By Brian Maass
DENVER (CBS4) – Ozell Williams, the East High School cheerleading coach fired over his coaching methods, told CBS4, “What am I hiding from? What am I hiding for? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The comments came in his first interview following the controversy which erupted in August, when videos were leaked that showed high school cheerleaders under his direction screaming as they attempted to perform “split stretches.”
“Split stretches hurt, therefore they knew this is going to hurt,” Williams told CBS4 during four hours of interviews.
Denver Public Schools fired Williams. East High Principal, Andy Mendelsberg, retired, and Assistant Principal Lisa Porter resigned following the release of the tapes, which garnered worldwide attention.
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said at the time, “I want to be very clear that this technique is dangerous and unacceptable.”
The Denver district attorney declined to file criminal charges, but also slammed the techniques Williams used.
Williams conceded the clips that were leaked looked bad, but he told CBS4 they were missing context. He apologized for the videos being leaked without explanation, but defended his methods. “That part of the video looks bad, and I apologize for that.”
“Do you think you did anything wrong?,” CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass asked.
“No, not at all,” he replied.
Williams explained that prior to the splits exercise, he explained the split stretch to the cheerleaders and they were told that being able to perform a split was critical to cheerleading.
Williams said he demonstrated it to the girls, but made clear it was an optional exercise.
He said the teens agreed that if they tried it, they would hold the stretch for 30 seconds. He insisted taking part in the drill was voluntary, and that no one declined to participate.
“I also explain what kind of pain. I told them it was painful. This is a split stretch — it’s no joke. Splits, they hurt and I told them that in advance over and over again — it will hurt.”
In the videos, several of the cheerleaders cry out in pain, repeatedly saying “no” and asking for the exercise to stop.
“Why did you let it keep going if she is crying in pain?” Maass asked.
“I know it helps them, and they know it helps them. That’s why they’re doing it. I didn’t hurt any of those girls,” said Williams. “We made a vow to hold each other to staying in that split stretch. If they didn’t want to do it all they had to was say “no.” No one intimidated them into doing the split.”
He also said claims that he was pressing down on the girls forcing them to do the splits was erroneous. He maintains he was stabilizing and bracing the girls in correct form and letting gravity lower the girls.
Emphasizing that he would not intentionally hurt any cheerleaders, Williams said “That’s all I was doing with these kids, doing what they were asking me to do.”
While several of the student cheerleaders and their parents complained about the splits drill, most did not, and several told CBS4 they supported Williams and his methods and were not troubled by the drill.
Qusair Mohamedbhai, a Denver attorney who represents five of the East High school cheer families, released a statement Thursday afternoon disputing Williams’ contention that none of the girls were hurt.
“Student athletes as young as 13 years old suffered immense emotional and physical pain under the watch of adults in positions of trust,” said the attorney. “The community should be outraged by any school officials who attempt to defend the suffering of our children.”
Williams was condemned on social media following the release of the videos. One person emailed him a picture of a noose. “I just hate you to the core for causing so much physical and mental pain to someone so young,” wrote another person.
Williams said other writers suggested he kill himself and one sent him his home address saying they were coming to get him.
“I worked so hard to get where I am today,” said Williams.
With what’s seen on the video described as barbaric, an atrocity and child abuse, Williams was asked how he responded to those accusations. “That’s not me,” he said, reiterating he would not intentionally hurt any of his students.
He said he is deeply hurt about no longer being able to work with young people, but hopes to clear his name and return to the tumbling community.
“I respect and love these kids and love the community. They took that away when they put this video out.”