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The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern cheerleaders allege unsafe conditions, unfair expectations

Daily file photo by Maia Pandey
Northwestern cheer performs at a women’s basketball game against Penn in November 2022. Cheerleaders alleged safety concerns, a culture of body shaming and a lack of support from the athletic department to The Daily.

Content warning: this story contains mentions of sexual harassment and body dysmorphia. 

Cheerleader Nora Smith was performing in the stands at a winter 2023 Northwestern basketball game when she said a fan made a sexually explicit comment toward her. 

Smith said she immediately told Valerie Ruiz, head cheerleading coach and spirit squad director, who Smith said asked what the fan looked like and promised to get security involved. Smith said she never received any further information on the incident. 

“At the next game, I was still expected to go into the stands and perform in the place where I was harassed,” Smith said. “There was never a consideration of my mental well-being. There also was never a broader conversation of if performing in the stands was safe or even necessary.” 

Smith is among four current and former NU cheerleaders who alleged safety concerns and a culture of body shaming within the program to The Daily. All four cheerleaders are referenced using pseudonyms due to fear of retribution. 

These allegations come just two years after former cheerleader Hayden Richardson filed a federal lawsuit against the University in 2021, alleging repeated instances of sexual harassment as a cheerleader. The Daily also reported on cheerleaders’ allegations of racism and sexual harassment in the wake of the lawsuit. The suit is ongoing.

It has been three years since the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance investigated former cheer coach Pamela Bonnevier, who did not comment on The Daily’s 2021 report about the investigation and her subsequent firing. Now, the office is now looking into  current and former cheerleaders’ complaints concerning Ruiz’s –– the team’s current coach ––  behavior. 

A July 2023 Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance email obtained by The Daily states the office was notified about concerns about Ruiz’s behavior in regard to “discrimination and/or harassment on the basis of protected class as well as unwanted physical contact.”

The University did not respond to multiple requests from The Daily asking for comment from Ruiz. When reached by text message, Ruiz told The Daily that all media inquiries must be sent to Jon Yates, vice president of global marketing and communications, or athletic communications. She did not comment on any of the allegations detailed in this article. 

Cheerleaders said problems still plague the program despite recent personnel changes. 

Safety concerns at practice

Cheerleaders sign an annual contract stating they will comply with team guidelines for game day, practices and other events. The 2021-22 and 2022-2023 contracts state that an athletic trainer will be present at any practice where team members stunt.

Former cheerleader Mia Lee, who was on the Spirit Squad from 2020-23, said cheerleaders made it a point they wouldn’t stunt without a trainer present. 

However, that rule wasn’t followed, according to several cheerleaders who spoke with The Daily. Associate athletic trainer Gia Dougherty, the Spirit Squad’s trainer, also works with cross country. When she travels with the cross country team, cheerleaders said, there isn’t consistently a substitute trainer for the Spirit Squad. 

Multiple team members alleged that Ruiz has run stunts without a trainer present. Cheerleader Emma Ranger said Ruiz will sometimes insist on hitting stunts or skills before practice ends, regardless of whether a trainer is nearby. 

“Safety is important to us as cheerleaders, but doesn’t seem to be very important to her as a coach,” Ranger said. 

At a meeting held in September 2022, a concussion specialist told cheerleaders they had the highest number of concussions of any Northwestern athletic program in the 2021-22 school year, two cheerleaders told The Daily.

Smith was concussed early in the 2022 season when she was elbowed in the head by a flyer who was new to stunting. She said she thinks safety concerns arise from Ruiz misunderstanding the team’s skill level. Some cheerleaders are new to the sport and have never stunted before, Smith said, but she alleged Ruiz pushes the team to perform “elite college level stunts.” 

One of those stunts is a two-and-a-half-high pyramid, which features two women at the base, two women on top of their shoulders and a flyer on top. Smith said she had never been a flyer before Ruiz asked her to perform the stunt in the fall of 2022. 

“I just thought (it) was really dangerous,” Smith said. “As a new flyer, you shouldn’t be forced to do one of the hardest stunts there is in cheerleading.”

Two cheerleaders also alleged there is pressure to not miss practice due to illness or injury. A handbook linked in the 2022-23 cheer handbook states that coaches and staff members cannot place pressure on the medical staff in regard to returning to participation after injury or illness, but says nothing about advising individual team members. 

Ranger said Ruiz will also sometimes retaliate against athletes who can’t make practice due to illness. 

“The next practice, she’ll make passive aggressive comments, which can be really aggravating because people actually are sick,” Ranger said. 

Game day concerns

Safety concerns persist on game days, according to cheerleaders. Some detailed a particularly chaotic environment prior to football and basketball games, where stunts are often practiced last-minute with no spotters and trainers.

Lee said she was repeatedly told to practice new stunts in the hours before basketball and football games. These practice stunts were typically performed on the basketball court at the Trienens Performance Center or turf field without the cushioning of a mat. Multiple cheerleaders confirmed to The Daily that team members took hard falls on those surfaces prior to games. 

Several cheerleaders said there has been confusion about what to do when cheerleaders are injured at basketball or football games. Lee was kicked in the nose during a basketball game, but there was no trainer associated with the Spirit Squad present, she said. She added when she sought out the basketball team’s trainer, she was told they couldn’t help her. After Lee complained, a sports physician was brought out to examine her. 

“I made a big fuss because I was like, ‘This is ridiculous — that I have to advocate this much for myself just to get seen by someone,’” Lee said.

Multiple cheerleaders said fans have harassed team members at basketball and football games. Lee said cheering in the stands filled with the opposing team’s fans made her feel particularly uncomfortable. 

Basketball games are fast-paced environments and team members are given changes to adopt at the “drop of a dime,” current cheerleader Maya Samuels said. She alleges Ruiz once “aggressively” grabbed a teammate’s shoulders when trying to explain a change during a game.

Smith also alleged Ruiz has touched her and other cheerleaders without permission. Once, Ruiz approached her at a basketball game, said her skirt was too short and tugged it down, Smith said.

An alleged culture of body shaming

Multiple cheerleaders said Ruiz made comments about the size of their uniforms.

Uniforms are handed out publicly, Lee said, and she has frequently seen comments about how they fit made in front of the whole team. For example, Lee said she saw a cheerleader singled out as the only team member who couldn’t fit into one of the uniforms. It left the teammate feeling “really upset,” Lee said. 

Smith said many of the team’s uniforms are hand-me-downs and not size inclusive, but said Ruiz has never addressed that.

“She’ll make comments like, ‘Well, we can’t wear this uniform because not everyone fits,’” Smith said. “That makes people who can’t fit into the uniform feel sh—y. I feel the adult, mature thing to say is (is), ‘We don’t (have) enough sizes and it’s unfortunate they don’t make a larger amount of sizes,’ instead of blaming it on the people who can’t fit.” 

Multiple cheerleaders also said the team was required to line up by size rather than height during the 2023 preseason –– a change from previous seasons. Cheerleaders also told The Daily they thought  some photos posted to the team’s Instagram during the 2021 season photoshopped cheerleaders’ appearances. 

The Daily obtained copies of multiple original versions of photos posted to the team’s Instagram account. One Instagram post featuring a Black cheerleader appeared to use a filter that lightened her skin tone. Lee was depicted in one of the photos, with her hips and thighs allegedly photoshopped to look slimmer. Multiple cheerleaders said Ruiz runs the team’s Instagram. 

Lee said she spoke to Ruiz about the post that she alleges made her look smaller. Ruiz claimed the photo was compressed and said she had no idea what happened, according to Lee. This upset Lee, who said she felt Ruiz did not take accountability. 

Existing in a “gray area”

A fridge full of protein shakes and Gatorade sits next to a snack bar in the training room where the Spirit Squad practices at the Trienens Performance Center. There’s also a sign saying these items are for student-athletes only, meaning the Spirit Squad can’t access them.

It always stood out to Lee, who felt it was “kind of crazy” the team couldn’t access the food despite using the space frequently. The team has access to a mini-fridge in their locker room in Welsh-Ryan Arena, however -–- a trip which Lee said takes five to seven minutes to reach during “valuable” practice time. 

Since NU cheer is not a varsity sport, they do not have access to student-athlete amenities like specialized academic advisors or the athlete dining hall. But the team’s practice requirements of up to 15 hours per week and, in the winter, cheering at multiple games a week goes beyond typical NU extracurriculars’ time commitments. 

Prior to winter quarter 2023, the program was split into two “Purple” and “White” squads who would cheer at alternating basketball games. During the 2022-23 basketball season, Ruiz decided to dissolve the two halves and make all of the cheerleaders go to every men’s and women’s basketball home game. During some weeks of the season, cheerleaders said they would have to attend three home basketball games. 

Multiple cheerleaders said this was an unexpected change.

“We were all staying up late, because if the game ends at 10, we’re staying up until 2 a.m. doing work,” Ranger said. “Then we’re back at 7 a.m. to do our morning lift.”

Multiple cheerleaders said they struggled with their grades and mental health after the dissolution of the Purple and White squads. Smith said it was the worst her mental health has ever been, with all of her time either spent at cheer activities or studying. 

But, some cheerleaders said the program’s nature makes it hard to access certain supports designated only for athletes. The program exists in a “gray area,” Lee said, sometimes getting resources from the athletic department and other times not. 

Several cheerleaders said this has been especially challenging. 

“(Athletes) get a lot of support in general,” Samuels said. “We don’t really have that type of support. When you dedicate two hours every day for cheer and then you don’t have enough time to work, you’re expected to know how to manage it yourself.”

Overlooked by administration

Cheerleaders told The Daily they have brought these allegations to athletic administration in both individual and group meetings, but feel there has not been an adequate response. 

“Whenever we try to bring stuff up, it’s swept under the rug,” Smith said. 

The Office of the Ombudsperson worked with the team in spring 2022, facilitating conversations between cheerleaders, Ruiz and Athletics chief of staff and deputy director Monique Holland, about getting more resources for the Spirit Squad, Lee said. 

But an April 2022 email from University Ombudsperson Sarah Klaper to cheerleaders and reviewed by The Daily stated what they already knew: The lack of varsity status means they cannot access specialized academic advisors, priority registration and the athlete dining hall, among other benefits. 

Cheerleaders said these rules are obstacles to making complaints and getting more resources. The 2022-23 handbook states that any concerns over treatment from coaches, fans or staff should be brought to the NU Athletics chief of staff: Holland. 

Lee said she has met with Holland, but felt Holland did not offer solutions to her concerns. Some cheerleaders said they feel Holland is aligned with Ruiz, who is the subject of several of their complaints. 

The University did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Holland.

The Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance first reached out to cheerleaders about responding to complaints about Ruiz’s behavior in early July. The office provided cheerleaders the opportunity to meet with case managers and sent them information about the University’s policies on discrimination and harassment, according to emails obtained by The Daily from July 2023. 

Yates said in a statement to The Daily that the University has reviewed the allegations. He said the Athletics Department took the appropriate action while maintaining communication with the Spirit Squad, and the University encourages students with concerns to contact NU through its reporting mechanisms.

Two cheerleaders who spoke to the office said they last heard from the office on Aug. 9, in an email where they said the information they provided the office about Ruiz was still being reviewed. 

NU cheerleaders are repeating history from 2020 as they assist with an Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance with a case and struggle to feel supported by the University. After years of tumult, they told The Daily they are ready to be respected –– and for a new chapter. 

“(NU Athletics) need to take what we’re saying seriously and actually take action instead of just filing a complaint… letting (Ruiz) stay and do whatever she wants,” Ranger said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the required athletic personnel at practice. The 2022-2023 contract requires a trainer to be present. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charvarnes11

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