Here’s the backstory – a high school basketball player (along with two others) raped a classmate at a party. Though the basketball player was originally charged with rape, the district attorney (they are elected officials in Texas) lowered the charge to assault; the basketball player was convicted and sentenced to two years’ probation and community service. Because the conviction was for a simple misdemeanor and involved no jail time, the basketball player was able to continue playing basketball.
The classmate he gang-raped was a cheerleader. She continued to stay on the squad, and continued to cheer for the team, but at a particular game she refused to chant the name of the player who raped her. She was pulled out of the gymnasium by the school superintendent, who told her she had to cheer for the player. When she explained why she would not cheer for him, she was told she could no longer participate in cheerleading.
Her parents sued the school. The basis of their claim was that the school had violated her First Amendment right to free speech, as they gave her an “unreasonable” directive and she should not be punished for refusing to comply.
They lost the suit at the district court level, and before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The family was even ordered to pay $45,000 in legal fees to the school. Now, for readers from the UK or other areas, normally people pay their own legal fees in the United States – she was ordered to pay fees because the court found her suit “frivolous.” The Supreme Court has denied certiorari, so that’s the end of that.
From the Fifth Circuit decision:
As a cheerleader, HS served as a mouthpiece through which [the school district] could disseminate speech – namely, support for its athletic teams. [Accordingly, her] act [of refusing to cheer] constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, HS was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily.
I want to discuss this decision in its full and proper context. Which is to say: (1) she was a student at a school, which was set up to educate its student body; (2) she was an athlete in a school-sponsored athletic program, which – as an educational institution – set up their program for the benefit of the student body (ostensibly); (3) cheerleading has been used by schools as a “girls” “sport” so they can do away with other girls teams and not run afoul of Title IX (which requires schools provide a certain measure of “equality” between athletic opportunities for boys and girls).
The district court and the Fifth Circuit see it differently. The school does not exist for her. They do not provide a cheerleading program for her. Instead, she “volunteers” to be a cheerleader for the school. When she chooses to become a cheerleader, she becomes an empty vessel, whose body and vocal chords are to be used in the way that the school sees fit, in order to broadcast whatever message it chooses.
And in the context of cheerleading, it just so happens that the “message” is – always and inevitably – “Yay, boys’ team!” Ultimately I suspect that is the issue that the Fifth Circuit and district court had – the purpose of cheerleading isn’t to give female students an athletic outlet, or give them creative license to make complex and artistic routines. Not really. Cheerleaders are there to show gratuitous T&A for boys’ sporting events. They are there to be “helpmeets,” to lend female “support” and “stimulation” to the boys who play (and their fathers, and coaches, and other male viewers). The message of availability is inherent, for the same reason that people talk about “trophy wives” – the woman’s body is the man’s prize.
If cheerleaders won’t cheer for boys who rape them, what’s the point of having cheerleaders? Or, as one commentor on the KansasCity Crime blog wrote, “it may not be a sport, but some of them make me sport wood.. that should count for something.”
In the meantime….
According to a 2009 CNN article archived by SheLovesSports.com:
Although it is not considered a sport at many high schools and colleges, cheerleading has grown increasingly popular over the years, and the stunts have become more complex and dangerous, sports injury experts say.
A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study found cheerleading accounted for about two-thirds of some 93 “catastrophic” sports injuries — including head and neck damage — among high school girls in the past 26 years.