UK Cheerleaders blast university's decision, defend coaches and program's reputation

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On Monday morning, the University of Kentucky fired the entire coaching staff of its 24-time champion cheerleading program following a three-month investigation into allegations of hazing, alcohol use, and nudity at off-campus events. The bombshell report left the UK Cheer community reeling, with current and former team members taking to social media to defend the coaches and the program’s reputation. Four agreed to speak to Kentucky Sports Radio about the allegations, two with request for anonymity.

One of the cheerleaders is a current team member who was caught drinking at the team’s now infamous annual retreat at Lake Cumberland. He asked not to have his named shared but shouldered the blame for the firing of head coach Jomo Thompson and assistant Coaches Spencer Clan, Ben Head, and Kelsey LaCroix, along with longtime advisor T. Lynn Williamson’s decision to retire days after learning about the investigation.

“Blame me, not them,” he wrote to KSR. “The actions that I made as an immature college kid cost the University of Kentucky Cheerleading program its reputation, gave fuel to its detractors, and forever changed the lives of five wonderful people that I dearly love and respect.”

“Painful,” Tony Holubik, who cheered at UK from 2009-2013, said of the news. “It is genuinely not a headline I thought I would ever see.”

“My initial reaction to the allegations of hazing was shock,” another former cheerleader who asked to remain anonymous said. “There was not a single hazing act or peer pressure event within my four years as a Kentucky Cheerleader. I felt like I got punched in the stomach when I heard that the coaching staff and people I call friends have been dismissed from the program.”

“Sadness,” Mason Levy, a UK Cheerleader from 2009-12 said. “The ramifications of the story in general are, yes, a coaching staff got fired but they just took a program that might be one of the most tradition-rich sports programs in the world and put black marks on it, I think, very unfairly.”

Yesterday, as a show of support for the program and coaching staff, UK Cheer alumni across the country ran the “Seaton Mile,” named for the Seaton Center where the team trains and the mile they had to run before each practice. On “Tony and Dwight” on 840 WHAS this morning, former UK cheerleader and prominent Louisville attorney TJ Smith told Tony Vanetti that over 750 former cheerleaders are preparing a statement in support of Thompson and Williamson that will be released as early as tomorrow. The UK Cheer community is doing this not only to clear the coaching staff’s names and the program’s reputation, which have been drug through the mud this week with salacious headlines, but to also send a message to the university.

“A couple of allegations and misdirection of intention just put a pretty big dark spot on this entire thing,” Levy said. “It’s sad to think that the program that was the pinnacle, that was the Olympic team for the sport, literally. It’s going to be detrimental for a lot of people even outside of the program.”


A Culture of “Absolute Responsibility”

UK’s investigation into the cheerleading program began in early February after a cheerleader’s mother claimed team members were encouraged to go topless while drinking on a boat at a retreat and forced to sing a lewd chant while at a camp in Tennessee — sometimes while naked — in the presence of Thompson and Williamson. After conducting interviews with more than 60 students, coaches, and administrators, UK found some of these allegations to be false, such as Thompson and Williamson being present during the chants at the camp in Tennessee; however, they did conclude that the coaches failed to take sufficient steps to prevent inappropriate conduct, which resulted in their terminations.

Each cheerleader we spoke to was stunned by the report’s findings and the university’s decision because one of the pillars of Jomo Thompson’s program was “absolute responsibility.” The philosophy is taught to new members at the start of each retreat, and is such an integral part of the program that former members still use it as a guiding principal in their lives.

The “Absolute Responsibility” document Thompson shared with his players (via Mason Levy)

“It pretty much says that what happened yesterday happened and what happens tomorrow isn’t here yet, so you need to focus on today and what you can be accountable for and what you can change,” Levy said. “And what you can do today is what matters and you can’t blame external circumstances.”

“It’s about taking accountability for your own actions,” Holubik, who has the document hanging in his office, said. “That’s what sets this program apart from other cheerleading programs in my eyes. I’ve been involved with some others and they’re the only ones that really teach and drive home the point that it’s not just cheerleading; it is so much more. They’re working to develop people who aren’t satisfied with the status quo, who want to be the absolute best they can be and lift up and support others along the way. And the way that it’s been portrayed in the last 24 hours, it genuinely hurts because those are not accurate representations of the people I know.”


“They never looked the other way”

UK’s report concluded that although Thompson told cheerleaders not to bring alcohol to off-campus events or partake with alumni who brought alcohol to retreats in their own boats, he still did not take sufficient steps to oversee their conduct and safety. Each team member we spoke with recalled lengthy speeches from Thompson and Williamson about not drinking at these events and the punishments that would occur if they did. Cheerleaders who were of legal drinking age didn’t even get the green light to drink at team functions because Thompson believed it would reflect poorly on the program.

“One thing was made clear: no drugs or alcohol are permitted on the trip,” the current UK cheerleader who was caught drinking at the Lake Cumberland retreat said. “Being the smart guy in the room, [I thought] that didn’t apply to me.”

Once the cheerleader was caught drunk, the coaching staff was “livid” and made the entire team run for breaking their trust.

“I don’t think I wanted to look at my alcohol after that,” he said.

“Before each outing and getaway, we were always instructed to not bring alcohol,” a former cheerleader said. “If any of us were caught with alcohol or drinking alcohol during these events, we were made to run until the coaching staff figured out a suitable and fair punishment.”

Holubik, who once had to run a 5K for showing up to a game with a 5 o’clock shadow, recalled strict punishments for those who broke the rules, including dismissal from the team.

“The upfront warning was very stern and it was well known what you were risking by engaging in behavior like that. And people did get caught. There are instances of people being removed from the team over alcohol related abuse or offenses.”

In UK’s report, several team members interpreted Thompson’s punishment of running as not being for drinking, but for being so indiscreet about the drinking that they got caught. Thompson’s former cheerleaders can’t imagine that was the case.

“No,” a former cheerleader said of whether or not coaches purposefully ignored alcohol use at off-campus events. “They never looked the other way. They always made it clear to be representatives of the University of Kentucky. Behavior with alcohol is not tolerated.”

“What’s been reported makes it sound rampant and that there are situations in which the coaches were turning a blind eye to it and there was this soft, laissez-faire attitude to it and that was not the case at all,” Holubik said.

“Did Jomo and T. Lynn warn us of not doing things we shouldn’t be doing while we were there?” Levy said. “We always knew that when we were in uniform or on a Kentucky Cheerleading trip, it was business. It was professional and sometimes you have to learn those lessons, what that means. People got punished regularly while I was there for not doing things the way that they should be doing them, whether that be not going to class or study halls, whatever it might been, so it was always very clear what we should and shouldn’t be doing.”

The UK cheerleader caught drinking at the retreat admitted he also got around bag checks at the UCA camp by purchasing alcohol from a nearby liquor store and that he and his teammates would regularly skirt the rules at the Lake Cumberland retreat by putting booze in Gatorade or water bottles. The UK investigation found that alumni would routinely bring their own boats or rent them for the retreat and stock them with booze, specifically beer, wine coolers, Jello shots, and White Claws. Current team members went on record saying that this happened, and that even though Thompson was adamant about not seeing alcohol at the retreat, some coaches were on the alumni boats.

“We had two alumni bring boats down to go tubing,” the current cheerleader said. “The alumni may have provided a couple of beers, but do two boats supply enough alcohol for 50 to 60 cheerleaders? I cannot attest to allegations on every boat ride because I couldn’t be on both boats and the dock.”

Holubik said no alumni were present at the retreats during his time at UK, while another cheerleader said if these events occurred during while he was at UK, the coaching staff had no knowledge.

“If there was alcohol brought by alumni on the boats, the coaches most likely were kept in the dark about it.”


The Lake Cumberland Basket Tosses

The most headline-grabbing claim in the report is that some UK cheerleaders participated in topless (female) and bottomless (male) basket tosses during the retreat at Lake Cumberland. Through UK’s investigation, two team members said they performed basket tosses while topless; eleven said they observed a topless or bottomless basket toss during their time on the team; seven said they had not witnessed it but knew it occurred; and several said the coaches were watching while they happened, although Thompson was not part of that group. Assistant Coach Kelsey LaCroix stated she witnessed topless basket tosses at the 2019 retreat. On yesterday’s radio show, Kyle Steele, a cheerleader who recently graduated, admitted that it happened at the retreat, but purposefully when coaches were not around.

“To my recollection, no coach was present,” the current UK cheerleader told us. “I’m not sure why, but some did remove articles of clothing. That seems painful to me, but it was their decision. Out of the 50 to 60 cheerleaders I only remember four removing any clothing. It was a horrible decision that I should have stopped. I am an adult and my actions should reflect that.”

“I don’t think I can [recall a topless or bottomless basket toss],” Holubik said. “I say that with this caveat in mind; I absolutely heard about it happening either before I was in the program or, ‘Oh yeah, this is a thing that happened last year or another time.'”

Basket tosses into the water are a tradition at the retreat. Members of the current squad have posted videos of themselves performing the stunt while wearing bathing suits as proof not everyone was pressured into taking clothes off.

https://twitter.com/alanabcopas/status/1262515646220419075

UK’s report said the cheerleaders who removed their clothing for the basket tosses did so voluntarily or through peer pressure. All of the cheerleaders we spoke to said they never encountered peer pressure or hazing during their time at Kentucky while acknowledging that the distinction is in the eye of the beholder.

“In my four years in the program, there was never a single case of peer pressure or forcing anyone to do something they did not want to do,” a former cheerleader said. “We are built up as a family and hold each other accountable for any short comings. Peer pressure was never a thing within the Kentucky Cheerleading program.”


“Hazing”

Interestingly, while the Lake Cumberland antics may grab more headlines, the allegations of hazing center around a chant that’s been around the cheerleading program since the 1970s. In its report, the UK Office of Student Conduct said new team members were asked to recite the chant at the UCA camp and the “lyrics that were discomforting enough that members were uncomfortable sharing details with investigators.” Female team members were sent to one room and male team members to another. In the men’s room, the lights were turned on and off in an attempt to “intimidate” the freshmen, who were instructed to wear a specific set of clothing that did not include underwear and remove a piece of clothing, specifically a shoe or sock, if they got a line wrong. The current UK cheerleader we spoke to provided more information.

“The boys decided to make it intimidating, while I believe the girls were more uplifting. The freshman boys came in one at a time to the room. The lights are off with one flashlight in the middle. You can see the lump in their throat. They start the lewd chant, and inevitably mess up. So, we give them a hint. They keep going as we lean in closer, they get nervous and pause. We all laugh as they don’t see the humor. Maybe I shouldn’t have either. They quietly continue through the end and we erupt in cheer and nearly tackle every single one of them. Once they’ve got it down, they’re in on the tactic for the next guy. I remember the guys we knew would be nervous, so we helped more and intimidated less.”

According to the UK Student Code of Conduct, creating an intentionally intimidating environment constitutes as hazing, for which the cheerleader apologizes.

“I don’t believe we were [hazing], but that isn’t up to me. That is up to the first-year members who endured it. I am incredibly sorry for my actions. It was a team thing, but I will admit I was in the wrong.”

According to the former UK cheer members with which we spoke, reciting the chant is a tradition, albeit an innocent one.

“It’s like saying UK students are required to know the fight song, or ‘My Old Kentucky Home,'” Holubik said. “It’s meant as an initiation, and I genuinely have never seen someone not want to learn it.”

“I don’t know what definition of ‘explicit chant’ somebody was referring to, but there has never in the history of Kentucky Cheerleading been initiations or customary right of passages,” another former UK cheerleader said. “Everything done, even in the absence of the coaching staff, was for the purpose of team building and bonding. We are always held to a high standard and told to lift each other up. There was never a time that team members would intimidate other team members.”

“We have a very vocal and obvious instance of someone that is offended by it — and I say someone, one being somewhat literal in the sense because the more and more I heard over the past 24 hours, it’s that this is increasingly coming down to an individual, two or three individuals at the most,” Holubik said. “Not that that dismisses it, but I think it speaks to, I don’t think there’s a lot of corroboration from people who are offended by the words.”

Although all of the coaches knew the chant since they are former UK Cheerleaders, they denied knowing about initiation activity or being present when it happened, contrary to the initial whistleblower’s claim.


Former UK Cheerleading coach Jomo Thompson

Jomo Thompson

Under Jomo Thompson’s tenure as head coach, UK won 18 national championships, but his team members speak about him first as a guiding force who helped shape their lives. Holubik was in a very serious car accident his freshman year that left him in the hospital with a messed up knee, several broken bones, a broken jaw, and knocked out teeth. Thompson stayed at his side until his family arrived, and, even though Holubik required major surgery and basically had to learn how to walk again, his coach assured him his spot on the team was safe.

“‘When it comes to the team and tryouts that are in two weeks, don’t worry about it,'” Holubik recalled Thompson saying. “‘You don’t have to worry about your place on the team. All I want you to worry about is getting better, rehabbing, and taking care of your body.’ That’s who Jomo Thompson is to me and ultimately, that’s not an exception.”

“Jomo preaches school first, athletics second,” the current cheerleader said. “He taught me the value of accountability. He taught me how to be an adult and face situations I wouldn’t want to, like a tough break up, or a silly argument. He allowed no room for any misconduct under his watch, but for a man that taught me so much, I found the crack in his vision. I am truly sorry, Jomo.”

Holubik compared Thompson and Williamson to another familiar name in Lexington: John Calipari.

“I genuinely believe if you ask T. Lynn or Jomo what their mission statement is and what their goal is, it’s not – and this is going to sound very Kentucky homer of me – it’s not very dissimilar from Coach Cal, they’ve just been doing it a lot longer. Their goal is quite literally to significantly impact and alter people’s lives for the better. They want to develop you as a person, as a leader, as a member of society and the medium that they choose to use is cheerleading.”


T. Lynn Williamson

Williamson has been with the cheerleading program since the 1980s and served as the official staff sponsor for many years before moving to an advisory role. He’s referred to as the “grandfather” of the team and retired after learning about the investigation, which called into question work team members would do for him to make money, like lawn care.

“To be honest, this is broke college kids trying to find a way to live,” Holubik said, recalling that he and other cheerleaders would ask Williamson if there were odd jobs they could do to make money. “This is not a directive. It works the opposite way. It is very much directed by kids on the team.”

“T. Lynn was the advisor for 40 years and he cared about zero championships,” the current cheerleader said. “He cared about degrees and personal improvement. He wanted us to become outstanding citizens.”

The report also questioned work cheerleaders did for Assistant Coach Spencer Clan, who owns Cheer Expert, which puts on camps and clinics, and Assistant Coach Ben Head, who owns a gym. Although the team members we spoke to said these jobs were simply ways for them to make money on the side, the report said they could be seen as potential conflicts of interest. The current cheerleader who wrote us said that team members would still pay a fee to use Head’s gym even if they were employees.


Sour grapes and ulterior motives?

The coaching staff was fired for not being strict enough when it comes to alcohol, but team members said the standards of professionalism for UK Cheer are so high they are required to do weekly drug tests like other UK student-athletes even though the program wasn’t fully under the UK Athletics umbrella until now. Holubik, who was at UK from 2009-2013, recalled the academic requirements to be on the team, which have become even stricter in recent years, proof that the program hasn’t relaxed its standards.

“I disagree with the statement that the program is headed downhill or anything like that,” Holubik said. “If anything, I’ve been more impressed from the outside looking in at the last four or five years with how the program has evolved into some ways become more strict, from what I understand.”

Had the family member never raised concerns back in February, none of this probably would have happened. All of the cheerleaders we spoke to believe UK overreacted by dismissing the entire coaching staff for the actions of a select few.

“Officials did not make the right call,” a former cheerleader said. “I believe the University of Kentucky used the coaches as a way to show the public they are doing something but it is not right for them to fire them for the actions of others.”

“I genuinely think that the reaction to the investigation was a bit of an overreaction and I think that the university prematurely removed a person from their position who has impacted a lot of lives downstream,” Holubik added. “I’ve shared my experiences but that’s indicative of hundreds, if not thousands of people.”

Why clean house instead of issuing suspensions, fines, or other disciplinary measures? That’s a question a lot of former cheerleaders are asking.

“There are a lot of politics at universities and there are just some things in the investigation report in general that don’t align. It shows that there are more powers that be than a mom and a daughter and I think not even Jomo and T. Lynn, but the athletes that went through the program deserve that to come out, or to be told, just in general, to understand why that’s being had.”

“If there was politicking, why?” The former cheerleader added. “Sure, you want to take T. Lynn out because he was there for 40 years and was in positions that didn’t give Mitch Barnhart control and power over certain things? That’s an interesting conversation that I don’t think is being had right now.”

On “Tony & Dwight” this morning, Smith voiced similar concerns.

“The other concern that I have is the cheerleading program was a self-sustaining program and what that means is we had an endowment from wealthy donors. Most of us former cheerleaders donated money so all of these cheerleaders could go to school on a full scholarship. I have a question as to whether this is a money grab by the athletic department by the University of Kentucky because all of these cheerleaders are on scholarship.”

As for the whistleblower? On social media, cheerleaders claim it was a parent who was unhappy with the coaches and sought retribution. One name is being mentioned regularly in their posts, which are not hard to find.

“I really don’t want to downplay what someone experienced or what they say they experienced or – and I don’t mean this negatively, even though it’s going to sound negative – what their mother thinks about it, but there is an element of this that feels like the university is covering their ass,” Holubik said. “I get it.”

“The accusations against the coaches are a poor way for a mom to flex her money and power because her little girl doesn’t know the definition of hard work and absolute responsibility,” another former cheerleader said.

Cruelly, in the end, all of this circles back to absolute responsibility, which Thompson preached to his cheerleaders and is now forced to practice himself.

“T. Lynn and Jomo, it’s the analogy of a ship captain going down with the ship,” Levy said. “These guys, regardless of what’s happening, they’re going to stand up and be the ones that need to be done because they are our leaders and that’s what leaders do. That’s what role models that people follow do. I get that they are the ones that took the blow because they wouldn’t want it any other way. They wouldn’t want anyone else to have the ramification on anything that happened, regardless if it was something they had control over or not. That’s what leaders do. Leaders eat last. They stand up for the people that they’re leading, regardless if it’s right or wrong.”

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