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.