Northwestern University senior Hayden Richardson loves being a cheerleader—the catchy chants, the competitions, and especially the gravity-defying stunts. But in a new lawsuit obtained by ELLE.com, Richardson reveals a darker side to her collegiate cheer career. The 22-year-old senior alleges she has been “treated like a sex object,” both at fundraising events and tailgates, and encouraged to act like a “temptress and courtesan” for rich donors. A Northwestern representative denies her allegations, telling ELLE.com the school “reviewed the complaint and denies that Northwestern violated any law, including Title IX.”
Below, Richardson talks about the sexual harassment detailed in her lawsuit and how she’s working to protect herself—and her teammates.
Before games, a group of us are selected to entertain powerful donors—the ones that fund the majority of Northwestern’s athletics programs. Our job, we are told, is to improve their experience, to be a “pop of color.”
We perform alongside the school marching band, shaking our pom poms and dancing near donor tables. We stay long after the band leaves to mingle and chat and smile for photos. It is not unusual to feel someone’s hand slip from the back of your uniform to below your waist.
The phrase “sex kitten” isn’t too far off to describe how cheerleaders can be treated. Too often, we are brought in to be ogled at, to sexually please and excite. But it’s hard to be peppy when your butt gets squeezed without your permission.
I had a choice to make: Quit my team and move on, or make sure my experiences were not invalidated—and potentially protect other cheerleaders. I knew what I needed to do.
I’m very competitive, always have been. I grew up doing gymnastics and switched to cheerleading in high school, joining both the pom-squad and an elite all-star club team. I love to flip, which is on-the-ground tumbling, and stunt, which is when you get thrown up in the air.
Picture this: A formation of cheerleaders on the ground holding people up. I’m usually the one on the ground, which is called a base. Here’s my unpopular opinion: I love being a base. It’s hard work that requires constant communication with the other person. You get really close, really fast.
My cheer teammates were some of my best friends growing up. We were weird and silly, never not giggling or sneaking snacks out of our backpacks. And don’t even ask me to count the number of sweaty selfies we took after practice.
Getting into Northwestern was a dream come true, and making the cheer team was like the cherry on top. When I arrived on campus for pre-season practices, we went through a rigorous athletic physical test, including an EKG test. My heart had always beat really fast, but the test revealed that I have an electrical heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.
I sat out our first five practices in preparation for heart surgery. It was terrifying, but God really aligned the stars in a way I never could have imagined. If I hadn’t taken that test, I could have literally passed out and died at any time.
Joining the cheer team saved my life—but it also made my life more complicated than I could have ever expected.
Our coach warned us that creepy fans might give us a hard time before games, but I didn’t understand what she meant until I experienced it first hand. We were told to walk around parking lot tailgates and stop at tents to say hello and take pictures. It wasn’t unusual for drunk men to put their hands on us or to pick us up without our permission, even when we told them no. We were offered cocaine and alcohol. It was not normal.
My coach’s advice? Shrug it off and say, “Go Cats!” But that didn’t sit right with me. When someone is creepy, aren’t you supposed to run away? Tell them to stop? Say something?
At one football open-bar party, we were instructed to mingle with fans. It was claustrophobic and men were grabbing at us. One guy spilled beer all over my pom poms. It wasn’t a safe setting. It was like these men thought: “Here are some small, vulnerable cheerleaders, and I’m going to be sexually inappropriate.”
My teammates were angry, but not angry enough to confront our coach about it. There was a lot of pissing and moaning, but why complain if you’re not going to do anything?
I went to my coach first, and suggested we rethink how we approach tailgating. That was dismissed. So I went to school administration and said, “We can’t allow this to continue.”
Two years passed and nothing happened. The bad behavior continued, and we were still at risk. I became anxious, stressed, and depressed. Not only was I dealing with my own trauma and invalidation because it felt like no one was listening, but teammates had started to entrust me with their own stories of harassment. All that, plus schoolwork.
When people ask, “Why didn’t you just quit the team?” I tell them that I could not have quit in good conscious quit, and been like, “I’m safe now!”
I will be replaced by a freshman when I graduate, and then what happens? Good luck to her? Hope she can deal with it?
Sexual harassment is a pervasive issue in any space women occupy. It’s especially predominant in cheerleading, because the institutions that want to have these programs, that benefit off of them, don’t do anything to protect their cheerleaders. The programs are not designed to protect athletes, they’re there to make money.
Some of my teammates have been very supportive in my journey to hold people accountable, but there’s still a lot of fear. I don’t blame them. This is a systemic problem. I’m scared, too, but ultimately I know what I’m doing has the potential to protect so many other women.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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