Questions remain after Denver East High School cheerleading coach Ozell Williams was terminate following the release of several videos showing him forcing athletes into the splits.
The videos weren’t publicly available until they were sent to 9News nearly nine weeks after they were taken. Williams can be seen forcing high school girls as young as 13 into the splits position. The most viral of these videos involves Ally Wakefield, 13, crying in pain and begging for him and three other cheerleaders who are holding her down, to stop. She pleads to them nine times in the 24-second video.
Williams is known for performing stunts at University of Colorado Boulder and Denver Broncos football games. He also is the co-founder of the group Mile High Tumblers.
According to The Denver Post, Williams was a contract employee with Boulder High School’s cheerleading program from the fall of 2015 until the summer of 2016. Boulder Valley School District spokesperson Randall Barber confirmed in a statement Friday that Williams was relieved of his role after similar complaints of “breaking” cheerleaders and forcing them into splits.
“For as long as I’ve coached and when I was in cheerleading back in ‘97, ‘98, back in those years, the proper ways of getting into the splits was stretching,” said Shavonica Tarrant, head coach of the MSU Denver cheerleading team. Forcing one into the position increases the chances of pulling or even tearing a muscle.
In 2014, Williams also volunteered at Standley Lake High School as a tumbling coach for their cheerleading team and performed at the their assemblies. Despite his troubles at Denver East and Boulder, Williams’ tenure at Standley Lake was fairly spotless. Principal Jeff Piersen stated that his early departure from the school was due to him wanting more money and searching for other jobs. In response to being asked if the school faced similar complaints during his tenure, Piersen replied, “Not to my recollection.”
Williams left positive impressions on the girls he worked with at Standley Lake.
“My experience was nothing but wonderful. I learned a lot from him and his team,” said Megan Strayer, a former cheerleader who Williams worked with personally. “He’s nothing but motivated and positive.”
Assistant cheer coach Mariah Cladis, Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Lisa Porter and Denver Public Schools’ general counsel Michael Huckman were placed on leave in response to the district and police investigation of the videos. The Colorado High School Athletics Association has also launched an investigation.
The tactic shown in the video has been refuted by many as being outdated, dangerous and uncommon in the cheerleading realm.
“It violates all laws of human decency,” said Jesse White, the Secretary of State of Illinois and founder of Jesse White Tumblers, in regards to Williams’ actions in the video. “When she yelled the first time, that should have been enough.”
Jim Lord, Director of the Cheerleading Coaches and Administration Association, stated that this practice was common decades ago, but is no longer relevant today. Despite the condemnation from professionals like Lord and Tarrant, some claim it’s still prevalent.
“I can’t say if he learned it from anyone at Standley, but I know a lot of gyms do it even though it’s highly unsafe,” said Aubree Bramel, a former cheerleader at Standley Lake.
This raises questions as to where Williams picked up this practice. As a Chicago native, he was a member of the Jesse White Tumblers there in the early 2000s prior to moving to Colorado.
White vehemently reiterated that Williams did not pick up the technique of forcing splits while with the organization, back around 2002. He asserted that the group, which has existed for 58 years, would have been caught by now if they promoted this practice.
“It is also clear that the decision made at that time not to terminate the employment of cheer coach Mr. Ozell Williams was wrong,” said Tom Boasberg, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools in a statement Thursday.
It is still unknown exactly why Denver East administrators kept Williams when the videos were first brought to their attention. In a statement given to the Denver Post, Williams implied that the videos were taken out of context.
“You can definitely say that what was in the video could be seen in a different light,” Williams said.
Williams’ attorney did not respond to The Metropolitan’s requests for a statement.