The competitive cheerleading community was hit with another bombshell lawsuit on Tuesday, alleging that a Tennessee gym fostered an environment that allowed one of its celebrity coaches to sexually and emotionally abuse at least two teenage male athletes for years.
Among them: a 15-year-old boy who told The Daily Beast that the coach sent him sexually explicit messages, photographs, and videos for months earlier this year when he was still 14. When the coach became aware he was being investigated by the sport’s governing body, U.S. All-Star Federation (USASF), over complaints made by another athlete, the teenager said the messages turned sinister—and included threats that he wanted to “destroy” the initial whistleblower.
“He made it feel like it was a normal thing and it was OK,” the boy, identified as John Doe 1 in a lawsuit filed in Tennessee federal court, said about the abuse. “It wasn’t fair. I feel like it was happening to multiple people.”
John Doe 1 is one of two teenage boys in the lawsuit demanding a jury trial. Among the defendants named in the suit are Varsity Spirit, its associated brands, and its former founder Jeff Webb; USASF; USA Cheer; Charlesbank Capital Partner; Bain Capital; Premier Athletics, where the two teenage boys were allegedly abused, and the gym’s manager Susan Traylor, and coach Dominick “Nick” Frizzell.
Frizzell is well-known in the cheer world and previously competed with a nationally renowned All-Stars team. Currently, he’s a cheerleader at the University of Tennessee and has a large social media following, including 31,000 followers on Instagram and 48,000 on TikTok. (Both accounts were made private on Tuesday morning.)
A spokesperson for the University of Tennessee told The Daily Beast that Frizzell was suspended from participating in the school’s Spirit Program activities on Sept. 16 and “was formally dismissed from the program” on Tuesday.
The lawsuit, obtained by The Daily Beast, alleges that Traylor allowed Frizzell to “emotionally, physically, and sexually exploit and abuse…Premier’s young athletes.” “Premier Athletics and Defendant Frizzell, along with other gyms and coaches, were empowered and placed in positions of trust and authority by the Varsity Defendants, all while the Varsity Defendants knew or should have known that these same coaches and gyms were pervasively abusing athletes or allowing athletes to be abused,” the lawsuit added.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, USA Cheer Executive Director Lauri Harris said the allegations are “tragic and we are heartbroken for any victims of abuse.” “Sexual abuse and misconduct in all forms is reprehensible and has no place in sport or society,” Harris added. “USA Cheer will continue to work with the entire cheer community and all relevant agencies to rid it of bad actors and hold those responsible to account.”
An attorney representing Premier Athletics denied the allegations, claiming the lawsuit contains “many inaccuracies and false statements” about the gym and Traylor. “The health and safety of athletes that train at its facilities is extremely important to Premier Knoxville,” lawyer Chad Hatmaker said. “Premier Knoxville has taken all of the appropriate and required steps based on the reports it received.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Varsity Spirit said they rejected “any accusation that Varsity Spirit enabled such unthinkable behavior.” “We are outraged that predators took advantage of cheerleading programs to abuse innocent children,” the statement said.
Other named defendants did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
For Mary Doe, the mother of John Doe 1, who also requested anonymity, the notion that she was forced to come forward and file a lawsuit against the people who were supposed to be educating and protecting her son “is maddening.” The lawsuit alleges that Mary Doe wasn’t informed about the allegations made by the initial athlete against Frizzell until this month—and that she and her son were never contacted by Premier after they opened an investigation.
“I am angry that we had to do this,” Mary Doe said. “I am angry that to even move forward, to expose and make sure that something happens to the people that completely botched this up and didn’t protect my son, it has to be a public situation. It’s a necessary evil that has to happen.”
The lawsuit is only the latest harrowing sexual-abuse scandal to hit the cheerleading community. Earlier this month, The Daily Beast first reported on a damning lawsuit filed against Scott Foster, a prominent South Carolina cheerleading coach who died by suicide in August. It alleges he sexually abused male and female athletes and presided over a culture that allowed his staff to do the same. His gym, Rockstar Cheer, has since been closed “indefinitely.” Both lawsuits allege that the well-known private equity firm Bain Capital cashed in on the chaos.
The cheerleading community has also been rocked by the 12-year prison sentence given to Jerry Harris, a former breakout star on Netflix’s Cheer who pleaded guilty to charges involving child porn and sex crimes against minors, and lawsuits filed against well-known Cheer Athletics Coach Jason McCartney, who is accused of “twisted” sex abuse against his Texas athletes.
“This lawsuit makes it clear that we’re not talking about some isolated incident in South Carolina,” Strom Law Firm’s Bakari Sellers, one of the lawyers who filed Tuesday’s suit, said in a statement. “This is a nationwide epidemic of abuse that infects all of competitive cheerleading enabled and concealed by Varsity Spirit, the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF) and Bain Capital.”
The lawsuit filed on Tuesday takes direct aim at Premier Athletics in Tennessee, which was purchased by Varsity Spirit in 2005. The “cheer, dance, and tumbling gym” is a USASF member gym that prides itself on “highly trained” and “highly qualified” instructors.
The lawsuit states that in 2018, when he was just 14, John Doe 2 met 19-year-old Frizzell when they were both athletes at Premier Athletics. Frizzell added the teenager on Snapchat but it wasn’t until two years later, the lawsuit states, that Frizzell “finally convinced Plaintiff John Doe 2 to meet up, and they began to engage in oral sex and other sexual conduct.”
“When Defendant Frizzell turned twenty-one, he told Plaintiff John Doe 2 that he could get in trouble for having sex with Plaintiff John Doe 2,” the lawsuit said. “Nevertheless, the conduct continued.”
The lawsuit alleges that Premier Athletics knew about the “ongoing sexual relationship,” but nobody ever questioned “Frizzell’s continued interaction” with John Doe 2 or “any other underaged athlete.” Instead, Frizzell was hired as a coach.
Around the same time, in 2020, John Doe 1 began cheering at Premier Athletics and became aware of Frizzell, who is described in the lawsuit as a “cheerlebrity.” By the end of 2021, Frizzell, who was in his early twenties, was following John Doe 1 on Snapchat—even though he was aware John Doe 1 was only 14, the lawsuit states.
In January 2022, Frizzell began sending “sexually explicit messages and photographs of himself” to John Doe 1, including photographs of his penis and videos of him masturbating, the suit alleges. On several occasions, Frizzell also allegedly asked John Doe 1 to meet up, including once in May when the two engaged in oral sex.
About a month later, the lawsuit states that John Doe 1 learned that a fellow underaged athlete was also receiving sexually explicit photographs from Frizzell—and that the other teenager had asked Frizzell to “stop behaving in a predatory manner.” (The fellow underaged athlete is not included in the lawsuit.)
Shortly thereafter, John Doe 1 changed to a new gym. The teenager told The Daily Beast that despite changing gyms—a decision he said was the “best choice”—and despite Frizzell knowing that a sexual misconduct complaint had been made against him, he still contacted John Doe 1.
In one July 2022 message, he “bragged” that he was “not permanently banned” and that Susan Traylor said she wasn’t going to fire him, the lawsuit states, adding that Frizzell sent John Doe 1 “numerous messages threatening the minor athlete who made the initial report.”
John Doe 1 told The Daily Beast that some of the messages included that Frizzell “wanted to destroy” the teenager that reported him. He said he soon found out that some people at Premier were being interviewed about Frizzell’s misconduct—but neither he nor his mother were ever contacted.
“We were never contacted, talked about it all,” Mary Doe said. “It’s infuriating.”
The lawsuit alleges that Frizzell even tried to contact John Doe 1 in an attempt to influence how he would respond to questions about their interactions. Earlier this month, John Doe 1’s new gym contacted Mary Doe to inform her that Premier Athletics was investigating allegations of abuse against Frizzell and that those allegations included her son.
“It’s been a complete whirlwind,” Mary Doe, who ultimately made a report to law enforcement, added. “It’s completely maddening to me.”
“Ultimately, Defendant Premier Athletics’ bungled internal investigation determined that insufficient proof existed to hold Defendant Frizzell accountable,” the lawsuit states, adding that the determination was based, at least in part, on the fact that John Doe 1 had left the gym.
According to the lawsuit, Premier Athletics acknowledged in a Sept. 18 Instagram statement that an “additional report” had been filed with law enforcement, but provided no information.
In a statement, Premier Athletics lawyer Chad Hatmaker stated that Traylor was told by an athlete on June 26, 2022, that he had received inappropriate photos from Frizzell. “No copies or screenshots of the photographs were provided to substantiate this claim and this was the first time Ms. Traylor or Premier Knoxville had received reports about this alleged misconduct,” Hatmaker said, adding that Frizzell was suspended and the athlete's claim was immediately reported to local law enforcement as well as USASF.
The statement said that law enforcement “did not substantiate the complaint, nor did USASF” but Premier Knoxville terminated Frizzell. On Sept. 18, the statement adds, the gym was informed of another student—who they believed is John Doe 1—who had a “physical relationship” with Frizzell. But the gym states that neither the teenager nor his mother reported the claim—but Premiere Athletics went to law enforcement and USAF that day.
“After reporting the matter to law enforcement Premier Knoxville did not have any contact with the alleged victim or his family so as not to be falsely accused of interfering with law enforcement's investigation,” the gym's statement added.
For Mary Doe, the latest allegations against Frizzell are symptomatic of an ongoing problem in the cheerleading community. She and her son both said they hope this lawsuit lands Frizzell in jail and that Premier is “held accountable for what they did.”
“It’s disgusting,” she said.
According to USA Cheer’s ineligibility list, Frizzell’s membership with USASF as a coach and athlete has been temporarily suspended “pending investigation” because he violated policy “related to athlete protection.”