The distressing familiarity of the USC Song Girls' reportedly toxic culture

While we wait for the NFL to tell us the full extent of the mistreatment of Washington Football Team's cheerleaders (any day now, NFL), or for anyone to face consequences for the department-wide, toxic environment fostered by LSU athletics, we bring you a new story of young women being let down by the very adults meant to be looking out for their well-being.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times posted an investigation by Ryan Kartje into the rotten culture of the University of Southern California's Song Girls, the school's famed dance squad.

Ten women spoke to Kartje about their experiences with the Song Girls, of being badgered about their weight and eating habits, of having to wear a full face of make-up at all times, even when they weren't performing or making an appearance, of being shamed for their sex lives. According to the Times, documents (including the contract Song Girls sign), emails and text messages support their claims.

It all seems so familiar, which isn't to say it's any less disturbing.

It's just depressing to see yet another story of how terribly young women continue to be allegedly treated, and how one singular, unrealistic idea of what a woman "should" look like is still held up as the standard.

And it's worse when that treatment is at the hands of a woman.

An extensive Los Angeles Times report Thursday shone light on the allegedly toxic culture among the USC Song Girls, perpetrated by former coach Lori Nelson. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
An extensive Los Angeles Times report Thursday shone light on the allegedly toxic culture among the USC Song Girls, perpetrated by former coach Lori Nelson. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Song Girls have been a prominent part of USC since 1967, when the student body voted overwhelmingly to allow women to join the spirit squad, which until that point had been all male. They don't just dance at Trojans football games, they represent the school at fundraisers and other events around the world.

While longtime Song Girls coach Lori Nelson worked to maintain a veneer of All-American perfection for women on the squad, behind the scenes she was reportedly tormenting them.

Josie Bullen, who had been a dancer her entire life and was thrilled to earn a coveted spot on the Song Girls when she arrived at USC in 2017, developed disordered eating within a year and sought intensive outpatient treatment.

Two more of the 10 women who spoke with the Times said they also developed body image issues and disordered eating because of the demands Nelson put on Song Girls in terms of their weight. A third said she became depressed and contemplated suicide.

Eight of the 10 sought counseling, and underscoring how bad things were, one former Song Girl recalled visiting a campus therapist in 2013 and was told, "We get a lot of you coming through here."

A lawyer for Nelson said she "vehemently and unequivocally denies" the allegations.

But she isn't the first woman to be accused of this type of abuse, especially in the gymnastics, cheerleading and dance team world. Women who are supposed to be mentors, sometimes spoken of as second mothers, whose demanding style crosses into demeaning and degrading, always to the detriment of the mental health of those they're meant to be helping and guiding.

Longtime U.S. Gymnastics team coach Marta Karolyi was accused of years of mental and emotional abuse of aspiring Olympians. Laurie Hernandez, a member of the 2016 American gold medal gymnastics squad, said last year her personal coach, Maggie Haney, was also verbally abusive. At least one former Buffalo Jill, the now-disbanded cheerleading team for the Bills, said the woman who ran the team put members through humiliating "jiggle tests" to determine who would get to be on the field on Sundays.

Add Nelson to the list, who seemed to want to control every aspect of the Song Girls' lives, not develop a dance team. Though the team performed at athletic events, it wasn't part of the athletics department; it was part of student affairs, and Nelson appeared to have little oversight.

After several women complained to school administrators about the toxicity in the program, USC opened a Title IX investigation. Nelson resigned shortly after the investigation began. The Times reported that a dozen women shared negative experiences with Nelson and the Song Girls, while eight former team members spoke positively about Nelson.

Nelson, who was just the second head of the Song Girls in their 50-plus years of existence, didn't have a background in choreography and former members said she offered little in the way of technical coaching, instead obsessing over the image Girls portrayed on campus and beyond.

At least one former Song Girl who spoke to USC investigators said the team's weight rule in the contract — they were required to stay within five pounds of the weight they were at their audition — said it was because women needed a lot of stamina to get through game days.

That may be true, but it's ignorant to think that being at a certain weight means one is healthy or fit. There are people that would be classified as skinny who can't walk up a flight of stairs without wheezing; the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald is obese according to the CDC, and Donald can do things like this and this.

Even women who helped Nelson maintain the toxic culture of the team or gossiped about some members with her would quickly find themselves on her bad side. Adrianna Robakowski once was Nelson's "golden child" as she and her mother told The Times, but when Robakowski heard of Bullen's disorder and felt uncomfortable with playing any part in her situation or the general direction of the Song Girls, she tried to distance herself from the coach.

At a practice where Bullen opened up a discussion about body image problems among members and in front of the team, Nelson accused Robakowski of lying to her to sleep with a male student during a team trip. Robakowski maintains it wasn't true, and after tearfully confronting Nelson their relationship went south. Nelson allegedly told Robakowski's friends to cut her out of their lives.

All of this for a dance team. For a chance to contribute to the atmosphere at sporting events and to represent the school you're supposed to love with alumni and well-heeled donors. For an opportunity to continue a lifelong love of dancing and to be part of something that should be a positive experience.

Robakowski, now a first-year law student at USC, summed it up best: "“It’s great in so many ways. I just don’t see why the girls of the future can’t have it all, the tradition, the sisterhood, and all of that. Just without the anxiety and the eating disorders.”

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