A high-profile lawsuit filed in 2020 by two underage cheerleaders who were sexually harassed and abused by Jerry Harris, who was featured in the Netflix show Cheer, secretly settled last fall.
In addition to Harris, Bain Capital-owned Varsity Spirit and the U.S. All Star Federation, a Varsity-backed governing body for club cheerleading, were named as co-defendants in the suit brought by Texas-based twins, publicly identified as Sam and Charlie. Their traumatic tale became national news and spurred a wave of scrutiny over the sport’s protection of its young athletes.
Details of the settlement agreement, which has not previously been reported, remain under seal after the parties agreed in March 2021 to a broad protective order because the case related to claims about sexual abuse of minors.
The twins’ lawsuit helped pave the way for a subsequent string of federal cheerleading sex abuse suits that have been filed in seven states on behalf of 21 accusers, each of whom have named Varsity and the USASF as co-defendants along with their alleged abusers.
Sarah Klein, an attorney for the twins, confirmed to Sportico that her clients “resolved the dispute with all parties, upon mutual agreement,” but declined to comment further. A former competitive gymnast, Klein was the first known victim of convicted ex-Team USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
A Varsity spokesperson said the company would not comment on the settlement, so as to abide by the sealing order meant “to safeguard the privacy of the minor victims.”
Nevertheless, the case’s confidentiality may have also benefitted Varsity and the USASF, which haven’t had to deal with the public knowing how much they paid to steer clear of a jury trial. That information would presumably be of significant interest to current or future cheer sex-abuse plaintiffs seeking damages from the beleaguered company or its affiliated cheerleading nonprofits.
In the original petition of their lawsuit, Charlie and Sam—referred to as John HC Doe and John HS Doe—and their mother, Kristen, stipulated they were seeking monetary relief of at least $1 million. The family, whose last name Sportico is choosing to withhold, first went public with their allegations against Harris to USA Today, which reported on Sep. 14, 2020, that the gregarious Cheer stand-out was under FBI investigation for soliciting sex from minors.
That same day, the twins and their mother filed their suit in the state district court of Tarrant County, Texas, where the family resides. They alleged that Harris originally “befriended” the then-13-year-old twins in 2018 at different Varsity- and USASF-sanctioned cheerleading events. At the time, Harris was employed as a coach for the Texas-based gym, Cheer Athletics Inc.—another defendant in the case—and was a member in good standing with the USASF.
At the American Cheerleading Association Grand Nationals in February 2019, the lawsuit stated, Harris cornered Charlie in a bathroom and propositioned him for oral sex. Harris also repeatedly tried pressuring both twins into sending him nude and explicit photos.
In early 2020, Kristen reported the matter to both the USASF and Varsity, and later the Forth Worth Police Department. Believing that Harris was still being given a “green light” by Varsity and the USASF she contacted the FBI that August. The USASF suspended Harris on the day the USA Today story ran, according to the paper.
In a motion to dismiss, Varsity told the court that Harris was “not acting in the course and scope of any employment relationship” with the company at the time the incidents occurred.
Harris was arrested on Sept. 17, 2020, and three months later pled guilty to charges of child pornography and transporting a minor with the intent for illicit sexual conduct. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison to be followed by eight years of supervised release.
Last January, a month after Harris’s sentencing, the twins appeared in an episode of the second season of Cheer to describe their ordeal. This January, they launched a podcast called Sam and Charlie Won’t Shut Up. Though it was supposed to be a weekly series, only three episodes have been released so far.
“Our one goal for 2023 is not to shut up or shut down anymore,” Kristen said in the podcast’s first episode.
Kristen did not respond to a request to comment sent via Twitter direct message. It is unknown to what extent she and her sons are constrained from talking about the USASF and Varsity on account of their settlement.
Contemporaneous with the signing of that agreement, the twins filed a motion to dismiss Harris from the case with prejudice, suggesting that he ultimately was not party to the deal. In asking for Harris’s dismissal, the twins told the judge they were no longer interested in pursuing their financial claims against him in Tarrant County.
Rather, that legal battle is playing out in federal criminal court in Chicago, where Harris was charged. In his sentencing last summer, the presiding judge ordered Harris to pay $45,000 to the Domestic Victims of Human Trafficking program. Additionally, federal prosecutors are asking that, as part of his restitution, Harris cover the costs of lifetime mental health treatment for Charlie.
The actual dollar amount of this restitution request is under seal, but in public filings the government referenced other cases in which child sex-abuse victims received mid-six-figure payments from their abusers to defray the cost of decades of future psychotherapy.
Prosecutors also sought minimum restitution payments of $3,000 for Sam and two other of Harris’s victims, as well as $24,000 so that a fifth victim could receive twice-a-month therapy sessions over the course of five years.
Harris’s criminal lawyers, who declined comment, have argued that their client should not be held solely responsible for Charlie’s trauma, saying the cheerleading “community” fostered “an environment that allowed (Harris) to commit the offense conduct.”
These arguments, paradoxically, mirror those that Sam and Charlie originally made in their civil suit, while arguing that Varsity and the USASF should bear liability for the abuse they suffered at the hands of Harris. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors are taking the position that Harris was solely to blame for the trauma his underage victims endured.
“Thus, there can be no question that (the) defendant is the sole ‘but-for’ proximate cause of the harm to the victims,” prosecutors wrote in a Nov. 22 position paper they submitted to the court.
The judge has yet to rule on the amount of Harris’s restitution.
Over the last two years, Varsity has been trying to find ways to lighten its mounting case load of litigation defense. In January, the company and the USASF gave notice to a federal court in Tennessee that they had reached a settlement with the plaintiffs in one of three antitrust lawsuits accusing Varsity of operating as an illegal monopoly.
“While we are confident Varsity Spirit has always acted appropriately and with the best intentions, reaching this mutual agreement is a positive outcome for everyone involved,” Varsity Spirit president Bill Seely wrote in a message to his employees, which the company provided to Sportico. “It allows gym owners, cheerleaders, families, and each of you to focus on what matters most—our sport.”
On Nov. 1, Varsity sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bakari Sellers, whose South Carolina-based law firm, Strom Law, is representing dozens of alleged sex abuse victims. The letter accused Sellers of having potentially defamed the cheerleading company in his public statements and through “sham litigation.”
“Varsity Spirit regrets that you and your firm—through your self-aggrandizing and relentless publicity-seeking—are obscuring the appropriate concern for survivors and instead seeking to keep the spotlight squarely on yourselves,” said the letter sent by attorney Tom Clare, whose firm is also representing Dominion Voting Systems in their election-related defamation suits.
A Varsity spokesperson did not respond to multiple recent inquiries about whether the company intended to proceed with a defamation lawsuit.
In an interview this week, Sellers said that while his clients’ cases are noticeably different from the twins’—they were filed in federal court, not state, and include many more co-defendants—Sam’s and Charlie’s legal pursuit has been an inspiration.
“You have to applaud the courage of those survivors and the professionalism and intellect and doggedness of Sarah Klein,” Sellers said. “To get to the point where you can get some semblance of justice for these survivors is a win.”