According to a recent lawsuit, Northwestern University exploited cheerleaders, forcing them to mingle with drunk fans and parading them on runways like bikini models.
The complaint was filed by Hayden Richardson, a former Northwestern cheerleader. Her claims that she and her teammates were flaunted in front of potential donors resonate with stories coming from other universities. According to a journalist—and former cheerleader—from the Chicago Sun-Times, “obligatory pre-game routines, which sometimes include walking into tailgate parties and big-donor suites and interacting with fans no matter how harassing or belligerent they might be” are a common practice.
Richardson accuses Northwestern of presenting her and her cheerleading teammates as “sex objects,” subjecting them to groping and “incessant sexual comments.” Sometimes, she alleges, fans would touch their breasts and buttocks while snapping photos.
Hayden feared that complaining might cause her to lose her place in the team and her scholarship. When she gathered the courage to complain, Richardson alleges, the university's athletics department failed to take any remedial action and even accused her of fabricating evidence.
Discrimination based on gender in the context of educational institutions is a violation of Title IX. It is no secret, however, that cheerleaders are systematically sexualized. Rather than being perceived as hard-working athletes with remarkable talent, they are viewed as sex objects and often subjected to harassment and sometimes assault. One former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader told the New York Times that a fan once yelled at her, “I hope you get raped!”
When she first joined Northwestern, Hayden Richardson had no inkling of the dark side of cheerleading. She was excited to join and wear the university's colors, but she would soon be disillusioned.
It didn't take long for the first incident to mar her excitement. The head coach, Pam Bonnevier, mandated cheerleaders to mingle with rich older men to incentivize donations. This happened during university-sanctioned events, where Richardson and her teammates were allegedly groped and sexually harassed.
According to the complaint, it soon became clear to Richardson that “the cheerleaders were being presented as sex objects to titillate the men that funded the majority of Northwestern’s athletics programs. After all, the happier these men were, the more money the university would receive from them.”
Between 2018 and 2019, Richardson claims, several men touched her private parts, picked her up without consent, verbally harassed her, and offered her alcohol although she was underage.
Coach Bonnevier allegedly instructed cheerleaders to put up with the harassment from fans and donors, urging them to go into the rowdy crowds unaccompanied.
Richardson initiated her internal complaints in early 2019, reporting the violations to Northwestern's Title IX Office, which is in charge of dealing with sexual harassment claims. “Once the Title IX office was made aware of the hostile environment created by the university’s exploitative fundraising strategy, it continued the cover-up by refusing to undertake a formal investigation,” Richardson's complaint states.
The Title IX lawsuit filed by Richardson names the university, the head coach, and three other Northwestern employees as defendants. Hayden, who is now 22 years old, said the events described in her complaint are “not the highlight” of her life at Northwestern but “certainly the most impactful.” She told reporters that her journey has been difficult, but she is committed to ensuring “other young women don’t experience the same thing that I did.”
Coach Bonnevier, who no longer works at Northwestern, allegedly mentioned “dealing with creepy fans” soon after Richardson joined the team. “At every home game, the cheerleaders were instructed to walk around the tailgating lots, unsupervised, in their skimpy cheerleading uniforms,” the complaint states. “They were expressly told to split up and mingle with extremely intoxicated fans alone and were not provided any security.”
Pregame events were sometimes held at the Wilson Club, where cheerleaders were required to mingle with elite ticket holders. Bonnevier required “especially attractive” cheerleaders to attend alumni events where they were allegedly “forced to dress in their tiny cheerleading uniforms to parade around men old enough to be their fathers and even grandfathers.”
Another Northwestern cheerleader, Erika Carter, has backed up Richardson's claims. “We were really expected to look pretty and to engage with fans, even if they were belligerent or drunk,” Carter told reporters. “We were sent on our own...no supervision whatsoever.”
Both Carter and Richardson allege the head coach often made negative comments about the cheerleaders' appearance. Journalists were able to obtain a cheerleading contract that stated team members had to consult with the coach before cutting or coloring their hair. According to Hayden's complaint, the girls were “constantly told that they were not attractive or skinny enough.”
Richardson hopes to expose a practice that appears to be shockingly common around the country and to receive compensation for the pain and suffering she endured as a result of Northwestern's alleged Title IX violations. Victims of sexual harassment at American universities have received millions of dollars in compensation.
Cheerleaders seldom report sexual harassment for fear of being taken off their teams. If you have been a victim, you should sue for compensation as soon as possible, as the statute of limitations may prevent you from doing so in the future.
Victims of sexual harassment in sports are subject to strict time limits to take action. As soon as an incident occurs, you should contact a Whistleblower Law Group sexual harassment lawyer so that we evaluate your case and begin protecting your rights.
For a free, confidential consultation about your case with an experienced sexual harassment lawyer, contact us today: 877.858.8018 or [hidden email].