Longtime former Song Girls coach created a toxic environment and engaged in persistent harmful behavior, the Los Angeles Times reports

Content Warning: This article contains references to body shaming, eating disorders and depression.

Former Song Girls coach Lori Nelson fostered an inappropriate and harmful environment for nearly a decade, according to a Los Angeles Times subscriber-exclusive feature published Wednesday. The report includes accounts from 10 former Song Girls who described a toxic culture, often unchecked by USC, within the University’s famed dance team. 

The Song Girls were first assembled in 1967 and have since become an icon almost inseparable from USC’s image. They not only appear at USC sporting events such as football and basketball games but also fundraisers, donor dinners, alumni gatherings and private engagements around the world. 

The Times report is based on the accounts, emails and text messages of 10 former Song Girls in addition to the Song Girls contract and other Title IX investigation documents obtained by the Times. Nelson declined the Times’ requests for an interview. 

The Song Girls’ stories described a culture in which Nelson, who led the squad for over three decades until her resignation in November 2020, publicly rebuked and shamed members of the team for their eating habits, personal appearance and sex lives.

Nelson lacked any formal choreography training. As a result, she rarely offered technical critiques of the Song Girls’ performance and instead focused on maintaining their image, the Song Girls told the Times

All 10 of the women who spoke to the Times for the report said they faced serious body image issues during Nelson’s coaching tenure that went beyond the normal fitness expectations that are typically 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,” according to the Times. Two women believed they were cut from the team after making complaints. 

In February 2020, three members of the team brought these complaints to USC athletic director Mike Bohn, even though the Song Girls fall under the purview of the student affairs department, not the athletic department. One of the three members, Adrianna Robakowski, a USC alumna and first-year student at the USC Gould School of Law, thought that Bohn, who was relatively new to USC’s administration, would be more receptive to the members’ complaints than Nelson, who Robakowski claims spread lies about her and ignored her complaints. Afterward, Bohn’s office facilitated one of the women to see a therapist on campus. 

It wasn’t until six months later, after repeated prodding from Song Girl members and Robakowski’s mother, Alisa, reaching out to Vice President of Student Affairs Winston Crisp, that a Title IX investigation was opened. 

The investigation, which is still an ongoing inquiry, centers on “potential violations of the university’s non-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy by Ms. Nelson,” according to an email obtained by the Times from outside counsel hired by USC. 

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, the University said they are unable to discuss the pending investigations and concerns raised by former and current Song Girls but “have been actively addressing them through the appropriate university process.” 

“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.

The Times reports that Title IX investigators have already 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

In October 2020, Title IX investigators presented Nelson with the testimony of multiple Song Girls. On Oct. 29, the team was informed that Nelson was placed on administrative leave. Nelson resigned the next month. 

The former coach’s attorney maintains Nelson’s innocence. 

“Ms. Nelson vehemently and unequivocally denies the harmful and misleading allegations made against her,” attorney Ryan Saba said in a statement provided to the Times

After the article’s publication, Josie Bullen, a senior majoring in communication who was one of the 10 former Song Girls interviewed for the Times’ report, spoke with the Daily Trojan. 

“This isn’t just about our stories, it’s about creating change at USC,” Bullen said. “This is a culture that exists nationwide and I think that’s another reason why we came forward in the [Los Angeles Times] is because we’re hoping it’ll reach an audience beyond USC.”

Bullen also described her mixed emotions in response to the article’s publication and noted a sense of relief now that the toxic culture fostered by Nelson has finally been made public. 

“It’s also relieving that this systemic, misogynistic institution is finally being exposed because it’s been in place for decades, and so many women have suffered because of it,” Bullen said.