Cheerleader Forced into Painful Splits Example of Physical Abuse

Recognizing the signs and putting a plan in place

Regular readers of my blog and certainly all my clients know that I take a strong stand against child abuse. Any form of child abuse/molestation is reprehensible and goes against the spirit of healthy sports participation. To help combat the problem, we offer free abuse/molestation risk management programs and training.

Sexual abuse in youth sports has dominated the headlines in recent years. But it’s important to remember that abuse can take many forms.

We recently became aware of an investigation into astonishing allegations of abuse by two Denver cheerleading coaches. A video of a first-year cheerleader being forced into the splits despite her pleas to stop is currently circulating in the media. Several other girls on the East High School squad allegedly suffered injuries from the same treatment. Particularly appalling are reports of the girls’ teammates being told to hold their arms to brace them in the splits position.

These alleged incidents occurred at the school’s cheer camp in June. Parents of the girl in the video sent the video to East High’s athletic director that month. However no action was taken. Eventually, an anonymous tipster contacted Denver police. The coaches, two school administrators and a district deputy counsel are on administrative leave during the investigation.

What is abuse?

It’ll be difficult to refute what’s on the video. There’s no doubt that forcing such stretches constitutes abuse. I contacted Tammy Gagne, American Youth Football’s National Cheer Commissioner. Here’s what she had to say:

“Proper stretching starts with a warm-up that includes some type of movement that will increase body temperature to improve muscle elasticity. Once the body temperature is raised, athletes do a number or stretches where they are in control of their own bodies, holding a stretch for 30 to 60 seconds, never bouncing or over stretching.

There are a number of stretches where athletes are paired with another athlete and they help each other stretch, these stretches are never done to a level where there is pain, and they are done slowly to ensure the athlete is comfortable with the stretch. Communication is key between the two athletes stretching each other.”

Of course, child Abuse presents in different ways. Ridicule and put downs are verbal abuse  Any touching that hurts is physical abuse, including any touching or excessive exercise used as punishment. Emotional abuse often consists of isolation, humiliation, intimidation, and threats to perform unreasonable tasks. Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity without consent and by use of force or verbal threat.

Combatting physical abuse

It’s important to be aware of red flags that may signal physical abuse. Other than obvious examples of a coach hitting, throwing equipment or shaking a player, be aware of these coaching methods:

  • Behaviors that seem violent versus disciplinary
  • Illegal moves (often associated with injuries) are encouraged
  • Training practices that become abusive
  • Fighting that is encouraged or ignored
  • Allowing athlete(s) to become physically or verbally abusive
  • Teaching improper techniques or encouraging conduct that violates safety rules
  • Behaviors resulting in injuries to athlete(s)

Gagne is quite succinct in her perspective on abuse: “A coach’s first responsibility is to keep the athlete safe.”

We believe that too. Consequently, we provide information on preventing child abuse in youth sports and a free customizable Abuse Risk Management Program on our risk management page. If you have questions or concerns, please call us at (800) 622-7370.


UPDATE:

A Denver Police Department investigation  resulted in a decision not to press criminal charges in the story referred to above. Personnel fallout from the scandal:

  • Coach Ozell Williams was fired two after the news story aired.
  • Principal Andy Mendelsberg retired in the wake of the report citing multiple failures to act following complaints made by the parents of multiple cheerleaders.
  • Assistant Principal Lisa Porter serving as athletic director, resigned.
  • Five assistant principals were disciplined, though no details are known. All five saw portions of the video in question.
  • Denver Public School Attorney Michael Hickman was reinstated disciplined for failing to follow up on the limited information Mendelsberg provided.
  • Mariah Cladis, a volunteer assistant cheer coach, was cleared of wrongdoing.

This shouldn’t have happened

Journalists uncovered the fact that Williams was terminated in 2016 from his position as a cheerleading consultant at Boulder High School upon being observed by another coach forcing splits on cheerleaders as did at East High.

Williams did not disclose that fact in his application for the job at East High. He listed in the “employment history” section of his application only two previous jobs: that of “professional dunker” at Denver Nuggets games and the business he owns,  Mile High Tumblers.

The investigation revealed that Porter never contacted anyone at Boulder High to check Williams’ references, which were listed on his resume.


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