hard to put the sport into an upcoming Olympics. Last summer, the ICU accomplished a key step in that process when it received full recognition from the International Olympic Committee. ICU’s president is Jeff Webb, Varsity’s founder and former CEO, who resigned as chairman of Varsity Spirit in late 2020, a year-and-a-half after his company was acquired by Bain for $2.9 billion. Most of the ICU’s annual revenue has come from hosting its World Cheerleading Championships in conjunction with the USASF.
Responding to questions about the fallout over Foster, Webb said in a statement, “Abuse of any nature is unacceptable and outrageous, and the Cheer community has an obligation to do whatever is necessary to prevent it whenever possible, and when not, to root it out.”
Without specifically addressing Varsity’s role or responsibility in overseeing conduct in the sport, Webb added that “those perpetrating (abuse) must be investigated, prosecuted and punished.”
Spokespeople for Bain and Charlesbank declined to comment. The USASF did not respond to an email inquiry.
Currently, as the federal sex abuse lawsuit makes note, Varsity requires any competitive cheer gym wishing to participate in its competitions—including the marquee national events it puts on in Dallas (NCA All-Star Championship), Atlanta (CHEERSPORT) and Indianapolis (JAMfest Cheer Super Nationals)—to be fully-fledged USASF members.
One of the pending antitrust lawsuits, Fusion Elite All Stars v. Varsity Brands, has argued that Varsity’s “exclusionary scheme” enfeebled cheerleading’s efforts to “prevent sexual abuse in the industry, thereby providing a lower quality cheerleading experience to gym owners, parents, and children.”
Varsity subsequently filed a motion to strike the sex abuse claims from the case, contending they inherently contradicted the basis of the lawsuit’s antitrust claims.
“Plaintiffs allege that, in a world where Varsity had lower ‘market share’ or faced ‘effective competition,’ it would have taken steps to put gyms that were associated with sexual abusers out of business, which of course would have harmed those gyms as putative class members in terms of antitrust injury,” Varsity’s filing stated.
U.S. District Judge Sheryl H. Lipman, who is overseeing all three antitrust lawsuits out of the federal court in Nashville, has yet to rule on the motion.
The USASF and USA Cheer—another Varsity-backed organization that is recognized by the ICU as America’s official cheerleading national governing body—jointly maintain a list of banned and suspended coaches, which has been subject to criticism over its rigor.
A USA Today report in September 2020 found that dozens of cheerleading coaches, who were either criminally charged or convicted of sexually abusing minors, did not even appear on the list.
For much of the time since its 2003 inception, the USASF has referred to itself as cheerleading’s “national governing body,” but more recently it has ceded that formal title to USA Cheer, while rebranding itself as the sport’s “national authority.” USASF is not registered as a nonprofit, but rather a Tennessee mutual benefit corporation, which prevents it from being officially accepted as an NGB by the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
Like the USASF, USA Cheer, founded in 2007, was seeded by Varsity—in the latter’s case, through a multimillion-dollar loan. The organization was co-founded by Varsity Spirit president Bill Seely, who also presided over USA Cheer’s board of directors until earlier this year.
In recent years, USA Cheer has attempted to show its independence and adhere to the USOPC’s guidelines. Last summer, for example, USA Cheer converted from a 501(c)6 organization—a nonprofit membership organization—to a 501(c)3, which is supposed to serve the public.
“Over the course of the last several years, USA Cheer has taken many meaningful steps to reinforce our independence from all industry affiliates and participants,” said executive director Lauri Harris, who worked at Varsity from 1993 until 2017.
Asked about her organization’s current ties to the increasingly maligned USASF, Harris said: “We are evaluating whether each organization currently affiliated with USA Cheer has met and continues to meet those standards, including USASF.”
However, Varsity critics argue that USA Cheer is, for all intents and purposes, a USASF stand-in, and has been positioned by Varsity to carry on its corporate interests if its forerunner folds under public and legal pressure.
“They are just moving the pieces over,” said Patrick Cowherd, a longtime cheerleading coach and industry fixture who has spent years trying to rally an anti-Varsity reform effort. “It is going to be the same thing. With all these [organization] acronyms it can get confusing, like Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s on First?’”
The current lawsuit alleges that Varsity and its corporate relatives, driven by their profit motive, “created, organized and propagated a system of young-athlete abuse.”
The lawsuit claims that Varsity failed to properly address its coach screening process even after Jerry Harris, a coach and star of the Netflix series Cheer, was arrested for soliciting sex from minors in 2019.
Marlene Cota, who served as Varsity’s vice president of corporate alliances, says she raised concerns about Foster to company executives in late 2017. According to Cota, she had been forwarded a photo depicting two Rockstar cheerleaders simulating a sex act while in their team uniforms, holding up a strategically placed sign that read, “Cheer, you’re so MAJOR.”
Cota, who was terminated from her job in 2018, says she shared the photo with a number of her superiors, including John Newby, and that the company said it would address the matter, but that it was financially disincentivized to take strong action.
“Scott Foster and Rock Star Cheer is a multimillion-dollar customer,” said Cota. “Sanctions against him would have potentially hurt profits.”
Crumpton, Varsity’s spokesperson, vigorously disputed Cota’s assessment.
“Contrary to the unsupported allegations levied by a former employee, USASF notified Mr. Foster that he had been found guilty of violating numerous provisions of its codes of conduct in January of 2018,” Crumpton said in her statement. “It is extremely important to bear in mind that no allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse were raised at this time, thus the suspension and the enforcement steps were appropriate given the nature of Mr. Foster’s violations known at the time.”
The challenge for the sex abuse plaintiffs, aside from proving the factual allegations they’ve asserted, will be establishing that Varsity conspired to partake in an unlawful act or had good reason to believe that Foster was a sexual predator.
While the antitrust plaintiffs are legally distinct from the accusers his firm now represents, Sellers says their lawsuits provided a roadmap for his complaint.
“They helped out exponentially when you’re trying to understand the corporate structure,” Sellers said.
Robert Falanga, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney in another of the antitrust lawsuits, American Spirit and Cheer Essentials v. Varsity, which represents a group of industry competitors, believes the unfolding sex abuse allegations will aid his case.
“It gives an element of outrage,” said Falanga, whose law firm is based in Georgia.
The three antitrust actions have coordinated discovery under an order from Judge Lipman, who is likely to rule on whether to consolidate the cases around the time motions for class certification are scheduled, early next year.
Last month, a grassroots organization led by a cadre of independent event producers and Varsity dissenters launched a website. Calling itself the World Allstar Federation, the organization promises to remain unaffiliated with cheer companies and guided by a “strong conflict-of-interest policy.”
USA Cheer, meanwhile, says it plans to file its next tax return in November, which could help to clarify any lingering ties to Varsity and the USASF.
Indeed, three years before his death, Scott Foster professed his own confusion about cheerleading’s governance. In a July 2019 message posted to a private Facebook gym-owners group, he responded to an article written by Harris, explaining USA Cheer’s place in the sport’s convoluted oversight matrix.
“Feeling out of the loop here and looking for insight,” Foster wrote, according to a screen shot provided to Sportico. “I thought USASF was the national governing body? Is there 1 or 2 governing bodies?”