One after another, a dozen young cheerleaders raced across a springy blue mat and flung themselves into a series of roundoffs and backflips, the thump of their hands and feet reverberating through the open Ohio gym. Mishelle Robinson, the gym owner and coach, called out instructions across the cavernous warehouse.
Photos of beaming athletes and a line of golden trophies adorned the walls. Among a row of banners, one emblazoned with the acronym USASF denoted the gym’s membership in the U.S. All Star Federation, the national organization that oversees the high-stakes world of competitive cheerleading. USASF’s extensive rules cover everything from stunt safety to hair bows, which “should not be excessive in size.”
But its rules didn’t stop someone with Robinson’s criminal record from owning a member gym.
The 44-year-old is a convicted felon – who opened a gym sanctioned by USASF while she was on Ohio’s sex offender registry.
A USA TODAY investigation found others who continued working in cheerleading despite charges or convictions for sexual misconduct involving minors.
Kale Dunlap, who pleaded guilty to online solicitation of a minor and faces sexual assault charges, kept coaching and cheering in USASF gyms after being indicted.
Patrick Avard was convicted in 2003 of two misdemeanors for exchanging explicit photos with a teenage girl, but he remains one of the sport’s most sought-after music producers.
And Ricky Despain remained in cheerleading even after his conviction in 2008 for abusing two girls at his Virginia gym landed him on the sex offender registry. Until this year, Despain owned a gym that has been sanctioned by USASF, despite a Houston Press article in 2015 that highlighted his past and a complaint in January 2019 provided to USASF.
Karrah Pope, whom Despain was convicted of inappropriately touching when she was 14, said she stopped cheering competitively because she worried about seeing him at events. Because he kept the sport, she lost it.
“I would think that they would want to put their athletes’ safety obviously as a top priority,” said Pope, 28. “And that clearly was not happening when a registered sex offender was allowed to be there and own a cheerleading organization still.”
USA TODAY identified nearly 180 individuals affiliated with cheerleading who have faced charges relating to sexual misconduct involving minors but were not banned by the sport’s two governing bodies, USASF and USA Cheer. More than 140 of them – a group that includes coaches, choreographers and others directly tied to the activity – have been convicted, and 74 are registered sex offenders.
Click here to read the rest of the USA Today story.