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Northwestern cheerleaders ‘presented as sex objects,’ forced to ‘mingle’ with drunk fans: lawsuit

A former cheerleader is suing the Evanston school, saying teammates had to endure sexual harassment “to titillate the men that funded the majority of Northwestern’s athletics programs.”

Members of Northwestern University’s cheerleading team were “presented as sex objects” at numerous events, including football tailgates, and were forced to interact with drunk and belligerent fans for the university’s financial gain, according to a lawsuit filed Friday. AP Photos

A former Northwestern University cheerleader claims she and her teammates were “presented as sex objects” at numerous events, including football tailgates at the Evanston school, and were forced to interact with drunk and belligerent fans for the university’s financial gain.

As a result, some were sexually harassed on numerous occasions while wearing their Northwestern uniforms, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Chicago.

The plaintiff, Hayden Richardson, described a “hostile environment” throughout her two seasons as a Wildcats cheerleader, which included repeated instances of sexual harassment, her suit lawsuit says.

Richardson alleges Northwestern “forced its cheerleaders to behave in a degrading and demeaning manner” to get wealthy fans and alumni to donate to the university and its athletic department.

Former Northwestern cheerleading coach Pamela Bonnevier required female squad members to “mingle” with intoxicated fans without security at several university-sanctioned events, according to the suit. That resulted in Richardson allegedly being groped, assaulted and subjected to “incessant sexual comments,” and in some instances, fans placing their hands on her buttocks and breasts while taking pictures, the suit says.

“It became clear to [Richardson] that the cheerleaders were being presented as sex objects to titillate the men that funded the majority of Northwestern’s athletics programs,” her suit says. “After all, the happier these men were, the more money the University would receive from them. The University’s actions made it clear that brains do not bring in large donations, sex does.”

In the suit, first reported by the Chicago Tribune, Richardson said she initially felt “trapped” in her situation on the cheer team because if she didn’t comply she would be booted from the team, lose her scholarship and be forced to repay the expenses incurred while she was on the team.

When she did come forward, Richardson alleges the athletic department mishandled her complaints. One athletic department official initially didn’t report her complain to the Title IX office, the lawsuit said, a violation of the university’s Title IX policy and federal Title IX guidance.

“It further became evident to [Richardson] that Northwestern’s commitment to supporting victims was a façade to conceal a much uglier reality — Northwestern was willing to silence, and sacrifice the well-being of, its female athletes in order to keep its donors happy,” the suit said.

In a statement, Northwestern said it reviewed the complaint and denies the university violated any law, including Title IX.

“We take all complaints seriously, and we appreciate the courage it takes for anyone in our community to come forward to report potential wrongdoing,” the statement said. “In this case, the University’s Office of Equity conducted a lengthy and thorough investigation, following University policies and procedures.”

Northwestern and Bonnevier are named as defendants in the lawsuit as well as the Deputy Title IX Coordinator and two members of the university’s athletic department, which funds the cheerleading program.

The suit said Bonnevier was fired in October, though it’s unclear if these allegations played apart in her departure. Northwestern confirmed she’s no longer employed.

Richardson seeks an unspecified amount in damages for emotional and psychological distress as well as loss of educational and career opportunities.

Richardson’s suit follows similar ones filed by professional cheerleaders. In 2018, seven former cheerleaders sued the Houston Texans, alleging they were subjected to assault, harassment and unpaid wages.

In a 2018 New York Times report, dozens of NFL, NBA and NHL cheerleaders opened up about their experiences, shining a light on the “systematic exploitation by teams” that profit from sending the women to tailgates and other events where they’re subjected to harassment.