Courts

Attorney for U.S. Olympic Gymnasts Warns of 'Epidemic of Sexual Abuse' in Cheerleading

A lawyer representing sexual abuse survivors from the U.S. olympic gymnastics team says Jerry Harris is the tip of the iceberg.
A lawyer representing sexual abuse survivors from the U.S. olympic gymnastics team says Jerry Harris is the tip of the iceberg. Netflix
Nothing about Jerry Harris’ fall from Netflix superstardom to pleading guilty to sexually abusing minors on Thursday came as a surprise to attorney Michelle Tuegel.

The Dallas-based attorney represented several athletes from the U.S. national gymnastics team in legal actions against the United States Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, seeking justice for sexual abuse committed by the former doctor for the olympic team.

When Harris pled guilty earlier this week, Tuegel couldn’t help but note how closely abuse in cheerleading mirrored abuse in gymnastics.

As Navarro College’s cheer team gained national fame following the 2020 release of Cheer’s first season, Jerry Harris’ charisma and athletic talent stood out. He was a featured guest on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. He soaked up camera time on and off the show, even earning a guest seat at the 2020 Oscars.

In the years before his rise to national stardom, Harris had been coercing underage boys he met at cheer events into sending him explicit photos and videos, he admitted Thursday.

Harris, 21, started making a lot of money as a national TV figure. He used his newfound dough to coerce more underage boys into sending him sexually explicit photos and videos, prosecutors said in court documents.

Tuegel is now working with survivors of alleged child sexual abuse committed by a longtime coach at a North Texas cheerleading gym with deep ties to the Netflix series.

“Jerry Harris preyed on young athletes who trusted him as a mentor in a sport that continuously failed to protect them,” Tuegel told the Observer.

Abuse of trust within mentor-athlete relationships allowed Jason McCartney — who has coached competitive cheerleading at the North Texas-based private cheerleading gym Cheer Athletics for over two decades — to commit sexually violent acts on a routine basis against multiple underage victims, court documents allege.

“It is evident that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse in cheerleading that needs to be both acknowledged and rooted out.” Michelle Simpson Tuegel

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In a lawsuit filed late last month, Carrie Methvin, a former family friend of McCartney’s, accused him of using his “unfettered access to young children over the course of the past two decades” to sexually abuse her and many other underage athletes.

The suit isn’t the first legal action accusing McCartney of child sexual abuse: four North Texas women filed suit against the longtime cheer coach in December 2021, alleging years of abuse committed under the guise of coaching.

Cheer Athletics is one of the U.S.’ premier competitive cheerleading clubs. It operates training facilities across the country, from Rochester, New York, to Denver, Colorado. The club was founded in Plano in 1994 and maintains facilities in Dallas, Frisco and Austin.

Former U.S. olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar received multiple life sentences in 2017 for abusing hundreds of underage athletes. The abuse occurred over the course of a decades-long post as a doctor for the olympic team and Michigan State’s collegiate team.

Tuegel, who worked with multiple survivors of Nassar’s abuse, indicated that the scope of abuse in competitive cheerleading is comparable to what survivors uncovered in gymnastics.

“It is evident that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse in cheerleading that needs to be both acknowledged and rooted out,” she said following Harris’ guilty plea.

“I hope his guilty plea starts a movement of abusers taking responsibility and being held accountable for their despicable actions,” Tuegel added.
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Michael Murney is a staff writer at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney