(WOMENSENEWS)–On May 2 the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of a Texas high school cheerleader who was kicked off her squad for refusing to cheer for a basketball player accused of raping her weeks earlier.
About a dozen of us former NFL cheerleaders, standing on the sidelines, were stunned. Then we decided to do what we can to speak up for Hillaire, who wants her real first name to be used.
“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,” said Cheryl Duddy Schoenfeld, who cheered for the NFL for two years in the 1970s. “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. If the school officials and courts won’t support her, we will. We are calling on all cheerleaders–NFL, college and high school, past and present–to step up and join us in this effort.”
The victim’s family has been ordered to pay $45,000 in costs to reimburse the school for having to defend against the lawsuit.
“Making the victim’s parents pay tens of thousands of dollars because they tried to protect their child is like sending a message to all cheerleaders that they had better stay quiet about things like sexual assault and dating violence,” said Bonnie Gardner-Drumm, an NFL cheerleader for five years in the early 1980s.
She calls the incident an outrage. “How hard would it have been for school officials to just let her stay silent? Ideally they should have forbidden the guy to play sports, but insisting that a young woman literally cheer for a man who abused her is its own form of abuse.”
Support ‘Really Good’
The victim’s lawyer, Larry Watts, said he was disappointed with the court’s response, but that it felt “really good” to learn that a group of NFL cheerleaders had stepped forward to support the victim.
“I’ve been frustrated and shocked that no women’s or victims’ groups or even cheerleaders’ organizations have spoken out in support of Hillaire. I just don’t get it,” he said. “This is a brave young woman. It’s great that professional cheerleaders are now supporting her. They don’t even know Hillaire but they know what she’s going through and what it took for her to do what she did.”
Hillaire and her parents filed the lawsuit against the high school after school officials in Silsbee, Texas, told Hillaire she had no choice but to cheer for the man who attacked her.
She was willing to cheer for the team, but when her assailant was at the free-throw line, and the squad was cheering for him in particular, she stepped back from the others and crossed her arms in defiance.
Watts described the cheer they wanted her to say. He said, “It went something like this: ‘Two, four, six-eight-10, come on [player] put it in.’ Think about that. How does a school official make a rape victim say something like that to a man who did something so horrible?”
The accused was charged with rape and pleaded guilty to assault in 2010, but while the matter was still being resolved he continued to play sports.
In February 2009, when the victim refused to cheer for him, she was sent home by school officials and later dismissed from the squad for the remainder of her high school career. The accused student continued to enjoy the cheers and adulation of other students, parents and school officials.
“People dismiss the value of cheerleaders as unimportant compared to the guys,” said Schoenfeld. “It took a lot of guts for this young woman to take a stand the way she did. She didn’t deserve to be punished for that. It’s unbelievable in this day and age that school officials could be so backward thinking about an issue as important as violence against women and girls.”
Examining Cheerleaders’ Rights
In their lawsuit against the school district, Hillaire and her family argued that a victim has a constitutionally-protected First Amendment right to express herself by refusing to cheer for a student accused of rape.
The federal court disagreed and ruled the teen had no free speech rights because cheerleaders act as agents of the school–“mouthpieces” is the word the court used–not as an individual students.
The NFL cheerleaders, offended by the court’s characterization of them as mere “mouthpieces,” are putting their megaphones to their mouths to speak out.
I did, when I wrote that Hillaire should have sued under Title IX, instead of the First Amendment, on the grounds that requiring a cheerleader to cheer for her rapist is a form of sexual harassment and thus an act of gender discrimination.
Another former NFL cheerleader, Jeanne Ball, is upset to hear that there has been so little public support for Hillaire.
“Fortunately, she seems to have strong family support,” Ball said.
Attorney Watts says Hillaire regrets nothing and is proud of herself for refusing to cheer and for bringing the lawsuit.
“It was the least she could do to show everyone how she felt not only about being raped, but also about being so disrespected by school officials,” he said.
Former cheerleader Schoenfeld could not agree more.
“We don’t want cheerleaders–or any women–to stay quiet about such things,” she said. “Many of us have daughters now–and sons–and we want them to have healthy relationships. There’s nothing healthy about rape and there’s certainly nothing healthy about making a young woman cheer for her abuser.”
The school’s lawyer did not return a call seeking comments.
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Wendy J. Murphy, a former NFL cheerleader and contributing editor to Women’s eNews, is a law professor at New England Law/Boston and an expert in Title IX.