When Hannah and Jessica Gerlacher were 15 years old, their cheerleading coach, Jason McCartney, said he could take them to the highest levels of the sport.
Instead, McCartney left them with enduring trauma, the twin sisters, now 22, allege in a lawsuit filed on Monday. The sisters have accused the coach of touching their breasts, crotches, and buttocks under the pretense that he was “spotting” them during cheer practices at their Texas gyms.
“Hannah and Jessica, who now serve as cheer coaches at a different club/gym, look back and know the level of spotting McCartney used on them was not necessary and was not for their safety, but rather for his own sick pleasure,” the lawsuit states.
“We had no reason to suspect our coach,” Hannah said at a Monday news conference. “We were children.”
The lawsuit, which seeks more than $10 million in damages, alleges McCartney sexually assaulted the sisters and that his workplace, Cheer Athletics, was negligent in protecting them. Moreover, the lawsuit alleges the U.S. All Star Federation, the organization that credentials coaches and sets the sport’s competition standards, turned a blind eye to the abuses.
It is the latest blow to the sport of cheerleading. The Gerlachers’ lawsuit comes as the U.S. All Star Federation has come under fire for failing to stop inappropriate behavior toward children, despite complaints. In September 2020, a USA Today investigation found the federation and USA Cheer, another governing body, failed to ban 180 people affiliated with the sport, who have faced charges of sexual misconduct with minors.
Also in September 2020, cheerleader Jerry Harris, once associated with Cheer Athletics and featured in the Netflix series “Cheer,” was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography and soliciting children for sex. Harris has pleaded not guilty in the case.
Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a lawyer representing the Gerlacher sisters, said abuses within cheerleading parallel more high-profile cases in gymnastics, such as those involving Larry Nassar. A gymnastics team doctor from Michigan, Nassar was sentenced in 2018 to up to 175 years in prison after he was convicted of sexually assaulting several minors. More than 260 women came forward and alleged Nassar had sexually assaulted them.
“There has not been enough action to protect children in this sport,” Tuegel said of cheerleading. “And I think that is where I see so many similarities to gymnastics, where children are alone with coaches.”
McCartney did not respond to a request for comment sent to the Cheer Athletics gym in Austin, where he is listed as a co-owner. Cheer Athletics did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. All Star Federation said in a statement to The Washington Post that it “treats reports received about allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment as confidential, and we do not comment on litigation.”
But the federation said it is committed to the safety of its more than 140,000 members.
“We deplore any instance of sexual misconduct or harassment of our members, and we have taken significant steps to respond to reports of misconduct and to make it clear that there is no place for sexual predators in the cheer and dance community,” the statement read.
McCartney’s abuse against the Gerlacher sisters, the lawsuit alleges, began in 2015, shortly after Hannah suffered a head injury. Hannah’s vulnerability allowed McCartney to abuse her more severely than her sister, the twins said in their lawsuit.
“McCartney would instruct Hannah to sit in his lap where he would hold and touch her,” the complaint states.
Once, according to the lawsuit, McCartney pressed himself up against Hannah in the pro shop at a Cheer Athletics facility, forcing her against some cabinets. “McCartney had one hand on her neck, while his body was pushed up against hers,” the lawsuit says. “Hannah was too frightened to make any noise as he touched her body.”
The lawsuit also alleges that McCartney would use every opportunity to “spot” both sisters during practice, allowing him to grope them.
After years of remaining silent, the sisters eventually filed an anonymous complaint with the U.S. All Star Federation that named McCartney, according to the lawsuit. But the federation allegedly did not investigate it, nor did the organization notify the parents of children who regularly worked with McCartney. The federation “simply buried it,” the lawsuit alleges.
“Meanwhile, McCartney has continued to have unfettered access to minor children,” the lawsuit says.
In the years since the alleged abuse, the Gerlacher sisters went on to win numerous cheerleading championships and are now coaches themselves. Their Instagram account has more than 66,000 followers.
“Now that we are role models in the sport and coaching young athletes ourselves, we want better for the children in the sport moving forward,” the sisters said in a statement on Monday. “The silence surrounding abusive coaches, and the failures of gyms like Cheer Athletics and USASF to protect minor athletes has to stop.”