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University of Kentucky fires cheerleading coaches amid accusations of hazing, public nudity

The Wildcats spirit squad is one of the sport's elite programs, with more titles than even the school's heralded basketball team.

The University of Kentucky fired the entire coaching staff of its nationally renowned cheerleading program, claiming that adults turned a blind eye to "hazing activities, alcohol use and public nudity" by their students.

Head coach Jomo Thompson and his three assistant coaches were terminated in "actions to protect students and ensure the integrity of the nation’s premier collegiate cheerleading program," according to a school statement.

The mass firings came at the end of a three-month-long investigation.

Jomo Thompson, a former cheerleading coach at the University of Kentucky.University of Kentucky

“The University of Kentucky has built the nation’s premier collegiate cheerleading program," UK President Eli Capilouto said in a statement.

"But regrettably, the integrity of the program has been compromised by inappropriate behavior by some squad members on off-campus trips and by lax oversight by the program’s coaches and advisor.”

The university also said its former deputy general counsel, T. Lynn Williamson, who had been the cheerleading program’s adviser for four decades, showed "lax oversight and poor judgment."

Williamson retired shortly after learning of the school's investigation of the program and had been ordered to have no contact with the cheerleading squad, the university said.

“The advisor and the coaches failed to stop a culture of hazing, alcohol use and public nudity at off-campus activities where they were present,” UK’s executive vice president for finance and administration, Eric N. Monday, said in statement.

“Our students deserve more responsible leadership and the University of Kentucky demands it.”

While cheerleading is not a varsity program, under the auspices of the NCAA, it is a competitive sport — and at the University of Kentucky, it operates under the direction of Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.

Sandy Bell, executive associate athletics director, has been assigned to conduct a search for the program's new staff, according to Barnhart.

“This must be a championship-level program both on and off the court and playing fields,” Barnhart said. “And as with all our sports, that will be our goal — every day.”

The school said "coaches knew or reasonably should have known of inappropriate conduct by cheerleaders and failed to take sufficient steps to address the conduct" at various off-campus activities.

One incident happened at a team retreat at Lake Cumberland, the school said, as cheerleaders "performed gymnastics routines that including hurling their teammates from a dock into the water while either topless or bottomless" in a routine known as "basket tosses."

"There is no implication that the coaching staff and administrators actively encouraged the team to engage in harassing behavior," according to a memo written by one of the investigators, UK's Title IX Coordinator Martha Alexander.

"However, there can be no doubt that the coaches and administrator knew or should have known that there were members of the team engaging in topless or bottomless basket-tosses. Two assistant coaches indicated they knew, and Mr. Williamson indicated he observed this activity in either 2017 or 2018."

And also, at a cheer camp in Tennessee, some squad members were directed by other members "to perform lewd chants and wear outfits that did not include underwear," according to the school's findings.

Kentucky has won the Universal Cheerleaders Association's coed Division IA title 24 times. It's by far the most by any school in the association's top-flight competition with the next most titles won by the University of Alabama and 2020 champ the University of Central Florida, each with trophies.

UK's cheerleading glory even exceeds the school's heralded men's basketball program. The Wildcats have won eight NCAA Tournament titles, second only to UCLA's 11, and raised banners for two National Invitation Tournament championships in their storied history.

“We place the safety and health of our students above all other priorities as a university,” UK Provost David Blackwell said. “We cannot truly have a championship cheerleading program if we do not protect the health, safety and well-being of our students.”

Thompson and Williamson did not immediately respond to messages by NBC News on Monday seeking comment.