Song Girls coach violated Title IX policies

The Song Girls perform at a UCLA game in 2018.
In an internal USC Title IX investigation, the Song Girls program was found to be inconsistent with the University’s values after “sufficient evidence” of body shaming, harassment and retaliation from former head coach Lori Nelson were uncovered. (Ling Luo | Daily Trojan file photo)

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

An internal USC Title IX investigation concluded that the popular Song Girls program was inconsistent with core University values – uncovering “sufficient evidence” that many members endured body shaming, harassment and retaliation under the leadership of former head coach Lori Nelson, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.

Nelson, who led the squad for more than three decades, submitted her resignation the same day the University launched a Title IX probe into her conduct in October 2020. In a comprehensive interview with the Times, the Song Girls described a toxic culture of control and scrutiny – as Nelson admonished her squad for their eating habits, physical appearance and sex lives. 

In a memo to the L.A. Times Wednesday, USC Vice President for Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX coordinator Catherine Spear concluded Nelson was responsible for fostering a “hostile and unhealthy environment” during her tenure as USC Song Girls coach. 

The internal investigation also explored allegations of race- and gender-based discrimination within the program but cited “insufficient evidence” to corroborate those claims, according to the Times.

The Times spoke to 10 former Song Girls in April who said body image issues were the norm during Nelson’s tenure, who conveyed the impact Nelson’s leadership inflicted upon the lives of individual members of the squad. 

According to the Times, three former Song Girls said they developed eating disorders due to the unhealthy environment and one member expressed she endured depression and suicidal ideation. In addition, two song girls believed they were victim to Nelson’s retaliation after being eliminated from the squad after submitting formal complaints to USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn.

In a statement to the L.A. Times, Spear wrote that Nelson will not face consequences for violating harassment and retaliation policies because USC did not have the authority to impose disciplinary action as she is no longer a University employee. 

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp wrote that the University is committed to implementing additional measures to ensure an inclusive and welcoming environment.

According to Crisp’s statement, the new measures will provide education and training for all coaches, students and faculty involved in the Song Girls squad. Additionally, the Office of Student Affairs will reexamine the team’s contract and ensure the language is consistent with the University’s values. The office will also conduct an online anonymous survey by the end of the academic year that will provide current and former Song Girl members a safe opportunity to voice their experiences, suggestions and concerns with the program. 

“Ongoing assessment is a critical part of higher education, and we are looking forward to continuing to evaluate the Song Girls and other student programs to ensure all students experience an inclusive and welcoming environment at USC,” Crisp wrote. 

Crisp acknowledged the shortcomings the program faced in recent years.

“Regrettably, not everyone has experienced the program in the positive way it was intended,” Crisp wrote.

Nelson’s attorney, Ryan Saba, told the Times that USC’s findings exonerate Nelson from accusations of discrimination on the basis of race, sex and appearance.  

However, Saba pushed back against the University’s findings, arguing that the evidence presented in the investigation does not support the conclusion of the report.

Saba highlighted that the members who filed complaints did so after being cut from a team by a panel of judges who were not associated with Nelson. He said the statements of those judges contradict the claims of wrongdoing on Nelson’s behalf.  

Nelson’s attorney did not respond to the Daily Trojan’s request for comment.