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Go, Team, Go - Not?

I stumbled across an interesting story a few days. Esssentially a high school cheerleader (identified as HS) was kicked off her squad after refusing to cheer for a fellow student athleet, Rakheem Bolton. She had good reason not to cheer: Rakheem had raped her at a party and plead to a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault, to get out of felony rape charges. I suppose we should say allegedly raped; there's always a sliver of doubt in my mind when someone pleads to a less serious charge, but given that this guy is a big-time high school athlete (which is a huge deal in Texas), I suspect he would have been let off entirely if there wasn't some pretty damning evidence.

Anyway, HS and her family sued the school district over all this, saying that HS had a right to free speech not to cheer for her rapist. They lost. The Supreme Court just ruled not only that she had no right to be back on the squad, but also that her family had to pay the school district's legal fees. (Read a newspaper account or ThinkProgress's analysis.

If you asked me whether Rakheem got off light - scandalously light - I'd say yes. Or, do I think HS had every reason not to cheer for her rapist? Again, yes, absolutely. Or if you asked whether the court went too far in calling this case frivolous? I'm not qualified to talk about the legal issues, but morally? Once more, yes. But this case brings up other issues, too. See, HS claimed she shouldn't be kicked off the team because she had the right to free speech. The school claimed she was an agent of the school and she didn't have a right to use the school's bully-pulpit to draw attention to how severely she felt like she'd been wronged. Personally, I think both of them are probably wrong. It's not a question of free speech or agency, but of whether HS can (or will) still fulfill the function of a cheerleader.

Think about it this way. Say HS was violently raped and she could not physically perform the gymnastics needed to cheer. Would we think the squad was out of line in telling her that if she can't do the moves she can't be part of the squad? We might think it was pity-worthy, and we might rightfully be disgusted at Rakheem for taking this opportunity away from HS. But I think people could reasonably say that HS shouldn't be part of the squad. I would hope that the squad would still make room for HS where they could (perhaps as a coach of some kind), but certainly she's not still entitled to shake her pom-poms in front of the whole school. In the real case, the difference is that HS was psychologically and emotionally injured by her mistake and that she chose not to cheer for her attacker rather than having that choice dictated by her physical injuries.

I know this is an unpopular position. When someone is raped we naturally want to support her against the person who so violated her. But there's a bigger issue at stake here. Remember two not-so-ancient news cases. Back in 2008 I heard of Lillian Ladele, a government worker in the U.K. who refused to register same-sex marriages as U.K. law required. Closer to home, later that same year there was the controversy over the morning-after pill and the conscience clause.

In both cases we have private citizens that are employed in a particular capacity, in some cases by the government and sometimes by private industries but always with the expectation that they perform a certain service. For some reason they can no longer fulfill that function. And in both cases, I thought the people involved had crossed a line. Lillian Ladele has every right not to register gay marriages - but not if she wants to be a government registrar. And in the U.S., pharmacists who don't want to dispense the morning-after pill have every right to refuse - so long as they don't put themselves out there as a dispenser of legal medicines. I mean, we wouldn't think a pharmacist had any right not to distribute condoms to an unmarried person, precisely because the law no longer limits contraception to the married. Principled people shouldn't be compelled to act in a way they disapprove of, but the other choice has to be to quit.

As much as it goads me, the same principle applies here. HS has every right to refuse to cheer. She can tell all her friends what an ass Rakheem is. She can paper her cafeteria with flyers about him. What she cannot do is refuse to carry out the function of a cheerleader. A cheerleader's role is to lead the crowd in cheering for the team. Not for people she personally thinks deserve cheers. If HS can't do that, then she shouldn't be a cheerleader.

And yeah, it does goad me a bit. I really feel for HS. But I don't think I can let my personal emotions get ion the way here, because it opens up the gate to other people to claim similar things.




( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 7th, 2011 11:15 pm (UTC)
I read the dKos discussion on this. If I'm remembering the reported timeline the not-cheering episode happened before the plea-bargin. I think it took a while before the DA decided to prosecute. So this is a case (looks like to me) that the Coach & team & school were all victim blaming & her cheering for him at that time would be psychologically equivalent to saying "He's right, I lied." -- or that's the way it appeared to me. I ran across it after the conversation has wound down & I don't think anyone else approached it quite that way. It was an ugly discussion.

From my PoV there's "legal" and "being compassionate". The legal system is basically weighted to the benefit of those that have power (they can get the better lawyers & build up precident that benefits the most powerful). Also, the girl's family lawyer apparently didn't argue the case very well (there were other possible approaches than "free speech") but the judge could only rule on what the lawyer presented. The dKos discussion did discuss how law favors the powerful.

It's a rape culture down there (almost everywhere in USA) and the community was exerting extra-legal pressure against the victim & for continuing the rape culture and they made themselves look bad.

May. 8th, 2011 10:10 am (UTC)
I wasn't familiar with the timing. If the girl was just trying to get the various authorities to actually do something, I'm much more sympathetic! I'm from NC originally, and I remember how some people reacted to similar things from my neck in the woods. The fact that this occurred at a party... I can just see the people I knew growing up using that as fuel for she deserved what she got.

But as I said, I am not condoning rape. I'm not excusing the teammates, either, or the culture that isn't outraged that a young athlete can do this with just a slap on the wrist. The thing is, though, things like this aren't that rare to hear about. It seems every few months I hear of some high schooler or collegian raped, often with the similar themes - happened at a party, rapist was an athlete, school/courts didn't act, etc. After a while it makes you feel sickened but it's not really engaging. Especially when you have no personal connection to the specific situation. So while I felt disgusted at the world when I first heard the story I didn't feel like I had anything to add. Her claiming "freedom of speech," on the other hand, that was something I could latch onto intellectually.

tl;dr version: the rape itself is awful, but that's not really what I was commenting on. And the girl was right not to cheer on her accuser - but again, that's not what I was talking about. I was asking, if she refuses to do what cheerleaders do (warranted or not), should she still be part of that group? My instinct is, while it might be nice for her friends to support her, she didn't really have a "right" to expect that.
May. 8th, 2011 10:11 am (UTC)
That's me, btw...
May. 8th, 2011 11:37 am (UTC)
I wasn't directly commenting on your comment
because you covered why the judge was "right" in the narrow confines of what he was ruling on. I'm both mad at a system that favors the powerful and mad at the rape culture.

I think it's a sad commentary on the girls school and community, and I'm glad they're getting bad press on the outside. Though she & her family are probably being more harrassed after this publicity.
May. 8th, 2011 11:58 am (UTC)
I haven't gone back to the dKos discussion (it's long and ugly) but I think the timing may have been:
1. HS complains to local cops, they won't do anything. At least the coach (maybe the whole school/community) knows about the complaint.j
2. HS is ordered to cheer or be removed from team.
3. HS & family take another route & the trial is set, he plea-bargains.

If I have this correctly, that's a good example of "blame the victim", "the sports star is more important than any female", etc. Again, I don't know the details for certain but since it's SOP for rape culture, I think it likely.

There's also discussion about how "false rape charges" can raise havoc on minority men -- and we had a "false rape" situation here in my community when the police wanted to frame a community activist. The tell-tales of that kind of situation don't seem to apply to the HS incident.
May. 8th, 2011 02:27 am (UTC)
Yeah, the culture, especially that of Texas seems to be moving towards a more misogynistic stance. She had a right not to cheer but to punish her for not wanting to cheer for someone who had committed a violent and shaming crime against her is woefully misguided. If the law does not act on the behalf of rape victims, the community still can.
I honestly do not believe that we can compare this girls' situation to that of a pharmacist who is withholding legal medications from patients due to his/her personal convictions. This girl was personally violated and that is not ok, in any shape or form. It may be legal for them to dismiss her, but I can't agree that it is ethically or morally right.
May. 8th, 2011 10:28 am (UTC)
I did wonder how that comparison would come off. I wasn't trying to say the two situations are equivalent - clearly they aren't in terms of pain caused or blame or anything like that. But they are similar in one important regard. HS was refusing to carry out the function of a cheerleader, which is IMO to represent the school. And similarly the other two cases I mentioned, you have people refusing to carry out some special role. The philosopher in me kept reminding me that what applies in one situation applies in the other; so if you say HS has the right to refuse to both be a cheerleader and not cheer because it goes against her convictions, then you can't say that a pharmacist can be a pharmacist and yet not distribute legal pharmaceuticals.

But just to be clear: she had a perfect right not to cheer. I'd say she had an obligation not to cheer. (So does the rest of her squad and her school, IMO, and shame on them for cheering on a rapist.) She just didn't have the right to expect to do that and still be a cheerleader. That's not punishment, btw - if being a cheerleader means cheering on a rapist, your rapist, then it's nothing to be grasped at. And having her family pay a fine was clearly out of line, no question there.

Btw, I don't recognize your screenname. Do I know you?
May. 8th, 2011 12:05 pm (UTC)
hard to find equivalancies
IMO, it's symptomatic of how the way Law works that we get pushed into making false equivalencies, just because Law works that way. Every time judges make a ruling that counter-intuitive that just makes it easier for the ruling class to get the kind of Supreme Court rulings such as Citizens United (IIRC) which treat corporations as "persons" with "free speech rights" ... which means, again, how much Free Speech one has is dependant upon how much money one has.

The school and community really let her down, and Law isn't going to help. & the ingrained rape culture isn't inclined to help either.
May. 8th, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)
the function of a cheerleader, which is IMO to represent the school

I think we can't construe its function so narrowly. A school should be representing the interests of individual members (particularly disempowered ones) at least as much as the other way round.

For me, the social role of cheerleader becomes meaningless if a school has become dysfunctional to such an extent that individual members are being harmed in this way. As I understand it, school sports in Texas = big bucks, so clearly this ruling serves the powerful and monied interests of some members of the school. But I'd call that exploitation rather than representation.

To my mind, schools (and prisons) are the closest we come in western society to total institutions, where the needs of the special case most often run the risk of being subjugated to bureaucratic and total control. (Not to mention that they are frequently the site of powerful ideological battles such as this one, for obvious reasons.) I think this is a prime example of totalising forces winning the day.
May. 8th, 2011 02:46 am (UTC)
Principled people shouldn't be compelled to act in a way they disapprove of, but the other choice has to be to quit.

I agree with this.

I think it's dreadful that HS was raped, I think that Rakheem should be rotting in jail if he's guilty - but I agree that if HS couldn't do what was required of cheerleaders, she shouldn't stay on the team. She could have made a big sign that said Rakheem was a rapist and paraded at the games, with friends supporting her perhaps, and cheered as an ordinary person for the rest of the team.

The compassionate and perhaps most ethical thing for the school to have done, though, would not be to kick HS off the cheerleading team, but to kick Rakheeem off the basketball team, since he was convicted of assault.
May. 8th, 2011 10:31 am (UTC)
Frankly, I don't know that I'd cheer for the rest of the team, either. They agreed to play with him, knowing what he did. That makes them part of the blame-the-victim system. Anyone contributing to that dynamic deserves a strong booing, at the least.

I can't even imagine how hard it must be to be raped, and then on top of that to lose your coveted place on the cheersquad. And I'm not so inhuman that I don't feel for her. It was just the "free speech" claim that got to me, I think, and made this case so philosophically interest to me. I really didn't mean to comment on the rest of the situation, much less to excuse rape.
May. 8th, 2011 11:45 am (UTC)
I suppose a reason why she didn't quit & protest
is likely that she was getting blame-the-victim pressure from the get go and if she had tried to protest at a game she and her few or no friends would be hussled out & no scandal ... except against her. The fact she & her family went to a lawyer is a signal to me that the school and community was that much against her, and it was their only option.

It's another signal to me that the family has to pay court costs. One of the dKos comments was that the normal "frivilous lawsuit" penalities go against the *lawyer* not the claimant ... because it's the lawyer's job to know what's "frivolous" or not.
May. 8th, 2011 08:59 am (UTC)
I think this equates the wrong things. It's not the young woman's actions that are in need of regulation, but the young man's. Then one can very easily see that wishing to enter into a gay marriage, or wanting to take an abortifacient drug are in no way comparable to rape. The real question is why a man who believes he has unfettered access to women's bodies continues to be endorsed by his high school sports team. (I think I answer my own question there.)

The young woman concerned deserves unequivocal support. Marching on the sports ground with a big sign? When victims of assault often find it difficult to face their attackers in the safety of a courtroom? I don't think that that is a reasonable option to offer her. All she had to fall back on was her silence (her silence, for god's sake!) and she had even that withdrawn. It's disgusting. It should be flagging to everyone concerned that something has gone badly wrong in their reasoning.
May. 8th, 2011 10:46 am (UTC)
As I've tried to explain above, I wasn't trying to equate being raped with those other things you mentioned. For that matter, I wasn't comparing the conviction that this athlete should not be cheered with having a certain religious belief that same-sex marriage was wrong, or that life began at conception. But I don't think there's just one equation to be drawn here.

On the one hand, HS was horribly violated. She should not have to cheer for her rapist. She shouldn't have to see him every day, either - he should be safely locked up. But that whole set of wrongness wasn't what I was really talking about.

I also don't think HS has any sort of an obligation to publicly attack her rapist. I agree, that would take a lot of nerve for anyone but especially a teenage girl. I wouldn't have had the nerve. Personally, I like to think that if I was in HS's shoes I would have just quit the squad and taken some small degree of comfort in the truth that I was rejecting the whole social scene that blamed me for what had happened. It could be in a way an act of civil disobedience. HS doesn't need to be part of the same sports-crazed culture that kept Rakheem from being punished, she's better than that. And of course at that age, losing your spot on a team would be another blow, and I feel bad for her that it has to be that way.

But like I said above, I wasn't really talking about the rape itself. Or even HS's decision not to cheer. I was talking about her claim that she had a right not to cheer and be a cheerleader - that freedom of speech covered it. I do think that sets up a dangerous precedent. Which I may be wrong about! This was just my first pass at this particular set of questions. But even so, I think it's misleading to think about "the real question" of a certain situation. In this case at least, there seems to be more than one question that's worth asking.
May. 8th, 2011 11:21 am (UTC)
No, I didn't think you were equating those things, but I do think that people are getting themselves into a terrible muddle. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that she should be able continue to participate fully in the culture of her school and to enjoy whatever social benefits and social capital accrue from her position as a cheerleader without having to humiliate herself by cheering her rapist. It also seems perfectly reasonable to me for her to use what little social capital she has (in comparison with being on the sports team) in order to protest this injustice.

I am bewildered as to what the school think they are doing in punishing her this way, other than signalling in the clearest terms that they put a higher value on the young man than on the young woman. I think the school is choosing to police her - and the women around her - in the most appalling way.

ETA: sorry for the delete, I didn't put my comment directly under the thread.
May. 8th, 2011 12:12 pm (UTC)
what the school is doing in punishing her
is, unfortunately, pushing rape culture memes. A girl who goes to a party is "asking for it" and shouldn't complain. It seems they are very outraged that she would complain and bring in the police, which would impact the sports stars' ability to get a scholarship.
May. 8th, 2011 12:22 pm (UTC)
Re: what the school is doing in punishing her
The sexual double standard in operation, demonstrating very clearly how all the layers of institutionalised misogyny (school, courts, the law itself) stack up against women.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )



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