Cheerleading has become more varsity sport than the old idea of young women in short skirts shouting “go team.” Cheerleaders are recruited like top athletes and given scholarships if they at the top of the pyramid. At Northwestern, the cheerleader coach and athletic staff decided to get the most bang for their buck out of cheerleaders, including Hayden Richardson, who sued under Title IX and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act,
For her participation on the team, Richardson received scholarships in both 2019 and 2020. In 2019, she received a $5,500 scholarship, and in 2020 the scholarship amount was $4,041. Id. As part of joining the team, Richardson was required to sign a contract. The contract, referred to by Richardson as the Spirit Squad Contract, laid out the terms of her membership on the cheerleading team.
The contract required team members to attend all home games and tournaments, in addition to any other events dictated by the coaching staff. Throughout Richardson’s two cheerleading seasons, these events mostly included tailgating, alumni donor events, and appearances at the University’s limited-membership Wilson Club. Id. When Richardson attended any of these events, she and the other female cheerleaders were required to wear their cheer uniforms. The women’s cheer uniforms were scant and exposed much of the women’s bodies—yet the men’s cheer uniforms did not. The contract also stated that if a team member were to quit or be asked to leave the team, then the cheerleader would be required to repay the University for the cheerleading scholarship, as well as for all fees and expenses associated with the cheerleading events—including travel, food, equipment, and camp costs.
But simply attending donor events wasn’t where it ended.
Bonnevier was the head coach of the cheerleading team throughout Richardson’s two seasons on the team. As the 2018–2019 cheer season began, Bonnevier told the women cheerleaders that their top priorities were to keep fans happy and always appear as “fun girls.” Richardson understood this instruction to especially apply to keeping alumni-donor fans happy. Throughout both 2019 and 2020, Bonnevier acknowledged that some fans might be “creepy,” but that the cheerleaders must endure taking photos with fans even if they moved their hands to inappropriate places or made the cheerleaders feel uncomfortable. Bonnevier’s pre-season prophesies came true: on multiple occasions, fans touched Richardson’s breasts and buttocks. Richardson alleges multiple specific instances of these assaults, including at a game in September 2018 when Bonnevier directly instructed Richardson to take photos with fans, and those fans touched Richardson’s breasts. During another incident of inappropriate touching
that season, Bonnevier gave Richardson’s full name to a group of intoxicated fans,who then not surprisingly threatened to find her after the game. In addition to instances in which Bonnevier acted as a liaison between Richardson and the alumni fans, Bonnevier also instructed Richardson and other women cheerleaders not to eat before games and to undress and change in public view on the team bus.
Why would anyone, cheerleader or otherwise, tolerate being turned into “fun girls” to be sexually assaulted?
Bonnevier made it clear to Richardson that if Richardson did not follow the coach’s instructions, she would no longer be part of the team. And if Richardson were no longer part of the team, she would lose her sports scholarships and be responsible for reimbursing the University for the scholarships and myriad expenses.
Beyond telling numerous members of the athletic staff about this, Richardson grieved to the university’s Title IX office about this treatment. Her complaints were ignored, and then denied as insufficiently corroborated.
So, instead of opening a Title XI investigation, Bonnevier simply received some form of training and was told that she could no longer force the cheerleaders to attend tailgating events. The tailgating stopped but the cheerleaders were still required to attend alumni fundraising events. At that time, the University took no other action was taken against Bonnevier.
Richardson sued, and Northwestern moved to dismissed bcause, they argued, no physical harm was done or threatened to Richardson for refusing to allow herself to be pimped out to fans and donor by the cheerleading team coach, Bonnevier.
The Northwestern Defendants argue that Richardson has not plausibly alleged forced labor under § 1589 or forced-labor trafficking under § 1590 because she has failed to allege that the threat of “serious harm,” § 1589(a)(2), caused her to perform the services.
The court rejected this argument.
As pertinent here, to successfully plead a forced-labor claim under § 1589, Richardson must adequately allege that the Northwestern Defendants and Bonnevier used “threats of serious harm” to obtain her services. Section 1589(c)(2) defines “serious harm” for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act: it “means any harm, whether physical or nonphysical, including psychological, financial, or reputational harm, that is sufficiently serious, under all the surrounding circumstances, to compel a reasonable person of the same background and in the same circumstances to perform or to continue performing labor or services in order to avoid incurring that harm.”
It’s beyond shocking and disgusting that a major university would treat its students, cheerleaders, as “fun girls” to be groped by donors upon pain of losing their scholarships and being compelled to repay very substantial sums. And to the extent Title IX bureaucracies are dedicated to putting on a show for the benefit of students about punishing any male student accused of sexual assault, they had no interest in dealing with Richardson’s allegations when the party pimping these young women in “scant” uniforms to fans and donors.