LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) - The University of Kentucky on Monday announced the firing of the cheerleading coaching staff following a lengthy investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior by members of the program.
The three-month examination found the coaching staff and administrative advisor failed to provide reasonable oversight during off-campus events, where alleged conduct by members of the cheerleading squad included hazing activities, alcohol use and public nudity.
In response, UK dismissed all four cheerleading coaches from the program: Head coach Jomo Thompson and assistant coaches Ben Head, Spencer Clan and Kelsey LaCroix.
Another finding was lax oversight and poor judgment by T. Lynn Williamson, who served as the cheerleading program’s advisor for four decades. Williamson, whose primary university job was principal deputy general counsel, retired days after learning of the investigation and being directed to have no contact with the cheerleading squad.
The investigation also uncovered potential conflicts of interest for two members of the coaching staff who ran gymnastics businesses that employed members of the cheerleading squad and the advisor, who hired students and coaches to perform work at his home. The Office of Internal Audit is reviewing these and other financial practices of the cheerleading squad.
“The advisor 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 N. Monday, UK’s executive vice president for finance and administration. “Our students deserve more responsible leadership and the University of Kentucky demands it.”
Monday said the investigation began in early February after a call from a family member of a cheerleader alleging inappropriate conduct by squad members and inadequate oversight by coaches during off-campus trips.
The three-month process included interviews with more than 60 students, coaches and administrators in the cheerleading program. UK Provost David W. Blackwell said the review found:
--Coaches knew or reasonably should have known of inappropriate conduct by cheerleaders and failed to take sufficient steps to address the conduct.
--During a team retreat at Lake Cumberland, some cheerleaders performed gymnastics routines that including hurling their teammates from a dock into the water while either topless or bottomless. The routines, known as “basket tosses,” were done at the direction of other members of the squad and within the view of at least some of the coaches.
--Coaches allowed cheerleading alumni to bring boats and alcohol to the retreat, where some cheerleaders were partially naked and/or drinking while riding on boats.
--Coaches did not confiscate alcohol brought to the retreat by some squad members or intervene to stop students from consuming alcohol. Several squad members became so intoxicated they required medical treatment.
--During a cheerleading camp in Tennessee, some cheerleaders were directed by other members of the squad to perform lewd chants and wear outfits that did not include underwear.
The investigation found no evidence of sexual assault or sexual misconduct during these trips.
“A commitment we make and renew every day at the University of Kentucky is that the success of our students is at the center of everything that we do,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “But for that sentiment to be more than words, we must always act in ways that honor that commitment, especially when we discover rare instances where those who supervise and guide our students don’t meet the standards of integrity we expect of each other. This is one of those times.
“The University of Kentucky has built the nation’s premier collegiate cheerleading program. But regrettably, the integrity of the program has been compromised by inappropriate behavior by some squad members on off-campus trips and by lax oversight by the program’s coaches and advisor.”
Monday said he has assigned oversight of the cheerleading program to University of Kentucky Athletics to provide more rigorous control and accountability.
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart made the decision to discharge the cheerleading head coach and remove the assistant coaches from any association with the program consistent with the conclusions of multiple reports, including those by the Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity, by the Office of Student Conduct, and a jointly authored report that included input from an expert outside UK with expertise in employment law.
Barnhart has directed Sandy Bell, executive associate athletics director to lead the program, including the hiring of a new coaching staff. A national search will be conducted for a new coach.
“This must be a championship-level program both on and off the court and playing fields,” Barnhart said. “And as with all our sports, that will be our goal, every day.”
UK’s cheerleading program has won 24 national championships in the past 35 years and developed hundreds of outstanding students.
Athletics officials are meeting Monday with current members of the current squad to share the news and discuss the timeline for hiring and tryouts. They will immediately begin the national search for a new head coach, who will be part of the selection of assistant coaches and the 2020-21 team members this summer.