The Dark Politics Of CheerleadingS

The story of a high school student forced to cheer on her rapist has exposed some deep problems with the way sports culture treats cheerleaders.

According to Ms., a student (not pictured) at Silsbee High School in Texas was allegedly raped by three fellow students, including athlete Rakheem Bolton. He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge, receiving a suspended sentence, and playing basketball for Silsbee, where his victim (Ms. calls her H.S.) was on the cheer squad. H.S. had refused her school's suggestion that she basically go into hiding by avoiding homecoming celebrations and even the cafeteria, and she was willing to cheer games in which Bolton played. All she refused to do was yell his name — and for that she was kicked off the squad. Her parents sued, but a court dismissed her case, saying, her refusal "constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, [she] was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily."

On the one hand, H.S.'s case illustrates a disturbing side of cheerleading — a side in which young women (and, at some schools, a few young men) are supposed to dance and yell on behalf of male athletes, no matter how awful those athletes' off-court behavior may be. On the other hand, cheer was obviously something H.S. cared about — she wanted to stay on the squad even if it meant watching her rapists' games, and only drew the line at cheering him on by name. So while it's been popular at times to dismiss cheerleading as inherently anti-woman, that's a little too simplistic.

Some high school cheerleaders have argued that cheer is as rigorous as any sport, and it offers a sense of community and teamwork to students who participate. But at the professional level (and, to some extent, in high school too) it's also highly sexualized. That's what 509 Oilers fans were presumably objecting to when they signed a petition to keep cheerleaders off the ice. Cheerleading, with its complicated leaps and flips, has a lot in common with the sports it often shares a space with — but it gets way less respect, for reasons that have a lot to do with sex.

Obviously not every cheer environment is as toxic as the one H.S. encountered. But the attitude that athletes deserve protection while the women who cheer them on had better toe the line — or else — isn't limited to Silsbee High. Note, for instance, Terez Owens's photo slideshow of former FSU cheerleader Cowgirl Jenn Sterger — she posed for sexy pictures, he implies, so she obviously can't be trusted. And in general, the bargain sports culture seems to offer cheerleaders is very similar to the one offered any woman whose job has anything to do with her appearance: we'll enjoy watching you, and at the professional level maybe pay you, but in exchange we will deny you all respect. It's no accident that strippers and sex workers are still largely required to accept this same exchange — the conventional wisdom across America seems to be that if part of your job includes looking hot you deserve to be denigrated.

There are a lot of other issues at play in H.S.'s case — our systematic mistreatment of rape victims is just one. But it's becoming clearer and clearer that being a woman in the world of men's sports comes with a constant risk of harassment and disrespect. One solution to this would be more support for women's sports, so that more women have the opportunity to be on the field as well as on the sidelines. But those who are on the sidelines deserve support too — and what they get right now is too often exactly the opposite.

Cheerleader Required To Cheer For Man Who Assaulted Her [Ms. Magazine Blog, via Slog]
Scantily Clad Women Have No Place On The Ice Unless They're Figure Skating [Deadspin]