The Stingray Cheer Company, several coaches affiliated with the gym and Stone are also the target of a federal civil lawsuit stemming from the rape allegation. The civil complaint, filed by the cheerleader’s family in the United States District Court in Atlanta on Nov. 10, alleges that coaches and other authority figures in the highly competitive sport left vulnerable children exposed to potential abuse while insulating and protecting predators among their ranks.
The lawsuit also alleges that Varsity Brands, an organization that hosts competitions and educational cheer camps, and U.S. All Star Federation for Sport Cheering, the governing body that regulates the sport and sets safety standards, helped enable the abuse.
The suit is one of several filed in recent months across the Southeast that allege sexual abuse in the competitive cheerleading world. Memphis-based Varsity Brands and its affiliates are named as defendants in the suits. The suits involving gyms in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee have similar allegations to the case in Cobb.
The Georgia complaint says the drive for profits was at the heart of the culture that pushed the defendants toward behavior that exploited child athletes but enhanced their businesses.
“In fact, at all times relevant to this complaint, Defendants knew that the environment they provided actually facilitated access to underage athletes by predators, including coaches, choreographers and other adults,” the complaint said.
Stingray and Varsity Brands have each strongly disputed the narrative outlined in the federal lawsuit in Georgia. While neither organization spoke directly about the allegations against Stone, both said that accusations that they ignored potential abuse of underage athletes are false.
The Georgia suit does not identify the victim by name, but instead lists him as John Doe 1. It alleges that Stone sexually assaulted the teen in December 2020.
The Stingray Allstars, which was founded in Marietta in 2002, has more than 24 full-year cheerleading teams and 10 half-year teams, according to its website. The gym also works with several hundred tumbling students and more than 30 school teams train with the program. The program’s main facility is on Cobb Parkway.
“We are truly blessed that so many families trust us with their young athletes!” the organization says on its website.
The website says the program focuses on “the personal and skill progression of each athlete” and that its staff is known for reinforcing safety and technique.
The Stingray Allstars ranks sixth among gyms across the world that compete in competitive cheerleading, according to Cheer Theory, a site that monitors the sport and tracks results. Athletes move to the metro area from all over the Southeast and beyond to train at the gym and participate on its teams.
The cost for one athlete can range from $3,000 to $7,000 per season, and when travel and other expenses are factored costs can reach $20,000, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit said the 15-year-old victim moved to the Atlanta area from Ohio to join a Stingray junior team in 2020.
Stone was one of Stingray’s star athletes, the lawsuit alleges. He was lauded for his athleticism and considered a “Cheerlebrity,” according to the suit. He was also authorized to serve as a junior coach and mentor for younger athletes.
It was that “particular trust” that allowed Stone “exclusive access” to John Doe, the complaint said. The Stingray leadership has denied the allegations against the organization in the lawsuit and said it did nothing wrong.
At the time of the alleged incident, the 15-year-old alleged victim was temporarily living with another coach because that coach needed him for “upcoming competitions,” the civil suit said. When Stone reached out to the young athlete and asked him to come over to his Marietta apartment, the other coach authorized the visit, the suit said.
The complaint said the sexual assault that took place was “widely known” within the Stingray gym, but that none of the coaches reported the incident to law enforcement. The family’s lawsuit alleges that the abuse caused lasting harm to the teen.
“To cope with the trauma, John Doe 1 began abusing alcohol,” the lawsuit said.
According to the suit, Stingray failed to remove Stone from the gym after it learned of the alleged assault because he “was regarded as one of the best male cheerleaders in the All-star world and to have him removed from competition would detrimentally impact the success of Defendant Stingrays.”
Stingray told the AJC they first brought concerns about the alleged incident involving John Doe to law enforcement in September, and Varsity said the plaintiff’s lawyers—Strom Law Firm— have not provided any evidence to back up the claims in the suit.
“We reject any accusation that Varsity Spirit enabled such unthinkable behavior,” Varsity said in a statement.
Leaders at Stingray said they discovered in September the 2020 incident involving John Doe while investigating a separate incident involving a different former athlete. That incident involved allegations that an adult athlete sent inappropriate photos to a minor athlete on the team.
In a Sept. 28 letter sent to parents, Stingray owner Casey Jones said he received information about an unrelated incident that a mother reported to him. She shared that her son may have been a victim in a separate incident, but she was not willing to share the name of the person who she believed had been involved, according to Jones’s letter.
In the letter, Jones said that despite having few details about the incident, he went to the police and to U.S. All Star Federation. A spokeswoman said Stone was ultimately identified as the person involved in the assault, but added he had been removed from the gym in Feb. 2021 due to an unrelated conduct issue. The spokeswoman said Stone and a female cheerleader, both underage, were seen drinking alcohol in a video posted on TikTok.
In his letter, Jones said he believes abuse should be believed and investigated “to the fullest” and Stingray will “always support any victim and act quickly and lawfully.”
“Let’s work together to get rid of the evil,” he wrote. “We are all on the same team here. I welcome a cleanup of the industry. I want to be part of the solution.”
In a statement, Varsity Brands said no child should be exposed to the “abhorrent behavior and abuse” alleged in the lawsuit.
“To be clear, Varsity stands with the survivors and their pursuit of justice. We are outraged that predators took advantage of cheerleading programs to abuse innocent children,” the statement said.
The organization added that its attorney had written a letter to the Strom Law Firm “to provide evidence of their multiple false and defamatory statements about Varsity.”
The letter said in part:
“If (as we suspect) you have no support for these allegations and have included them in the court papers solely in the “hope” that you will somehow develop evidence to support them, Varsity Spirit (and the public) deserves to know that now as well, so that we can evaluate whether your allegations are in fact made in good faith or constitute sham litigation or otherwise violate your ethical and professional obligations.”
Varsity said they have not received a response from the Strom Law Firm, based in Columbia.
A spokesman for Strom, declined an interview request from the AJC, and said they would not be making additional statements at this time.