After a months-long investigation into hazing allegations, the University of Kentucky fired the coaching staff of its award-winning cheer program and turned management of the team over to the athletics department.
UK announced the hazing investigation and firings on May 18 at a virtual press conference.
Four coaches - head coach Jomo Thompson and assistants Spencer Clan, Ben Head and Kelsey LaCroix - were dismissed by the university because they “failed to exercise a reasonable degree of control over members of your team to prevent the formation of a hostile environment on the basis of sex,” according to documents shared by UK public relations.
T. Lynn Williamson, who advised the cheer team for over 40 years, retired days after learning of the investigation, according to the summary report released by UK.
The university investigation did not find that the coaches “actively encouraged the team to engage in harassing behavior,” but the report by the Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity said “they knew or reasonably should have known” about the incidents, which include allegations of public nudity and alcohol use on university-sponsored trips and property.
“The adviser and the coaches failed to stop a culture of hazing, alcohol use and public nudity at off-campus activities where they were present,” said Eric Monday, UK’s executive vice president for finance and administration, in a media release.
At the press conference, Monday said the coaches did not receive financial compensation or a settlement from their dismissal.
UK was first made aware of the hazing allegations on Feb. 3, when a parent called a college administrator and alleged that during a team retreat, among other inappropriate actions, “cheerleaders were required to stand up on a table and sing a song that had major sexual content,” and alleged that both Thompson and Williamson were present for this.
After the conversation with the reporting parent, interim measures were put in place, including assigning a non-coach chaperone to trips, prohibiting coaches from traveling with the team and directing Williamson not to contact the team. Between the initial complaint on Feb. 3 and the final day of in-person instruction before COVID-19 closures, the cheer team continued to appear at events including eight home basketball games.
The university investigation was conducted by the Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity, which handles harassment, discrimination and Title IX complaints. The Office of Student Conduct, which handles violations of the student honor code, also contributed to the investigation. All told, the offices interviewed over 60 people associated with the program. In the student conduct report, witnesses are referred to as WIT 1 – 54. Fifty-four cheerleaders were on the 2019 – 2020 squad, though it is unclear if these are the sole representatives on the witness list.
Those investigations concluded that hazing took place at a Universal Cheerleaders Association camp where squad members learned and recited a lewd chant. UCA is the cheer organization that UK competes in for national titles.
Witness interviews also confirmed drinking and topless/bottom-less basket tosses at a team retreat. Both of these incidents occurred over the summer of 2019.
The Office of Internal Audit is conducting another investigation into potential conflicts of interest regarding Williamson and two assistant coaches.
The summary report said that Williamson hired students in the cheer program to do work on his home such as lawncare.
“It does not appear procedures were in place to make sure cheerleaders/coaches did not feel they had to perform this work given the power differential between the adviser and the cheerleaders/coaches,” said the summary report.
Assistant Coaches Head and Clan are part of the financial investigation because of their business connections.
Clan owns Cheer Expert, a company that runs cheer clinics and camps. The summary report said cheerleaders worked for Cheer Expert and may inferred that they had to do so to try out for the UK cheer squad.
Head owns a gym at which cheerleaders worked. The summary report said concerns were raised over the “use of the UK logo and relationship with UK cheerleaders for marketing by the gym” and cheerleaders practicing on the gym’s spring floor without paying a fee.
The report said cheerleaders worked at the gym by cleaning and performing routines for potential clients.
The use of per diem cards, or prepaid credits cards given to the cheerleaders for trips, also fell outside of the scope of the original investigation, but the summary report notes that the investigation "did not reveal there was any wrongdoing by the coaches or the advisor with regard to the per-diem cards."
Since the announcement of the firings, former and current UK cheerleaders have taken to social media to express their disagreement with the decision, sharing personal statements about the effect Thompson and his staff have had on their lives. Many of those who have spoken up do not believe the staff should have taken the fall for the choices of the cheerleaders.
"Individuals (ADULT athletes) have made their OWN decisions & should have their OWN consequences," said Cheyanne Bustle, a UK cheerleader from 2015 to 2018. "I am SO proud to have been a part of this program and to have been coached by these people."
These coaches put their LIVES into helping us become better athletes and human beings. Individuals (ADULT athletes) have made their OWN decisions & should have their OWN consequences. I am SO proud to have been a part of this program and to have been coached by these people. https://t.co/aDb0n5Wax5— Cheyanne Bustle (@CheyanneDonn) May 18, 2020
At least four cheerleaders posted videos of themselves performing basket tosses at the key retreat, which was a key focus of the investigation.
Other cheerleaders tweeted about the reporting parent who first brought the incidents to the university's attention.
"Our coaches have been FIRED over FALSE accusations!!" tweeted Jake Graham, a sophomore on the squad. "These are lies made up by a parent that was unhappy about the outcome of her daughter’s performance in college!"
These accusations that have been put out about Kentucky cheerleading are absolutely ATROCIOUS and not true! Our coaches have been FIRED over FALSE accusations!! These are lies made up by a parent that was unhappy about the outcome of her daughter’s performance in college!— Jake Graham (@jake_graham115) May 18, 2020
However, in the investigation reports, two assistant coaches and Williamson said they were aware of topless basket tosses and the coaching staff confirmed they knew about the lewd chant from when they were students in the program.
In a later tweet, Graham said that cheerleaders were asked questions "meant to incriminate the athletes."
Emily Sawyer, a UK cheerleader from 2012 to 2016, told the Kernel that she never witnessed anything like this during her four years with the program.
“The success and the student athletes produced from this program are a testament to the integrity and leadership withheld by Jomo Thompson and T. Lynn Williamson,” Sawyer wrote. “These allegations are not a reflection of this outstanding program or the coaches that I am proud to know and be a part of.”
The Office of Student Conduct began investigating hazing on March 12, two days after the OIEEO identified two students who affirmed the hazing behavior that was initially reported in the course of its interviews.
The investigations traced two main incidents: inappropriate behavior at the team’s annual retreat and a separate incident at a cheer camp attended annually by the team, both of which occurred in the summer of 2019. However, the investigative reports said that some of the activities, drinking and the chant especially, occurred in prior years.
The offices had to determine first if any of the cheerleaders' behavior constituted hazing and to what extent coaches were aware of the misconduct. Of the complaints, the lewd chant was found to be hazing.
Most of the allegations concerned the retreat at Lake Cumberland, an annual event held before the fall semester for team bonding. The OIEEO report summarizes these incidents in five categories: alcohol, alcohol on boats owned/rented by alumni, nudity on the boats, basket tosses and skinny dipping.
According to a media release from UK, cheerleaders did basket tosses (a common cheerleading stunt) into the lake while either topless or bottom-less at the urging of other squad members.
"Several individuals felt uncomfortable seeing or engaging in the basket-tosses to the point that some avoided the area the basket tosses occurred,” said the investigative report.
“Two team members stated in their interviews that they did a basket-toss while topless, 11 stated that they observed a topless or bottomless basket-toss during their time on the team, and seven individuals stated that although they had not done or seen one done they had heard about others engaging in topless or bottomless basket-tosses,” said the summary report.
Cheerleader accounts vary on the number of topless/bottom-less stunts, but multiple interviews say that they did happen.
One witness statement said the basket tosses weren’t meant to happen in front of the coaches “because some people take their clothes off; some people are just a little crazy; all of the coaches saw—they were on a boat close by, watching.”
Another witness summary said that three-fourths of the girls went topless during basket tosses in 2019 and that two or three boys went bottom-less.
Three employees admitted that they were aware of topless or bottomless basket tosses, according to the OIEEO report; only Head and Thompson said they were unaware.
“Given the information provided, the more probable explanation is that Mr. Head and Mr. Thompson were willfully ignorant of the activities of the team members,” said the OIEEO report. “This explanation becomes more probable upon consideration of Mr. Thompson’s statement that he is aware that team members bring alcohol to the retreat, despite being told not to do so.”
The OIEEO report stated that this willful ignorance was made more probable by the fact that both Head and Thompson told students, regarding the lewd chants and alcohol use, to “not engage in the behavior in a way that they were aware of it.”
Public nudity and drinking were observed on boats provided by alumni. Three cheerleaders confirmed that they had seen individuals naked on a boat.
These activities occurred at a 4-H camp owned by UK in Jabez, KY, where the team goes for its annual retreat.
Alumni bringing boats to the team retreat was found to be a decades-long practice. Williamson had in previous years arranged for a friend, another former cheerleader, to bring a boat.
When that friend stopped, Thompson arranged for other alumni to bring boats to the retreat.
“Alcohol is provided by the boat owners – they will offer it and say this drink is in this container. On the boats, each boat has separate containers with Jello shots, tequila mixers, etc.,” said one witness statement.
Another witness said they saw Assistant Coach Head drinking on a boat with students.
According to team policy, “while traveling off of the campus to away games or other official functions, it is strongly suggested that cheerleaders (who are 21 or over) neither consume nor possess alcoholic beverages.”
The investigation found that Thompson knew alumni were bringing alcohol on the boats and “did not take sufficient steps to ensure the cheerleaders did not drink the alcohol. He also did not take sufficient steps to supervise the cheerleaders during the boat-related activities,” according to the summary report.
In addition to drinking on the boats, witnesses reported that cheerleaders hid alcohol in their bags or Gatorade bottles and drank it in their cabins.
The report said that two team members who drank too much at the retreat “were sent to alcohol counseling through campus procedures.”
The investigation report said that before the 2019 retreat, Thompson had told cheerleaders it was a no-alcohol event and when he found out about the drinking, he delivered a talk saying he was “very disappointed in their behavior” and made the cheerleaders run as punishment.
A cheerleader told the Kernel that running had been used as punishment in prior years; on one occasion, “(cheerleaders) were told to run, and run until [coaches] said (cheerleaders) could stop. (Cheerleaders) started as the sun was setting and did not stop until it was completely dark…it was at least a few hours.”
The cheerleader told the Kernel that “excessive drinking” occurred at four camps/events attended by the squad in the summer of 2019.
The second allegation concerned a traditional chant learned and performed by squad members.
At a cheer camp held at East Tennessee State University, “some cheerleaders were directed by other members of the squad to perform lewd chants and wear outfits that did not include underwear,” according to a media release from UK.
The camp is required attendance for the team to be eligible for UCA competition.
A witness statement in the Office of Student Conduct report said the chant is “pretty inappropriate-curse words, messages overall more sexual. About Girls and guys hooking up.”
The summary report said that “new members of the team were required by other cheerleaders to learn the words to the song/chant. The new team members split by sex in separate rooms to learn the song/chant. The team also split by sex for the new cheerleaders to sing/chant it one at a time in front of the other team members of the same sex.”
According to cheerleader interviews, the chant, known as the toast, is a tradition dating back to the 1970s – “It’s our like initiation; doesn’t know why we do it.”
One witness said the lights were turned off for some people as a way to make it “a little more intimidating.”
“The intimidation was a little side joke. Not something done every year. Toast song is a private thing, not allowed to record it. It’s a tradition,” said the witness.
The OIEEO report stated that no team member corroborated the reporting party’s claim that female members were required to remove clothing if they got the words wrong, but that “males were told to come into a room wearing a specific set of clothing, which did not include underwear.”
The Office of Student Conduct concluded that the lewd chant qualified as hazing because “the singing of the toast as an intentionally intimidating environment would be considered an attempt to humiliate team members.”
Humiliation is the second clause in the University of Kentucky Hazing Prevention Policy. The report stated that the chant violated that policy because “individual team members were made to learn a song with lyrics that were discomforting enough that members were uncomfortable sharing details with investigators, the men were made to recite the song at the UCA Camp in an individual room and he lights were turned on an off in an attempt to “intimidate” the team members, while [redacted] watched.”
Although the behavior was organized by the cheerleaders, the Office of Student Conduct report said that based on coaches’ interviews, “it appears they are aware of the toast song the students used and for all of the coaches, this toast song existed when they were cheerleaders at UK. When they became coaches, they failed to address this behavior.”
One witness said that coaches had joined in on singing the toast after the team won nationals in 2019.
The investigation concluded that lax oversight by coaches and advisers had allowed inappropriate behavior to persist.
“It’s important to note the investigation found no evidence of sexual assault or sexual misconduct during these trips,” Provost David Blackwell said at the Monday press conference. “It’s unclear how long inappropriate behavior has been part of the off-campus trips. However, we believe these activities were not confined to the past year and may have been tolerated for many years.”
To correct the lax oversight, management of the cheer program was turned over to the athletics department. Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart appointed Sandy Bell, executive associate athletics director, to oversee the program and hire a new coaching staff.
Previously, the cheer program was a student organization sponsored by the athletic department, but it was not subject to the same regulations. According to cheer policy, “the Cheer Coach reports to the Special Assistant to the Athletics Director for budget purposes,” but the coach and adviser also report to the vice chancellor of student affairs.
Blackwell said the change was made in part to continue the championship tradition of the team.
“The Athletics Department has a very strong compliance function that will provide the oversight necessary to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” Blackwell said at the press conference. “Secondly, cheerleading is an important element of athletic events and it requires a lot of coordination and logistics, and the athletics department is the place that needs to happen.”
The UK cheer program is considered one of, if not the, best in the country. Its 24 national titles were earned in 35 years, including a four-peat from 2016 to 2019 under Thompson.
At the Monday press conference, Bell said she has no knowledge that the allegations will impact past championships, because they were earned through UCA, not the NCAA.
“These students deserve our support to help them be successful. Successful as cheerleaders in competition, as students in the classroom, and as citizens and leader outside the university. UK Athletics is committed to providing this support and we’re making that pledge directly to current squad members,” Bell said.
She announced that the annual retreat would be eliminated and all off-campus trips closely supervised.
Blackwell said that the team will go through sexual harassment and sex discrimination training from the OIEEO and anti-hazing training from the Office of Student Conduct.
UK officials met with current team members on Monday, May 18, after announcing the results of the investigation and the dismissal of the coaches.
Tryouts for the next year’s squad will be held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the UK Athletics website.
Blackwell said students will compete as normal and compete for program spots as normal. At the press conference, Blackwell said the university was implementing all the recommendations from the Office of Student Conduct Report, which listed eight steps:
1. All coaches, including graduate assistant coaches, will comply with NCAA rules on outside income.
2. All outside income opportunities for cheerleading coaches, including graduate assistant coaches, will be reviewed in advance through established University and Athletics Department protocols for potential or actual conflicts of interest.
3. Per-diem cards for cheerleaders on university-authorized travel will be administered on the same terms and conditions as for other student athletes.
4. Cheerleaders will adhere to the same drug/alcohol testing processes, procedures, and rules as other student athletes.
5. All university-sponsored team activities will be appropriately supervised to ensure University policies are followed at all times.
6. Access will be provided to ongoing programming from the Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity and hazing prevention resources from Student and Academic Life on campus for all cheerleaders. All members of the cheerleading team will be required to attend such programming annually.
7. All potential violations of the Code of Student Conduct and other University policies should be reported through the Executive Associate Athletics Director and Senior Womens’ Administrator to the Office of Student Conduct and/or directly to the Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity including, but not limited to, potential violations of Title IX and Title VII. Disciplinary action for infractions may be instituted by the appropriate institutional office.
8. Cheerleading coaches, other than the head coach, will be clearly designated as either assistant coaches or graduate assistants with defined job descriptions for each position.
The report also recommended two charges for the UK Cheerleading team: misuse of alcohol and hazing.
When UK announced the hazing investigation and firings on Monday, May 18, UK public relations also published 11 documents related to the investigation on a dedicated webpage. Eight of the files were letters sent to coaching staff and advisers at the conclusion of the investigation.
The other three documents summarized the investigations conducted by the OIEEO and Office of Student Conduct.
Drinking and hazing activities fell under the jurisdiction of the Office of Student Conduct; the nude bottom-less basket tosses fell under the jurisdiction of the OIEEO.
Due to the large number of interviews, the offices worked jointly on the investigation.
The business conflicts of the coaching staff and the per diem cards fell under the jurisdiction of the Office of Internal Audits, which has not released its report yet.
Investigation Summary of Allegations regarding UK Cheerleading Team was finalized on May 17. This document summarizes the investigation conducted by the Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity, which in the course of its interviews found information that falls under the authority of the Office of Student Conduct and Office of Internal Audit.
The report said that not all of the allegations brought forth by the reporting party were proven.
“These include that some team members were touched in a sexual manner without their consent, that male team members compared sizes of their genitalia, and that students were forced to engage in oral sex,” said the report. “There were no individuals who confirmed any of these allegations.”
The main focus of the report was if coaches knew about the activities that were confirmed by cheerleader interviews: topless or bottom-less basket tosses at the team retreat and nudity on boats provided by alumni.
The reports conclude that there is insufficient evidence that coaches knew or should have known about the initiation chant at the UCA camp and nudity on boats at the retreat, but that they knew or should have reasonably known about the nude basket tosses.
The recommendation that the coaching staff be fired came from this report.
“The weight of the information provided is sufficient to establish that the coaching staff were aware or reasonably should have been aware that team members were engaging in nudity while at a team activity and did not take action to prevent that activity from occurring,” concluded the document.
In their interviews, three of the coaching staff admitted that they knew of basket tosses; two coaches and the adviser indicated they knew of topless or bottom-less basket tosses.
Thompson and Head both told team members not to engage in alcohol use or the lewd chant in a way that coaches would be aware of it.
Williamson witnessed topless basket tosses at a previous year’s retreat: he “realized that the female cheerleaders were taking off their tops before they were thrown and that the male cheerleaders were throwing their tops to them in the lake.” In his interview, Williamson said he did not report the incident because “he wanted to believe it didn’t happen.”
In regards to public nudity on boats, “Institutional Equity was able to corroborate that three team members saw individuals naked on a boat, three other team members had heard about it.”
The Student Conduct report was finalized on May 18 and tracks the investigation done by the Office of Student Conduct. This document includes statements from 54 witnesses interviewed by the Office of Student Conduct or OIEEO.
This report was the basis of the details used to corroborate the allegations made by the initial reporting party. The content of the witness interviews was used in the final summary report from both the OOIEEO and Office of Student Conduct to make general statements about what had happened at the team events.
The “policy discussions and findings” section of the report explained the administrative regulations that applied to the team and to the hazing behavior.
The cheer team, though a sponsored organization of the athletics department, is the equivalent of registered student organization because it “has used UK’s campus facilities, represented UK in official events, and has received financial resources from the University,” according to the Student Conduct report.
The team retreat and UCA camp qualified as university events because they were “aided, approved, sponsored, or supervised by UK or a Registered Student Organization.”
As such, alcohol consumption at these events was in violation of administrative regulation 6:4, which limits alcohol consumption.
The hazing behavior fell under the student code of conduct because it met six guidelines for association with the cheer team: the conduct was planned by members of the organization, happened during an activity paid for by the organization, happened on property owned or used by the organization for an event and the members attempted to conceal the activity, which was related to activity was related to “initiation, admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership.”
Four witnesses said that the toast used to have another element, called the roast, which featured jokes and insults about former cheerleaders.
Witnesses said the roast tradition stopped after one joke didn’t go over well and feelings were hurt.
“Coaches said this is ridiculous, shouldn’t be done. Not a tradition. Didn’t want anyone feeling like they were being bullied. Happened at end of camp,” said one witness.
Witnesses said that in 2019, Jomo told the team no more roasts.
In interviews, cheerleaders confirmed drinking during the UCA camp.
“Just the night of the chant for the majority of us,” said one witness. “It was pretty loud that night so the coaches caught on. The next night they had to be quieter to avoid trouble with the coaches.”
Alcohol on the boats at the retreat was provided by alumni – “the older cheerleaders were getting in the cooler. Available for anybody. Did drink on the boat- no idea if all people drank,” said one statement.
Alcohol consumption at the retreat was “confirmed to happen at least the last four fall semesters by older members of the team.”
Four witnesses said cheerleaders brought or planned to bring secret drinks in their bags.
One witness said “a lot of things happen without coaches’ knowledge.” That witness said that in their first three years, skinny dipping occurred on the team retreat, but they weren’t aware of it happening in 2019.
Off campus parties happen “once or twice a month” and were more common for people under 21, said a witness statement in the report.
Witnesses agreed that alcohol was mostly supplied by upperclassmen, but that a group collection might be taken up for money to buy supplies.
University of Kentucky Cheerleader Program Report and Recommendations was finalized on May 17 and complied the results of the OIEEO and Office of Student Conduct reports.
This report grants a general overview of the investigation, beginning with the initial complaint.
Cheerleaders were told before the retreat that it was a no-alcohol, university-sponsored trip.
“At least 15 team members indicated they believed the coaches were watching the basket-tosses occur.”
Thompson said he told the cheerleaders that they could not drink on the boats, even if they were of legal drinking age.
“Thompson stated that if he caught a team member bringing alcohol to these events in prior years, he punished them by making them run or suspending them from a game or two.”
He said he later learned, after one running punishment, not to use physical workouts in response to misconduct.