It started as a debate over a student's rights in a school setting. But the story of a teenage cheerleader punished by her school for refusing to cheer on her alleged rapist, then told by the Supreme Court that SHE was in the wrong, has turned into a rallying cry for cheerleaders everywhere.
A group of NFL cheerleaders has come out in support of the Texas teen, now identified as Hillaire, who was told last week by the Supreme Court that her school had the right to kick her off the team for declining to cheer for Rakheem Bolton, the basketball star who was later convicted of abusing her (at the time school administrators admonished her for her discomfort, the case was still winding its way through courts; he had yet to be convicted). This treatment, they say, is as the heart of the problem for cheerleaders everywhere.
Says Cheryl Duddy Schoenfeld, who cheered for the NFL for two years in the 1970s:
There's always been this idea that if you're a cheerleader, you're just there to decorate the sidelines for the benefit of male players and fans. Well we've got news for anyone who believes in such nonsense. We are rallying behind this girl and her family and we are committed to doing what we can to make sure this never happens again -- to any girl.
She's right on both counts -- cheerleaders are not mere decoration, and it will take cheereleaders to shift the dynamic. The sticking point on the cheerleading issue for me has always been how they try to incorporate themselves into the team for which they're cheering. In high school, I went round and round with the cheerleaders who told me "we won" when the guys won, who carried the same dejection as the guys when there was a loss.
That they can have an impact on the game isn't in question. The positive energy of having someone on your side carries over in more than just athletics. But in positioning themselves as members of that team, the girls were selling short their own team. They were willingly giving up their own identities.
The fact is, cheerleading IS a sport because of what the cheerleaders accomplish on their own. Be it girls or men, it requires physical endurance, talent at executing complicated choreography, and a stage presence. How many people do you know who are willing to be thrown high in the air, depending on their teammates to catch them? How many people can throw a person high in the air? How many can catch a person hurled in the air?
There's a reason cheerleading competitions exist without teams to cheer for: because the teams are doing their "own thing." That's independent of the basic purpose -- to cheer on a team. Valuing what reminds us cheerleaders aren't simply a tool for the basketball or football team, to be ordered around -- like Hillaire.
Cheerleaders deserve respect because they're human beings. But they won't get that respect if they don't value themselves.
Do you think cheerleaders can reframe the conversation?
Image via Viernest/Flickr