A former cheerleader is suing Northwestern University, claiming she and her teammates were "presented as sex objects" and forced "to behave in a degrading and demeaning manner” to get wealthy fans and alumni to donate to the university and its athletic department.
In her lawsuit filed Friday, 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, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.
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 facade 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, who was fired in October, 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.
Richardson seeks an unspecified amount in damages for emotional and psychological distress, as well as loss of educational and career opportunities.