When Hayden Richardson transferred to Northwestern University for her sophomore year, she hoped that joining the cheerleading team would provide a sense of community and excitement at an unfamiliar school.
The team’s website and social media pages depicted smiling women, clad in purple and sparkly apparel, tumbling on the sidelines of Big 10 football games. Described as a “noncompetitive cheer team,” the program also offered scholarships and covered all travel, equipment and training expenses.
But early in her first season, the “dark side” of the program emerged, according to a federal lawsuit Richardson filed Friday against Northwestern. In the 58-page civil complaint, Richardson details repeated instances where she said she was groped by drunken fans and alumni during university-sanctioned events, alleging the cheer team’s head coach required female cheerleaders to “mingle” with powerful donors for the school’s financial gain.
“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,” the lawsuit says. “After all, the happier these men were, the more money the University would receive from them.”
During these encounters in 2018 and 2019, Richardson alleges that older men touched her breasts and buttocks over her uniform, picked her up without her consent and made “sexually charged comments” about her appearance, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in the Northern District of Illinois. Richardson recalled instances when the men offered her alcohol, though she was underage, or asked to meet up later, the lawsuit says.
Still, according to the lawsuit, head coach Pam Bonnevier continued telling the cheerleaders to socialize on their own, despite their requests to pair up during football tailgates and donor events. The female students were instructed to take photos with fans even if they behaved inappropriately, the lawsuit says.
Numerous university officials, however, brushed aside the allegations when Richardson tried to seek help, the lawsuit alleges.
Attempts to reach Bonnevier by phone, email and social media early Friday were not successful.
Northwestern issued a statement in response to the allegations, saying “it is committed to fostering an environment in which all members of our community are safe, secure and free from discrimination or harassment of any form.” A spokesman said that “reports of discrimination or harassment are confidential in order to protect the individuals involved” so the school “cannot confirm the details that have been made public regarding any allegation or investigation.”
Richardson’s suit raises questions about how the university handled her complaints.
Beginning in February 2019, Richardson corresponded with the university’s Title IX Office, which handles complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination, to report her experiences, but more than a year passed before it opened an “official” investigation, according to the lawsuit and emails provided to the Tribune.
Bonnevier stopped working for Northwestern in October, according to the lawsuit. The circumstances of her departure are unclear; a university spokesman confirmed Bonnevier is no longer employed by Northwestern but did not elaborate.
Citing Northwestern’s troubled history of investigating sexual misconduct by its employees, the lawsuit accuses the university of violating federal Title IX policies, delaying the investigation into Richardson’s complaints and stripping her of her right to be informed about the findings.
“Once the Title IX office was made aware of the hostile environment created by the university’s exploitative fundraising strategy, it continued the cover up by refusing to undertake a formal investigation as requested by (Richardson),” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit names Northwestern and Bonnevier as defendants. It also lists as defendants three other university employees — an associate in the Title IX Office and two leading directors in the athletics department, which funds the cheer team.
The lawsuit seeks damages for emotional distress suffered by Richardson as well as lost career and learning opportunities due to the anguish she said she experienced.
In an interview with the Tribune, Richardson said she felt compelled to file the lawsuit because she wants to reform the university’s harmful treatment of cheerleaders. Though the senior remains on the team, the cheerleaders aren’t performing at games this season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is not the highlight, by any means, of my life or time at Northwestern but it is certainly the most impactful,” Richardson, 22, said of her experiences. “While there have been extreme detriments and times where I was very sad and hurt by the actions of the university, I am here, I am bringing the lawsuit forward and I’m going to do what is necessary to ensure other young women don’t experience the same thing that I did.”
Bonnevier also coached younger girls. While working at Northwestern, she simultaneously served as the head cheer coach at Lake Zurich High School, according to news articles and state sports records.
Competitive cheerleading records kept by the Illinois High School Association list Bonnevier as the Lake Zurich head coach from 2008 to 2016, leading the team to a state title in 2011. Lake Zurich District 95 confirmed the dates of her employment.
‘Forced to ... parade around men’
Richardson signed up for the cheer team before she moved to Evanston in fall 2018, she said in the interview. After learning about the team online and sending Bonnevier videos of her stunts, Richardson was accepted onto the squad, she said. Richardson transferred to Northwestern after completing her freshman year at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, in the state where she’s lived for much of her life.
With a background in gymnastics and cheerleading at home, Richardson thought she would excel on the team. But in a preseason meeting, the coach spoke about “dealing with creepy fans,” Richardson recalled in the lawsuit, and she soon encountered the issue firsthand.
“At every home game, the cheerleaders were instructed to walk around the tailgating lots, unsupervised, in their skimpy cheerleading uniforms,” the lawsuit says. “They were expressly told to split up and mingle with extremely intoxicated fans alone and were not provided any security.”
While much of the tailgating occurred in the parking lot outside Ryan Field, Bonniever also sent some cheerleaders to the Wilson Club, a private space for elite ticket holders near the stadium, the lawsuit says. Male students on the team, meanwhile, were not required to do the same, the lawsuit says.
Many of the interactions disturbed Richardson. Male fans inappropriately touched her while taking photos, offered her alcoholic shots and made sexualized remarks such as, “you and I will have fun together tonight,” the lawsuit states. In two separate instances, a fan allegedly picked Richardson up, touched her backside and didn’t put her down until after the a photo was taken, the lawsuit says.
In addition to the pregame responsibilities, female cheerleaders were also required to attend alumni events when directed by Bonnevier, the lawsuit alleges. For these events, the lawsuit says, cheerleaders “had to be especially attractive” and were “forced to dress in their tiny cheerleading uniforms to parade around men old enough to be their fathers and even grandfathers.”
Though Richardson felt exploited by the team requirements, she also feared the financial consequences of quitting. She earned scholarships through the team — $5,500 in 2019 and $4,041 in 2020 — that could be lost, according to the lawsuit.
A team contract states that cheerleaders who quit or are dismissed must pay back all expenses incurred from travel, equipment and practice, according to a copy provided by Richardson’s attorney. The contract said that’s “approximately $2,000 to $4,000.”
But by the end of her first season with the team, Richardson wanted to seek outside help. Though she had relayed concerns to Bonnevier, the coach barely responded, the lawsuit says.
So in early January 2019, Richardson disclosed the issues to the team doctor, the lawsuit says. A few days later, she met with the associate athletic director for marketing.
During their first meeting, the associate athletic director for marketing, a defendant in the lawsuit, told Richardson “to get other testimonials and evidence together to support her allegations before her concerns would even be acknowledged,” the lawsuit says.
Later in January 2019, Richardson provided anonymous “letters and testimonials” from her teammates, but the marketing director and the deputy director of athletics, also listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, accused Richardson of fabricating the documents and writing the accounts herself, according to the lawsuit, which was filed by New York attorney Andrew Miltenberg.
Instead of the formal investigation Richardson desired, the Title IX office gave Bonnevier “training” through April 2019, according to the lawsuit. It wasn’t immediately clear what the training entailed.
The following cheer season, in the 2019-20 school year, the cheerleaders were no longer required to attend tailgates, the lawsuit says. But Bonniever still ordered them to visit alumni events, where Richardson still experienced sexual harassment, the lawsuit says.
In May, after the season ended, Richardson contacted the Title IX office again to report her experiences, the lawsuit says. In June, more than a year after Richardson’s initial outcries, the Title IX office launched an “official” investigation, according to the lawsuit and emails provided to the Tribune.
To date, Richardson hasn’t seen the findings of that probe, the lawsuit states. Though her reports helped trigger the investigation, she was listed as a “witness” and not the complainant since she requested anonymity. As a result, she was not entitled “to be informed of the outcome of the investigation or opportunity to appeal any findings or sanction,” the lawsuit says.
Richardson would have asked to be named if the Title IX explained the implications, the lawsuit says.
In early November, the office notified Richardson that “steps” were taken to address the situation, the lawsuit says, “but would not provide “any specifics as to what the investigation found, or what specific actions were taken.”
The team learned in an October call with the athletic department that Bonnevier left the university, according to the lawsuit. The department did not provide the team with a reason for her departure, Richardson said.
Another cheerleader speaks out
Erika Carter recalled similar incidents when she was on the Northwestern cheer squad from 2016 to 2018, before Richardson joined.
“We were really expected to look pretty and to engage with fans, even if they were belligerent or drunk,” said Carter, 23. “We were sent on our own ... no supervision whatsoever.”
Carter, who grew up in Evanston and now attends Columbia University’s law school, said she didn’t experience inappropriate touching, but knew teammates who did. She said it was “scary” to encounter intoxicated fans.
Carter also described negative exchanges with the coach regarding physical appearance. The 2018-19 contract obtained by the Tribune states that cheerleaders cannot “cut or color (their) hair without checking with the coach” and banned students from wearing braids, a popular style for Black women like Carter.
The lawsuit also claims the “team was constantly told that they were not attractive or skinny enough.”
Carter communicated with the Title IX office last summer when it began investigating the culture of the team, according to emails she provided to the Tribune. The office reached out to her on June 15, writing it “recently learned that you may have experienced or witnessed concerns ... in the context of the NU cheer team.”
Carter wrote to the office on June 24 she “like to participate as a complainant instead of as a witness” and the office acknowledges her request. But in November when she asks to review the findings of the closed investigation, Carter was told she couldn’t be a complainant “because the allegations under investigation concerned incidents that occurred after your time at Northwestern,” according to the emails.
Richardson, a senior majoring in political science and legal studies, said she also can’t access more information about the investigation.
Her lawsuit seeks damages for emotional distress, which she argued interfered with her academics and performance on the Law School Admission Test. Though Richardson hoped to attend law school, with aspirations to become a prosecutor, she said she hasn’t been accepted anywhere she’s waiting to hear back from seven more, including Northwestern, according to Richardson and the lawsuit.
“Unfortunately I was studying for my LSAT when all of this was unfolding with my team,” she said. “It’s very upsetting to me that it has detracted from my future plans and ability to progress.”
Richardson received the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship in 2020, a federal merit-based award that provides up to $30,000 to support graduate education. Prior to the lawsuit, she worked with the Nebraska attorney general’s office on legislation to further criminalize the purchase of sex and to speed up the processing of backlogged rape kits.