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Who are the USC Song Girls, a dance squad whose members have filed complaints to the university about body shaming and other toxic behavior.
Take a closer look at the Trojans' iconic spirit program that is the subject of a pending Title IX investigation.
Who are the USC Song Girls?
The Song Girls are a renowned spirit and dance team at USC, where they’ve performed and cheered at athletic events since 1968. But don’t confuse the squad with cheerleaders. The Song Girls don’t dance to piped-in music or perform any stunts or gymnastics. Instead, they perform choreographed routines to the soundtrack of the USC marching band.
The Song Girls are not the only dance team at USC. The Trojan Dance Force, founded in 1994, also dances at USC basketball games. But the Song Girls are meant to evoke a more nostalgic ethos in their trademark white sweaters, one that calls back to a bygone era of wholesome school spirit.
In addition to dancing, the Song Girls are also expected to make public appearances, often several times per week, at various university or private events.
How did the Song Girls come to be at USC?
In the fall of 1919, first-year USC student Lindley Bothwell became the university’s first “yell leader.” Bothwell and a few friends decided to create their own cheers to pump up the crowd at football games. The tradition stuck.
Nearly 50 years after the yell leaders were born, the sole spirit squad at USC was still reserved for men only. Students voted overwhelmingly in 1967 to allow women to join the spirit group. Auditions were held, and seven women were chosen for the inaugural 1968 team.
The Song Girls would become much more than a spirit squad during the decades that followed. They became the wholesome, smiling faces of college football, appearing on broadcasts and movie screens, in commercials and in magazines, more bright-eyed ambassadors than college cheerleaders. As the Song Girls were immortalized as Southern California fixtures, the program remained steeped in its traditions. To this day, their uniform of white sweaters, pleated skirtsand red shoes — first worn for a Texaco commercial in 1973 — remains largely unchanged.
Nearly 300 women have since put on those white sweaters. But just two coaches have guided the Song Girls program until 2020. Bothwell remained the volunteer coach for both the yell leaders and Song Girls for 60 years until his death in 1987 at 84. Lori Nelson, a former Song Girl on the 1977 team, then took over the program as its unpaid, volunteer coach.
She remained the coach for 33 years until November 2020, when she resigned amid a Title IX investigation.
What exactly is the Title IX office investigating?
The precise scope of the Title IX inquiry into Nelson, 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.”
Ten former Song Girls who described to The Times a toxic culture within the famed collegiate dance team that included longtime former coach Lori Nelson rebuking women publicly for their eating habits, personal appearance and sex lives.
Their stories spanning nearly a decade — supported by emails, text messages, the Song Girls contract and other Title IX investigation documents obtained by The Times — reveal a program that was largely unchecked by the university or Nelson, who former students said went to great lengths to uphold her own carefully crafted image of what a Song Girl should be.
All 10 of the women who spoke to The Times said Song Girls faced serious body image issues within the program that went beyond normal fitness required to be on a spirit squad. Three said their experiences led to some form of eating disorder. Another recalled feeling so depressed she considered suicide.
Two of the women said they believed they were cut from the team after making complaints.
In November, shortly after the investigation was launched, Nelson resigned.
Nelson, 63, declined requests for an interview. In response to questions from The Times, her attorney issued a statement defending her and denouncing the complaint.
"Ms. Nelson vehemently and unequivocally denies the harmful and misleading allegations made against her," attorney Ryan Saba said in a statement.
He added: “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.
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.
How did Nelson respond to the investigation?
Nelson was not among the people interviewed by Title IX investigators, but a source told The Times her attorney indicated she would provide responses in writing.
After several attempts by The Times to contact Nelson directly for comment, an attorney representing the longtime coach offered a statement on her behalf, denying the “harmful and misleading allegations made against her.”
Here is the full statement:
“Lori Nelson began her impeccable career as the program director of the World Famous USC Song Girls in 1987 and performed her job responsibilities in an exemplary manner for over three decades. She is honored to have had the opportunity to coach over 200 young women while helping build a program which has purposefully and consistently maintained a proud and principled tradition as ambassadors representing the University of Southern California. After learning about the unproven allegations, Ms. Nelson’s attorney Ryan Saba of the Beverly Hills Boutique Law Firm Rosen Saba, LLP had the following to say: ‘Ms. Nelson vehemently and unequivocally denies the harmful and misleading allegations made against her.’
Her attorney also stated: “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.” Ms. Nelson would like to thank her family, friends and the large overwhelming support from the Song Girl alumnae for standing by her and knowing her true character.”
Former USC Song Girls coach Lori Nelson accused the university of discrimination, harassment and retaliation in a November 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.
Who oversees the Song Girls program?
While the Song Girls are a fixture at athletics events, the Song Girls have long remained under the purview of student affairs, encompassed within the university’s recreational sports division.
Mike Munson, the associate director of recreational sports, in charge of overseeing the Song Girls coach. He worked with Nelson for more than 30 years.
What does USC have to say about the investigation?
Munson and interim Song Girls coach Audrea Harris have not responded to Times messages seeking comment about Nelson’s departure and the state of the program.
USC didn’t comment directly on Nelson’s resignation or the Title IX investigation. But the university did release a statement, noting that it is “aware of concerns raised by current and former Song Girls and have been actively addressing them through the appropriate university process.”
One of those actions, according to a subsequent university statement, includes “eliminating weight restrictions for participants from the team agreement.”
“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,” the statement read.
Where does the Title IX investigation stand now?
It remains ongoing. In a March 3 email obtained by The Times, Yasmin Cader, an external, third-party investigator who conducted interviews, noted the “fact-gathering process” concluded and the investigation was entering the “evidence review” stage.
The investigation, Cader wrote, is expected to finish before the end of USC’s spring semester in May.
Where do the Song Girls stand now?
The 2021 team has continued on with Harris as interim coach. But with the pandemic still limiting public activities, the new Song Girls have yet to return to the sideline for sporting events.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.