Ex-Song Girls coach accuses USC of discrimination, harassment; rejects Title IX probe

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ONE TIME USE ONLY From L-R, Aya Shimizu, Lauren Dunn and Adrianna Robakowski pose with Lori Nelson.
Former USC Song Girls coach Lori Nelson, front and kneeling, poses with dancers Aya Shimizu, left; Lauren Dunn, center; and Adrianna Robakowski, right. (Benjamin Chua)

Former USC Song Girls coach Lori Nelson accused the university of discrimination, harassment and retaliation in an October resignation letter submitted amid a Title IX investigation into allegations of toxic behavior within the program.

In the Oct. 29 letter reviewed by The Times, Nelson wrote that she felt “discriminated against and harassed” by USC officials “since bringing forward past lost wages and hour disputes against the university.” She added she believes the Title IX investigation launched in August was “only further retaliation” from USC.

USC declined to comment when asked about the allegations in Nelson's letter.

Ten former Song Girls who spoke to The Times described a toxic culture within the famed collegiate dance program under Nelson's leadership. The women's allegations included dancers who were rebuked publicly for their eating habits, personal appearance and sex lives. The allegations, first brought to USC officials last February, sparked a Title IX investigation which, according to an email from outside counsel hired by USC, centers on “potential violations of the university’s non-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy by Ms. Nelson.”

Nelson, 63, declined interview requests from The Times. Her attorney, Ryan Saba, defended her and denounced the former Song Girls’ claims, writing in a statement that Nelson “vehemently and unequivocally denies the harmful and misleading allegations against her.”

In her resignation letter, Nelson argued USC was the source of challenges facing the spirit squad. She wrote that the athletic department marketing office refused to communicate with her.

“There seems to be an underlying disrespect of the USC Song Girls program and myself by certain individuals in Athletic Marketing that has demonstrated repeatedly throughout Football, Basketball, Baseball and Volleyball Seasons,” Nelson wrote. “The refusal to communicate directly with me as Head Coach and the outward disdain that is demonstrated is unprofessional and makes what should be an incredible experience for the Song Girls one that is intolerable. My sincere hope is that USC addresses these concerns and continues to hold the Song Girls in the highest regard and for the program to be free of internal politics and struggles.

“Over the years, I’ve felt I’ve been discriminated against and harassed. I was even retaliated against since bringing forward past lost wages and hour disputes against the university. And now I feel this false Title IX case against me is only further retaliation.”

Nelson wrote she submitted the letter with sadness but believed the program’s current climate “to be detrimental to my health.”

She also defended her role leading the Song Girls program.

"During my tenure, the Song Girls organization has evolved with the times and undergone many changes," Nelson wrote. "I have worked tirelessly to advance the mission of the program and to bring more structure and professionalism to the program as well."

Her statements differ significantly from the description of the program laid out by 10 former Song Girls who spoke to The Times about widespread body image issues within the program that went beyond normal fitness required to be on a spirit squad. Eight of the 10 said they sought counseling after their Song Girls experience. Three said their time with the program led to some form of eating disorder. Another said she contemplated suicide.

While USC declined to address Nelson's resignation letter, school officials told The Times it has taken steps to support the Song Girls program, including eliminating weight restrictions that were previously written into contracts the dancers signed when they joined the team.

“We are deeply concerned when any student experiences emotional or mental health challenges or other barriers to our educational programs and activities, and we offer both private and confidential support resources to current and former students,” a USC spokesperson said in a statement last week.

Nelson’s resignation letter was sent to Mike Munson, her supervisor and the associate director of recreational sports at USC.

She was one of two coaches to ever lead the Song Girls program. In her letter, Nelson urged school officials to better support the program and continue using an endowment set up to fund the salary of the coach of the spirit squad.

When asked about the allegations raised in the ongoing Title IX complaint, Nelson's attorney told The Times: “Ms. Nelson has well-documented communications between team members and her, and she acted in a professional manner in enforcing team policies that were agreed upon by university supervisors and general counsel. These are false allegations embellished for a bombastic news story. She did nothing wrong.”

Title IX investigators have completed their initial interviews, with eight former Song Girls speaking positively about Nelson and a dozen people sharing negative experiences about the Song Girls program, a source familiar with the investigation told The Times.

Nelson was not among the people interviewed, but investigators received a copy of her resignation letter and a source stated her attorney indicated she would provide responses to the Title IX group in writing.

Those who defended Nelson during Title IX interviews considered her a “mother figure” and called any weight issues the product of joining any dance squad that requires its performers to maintain a healthy weight, the source told The Times.

Others, whose stories span nearly a decade, told Title IX investigators their experiences were deeply damaging.

“I do think that, with any cheer team, there’s going to be some of that. It’s unavoidable because there is some type of look you have to have,” a former Song Girl told The Times. “But you can do that in a healthy way. I’ve been doing this my whole life, and never, with the exception of this program, have ever I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m fat.’”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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