In the current issue of Sports Illustrated, Selena Roberts relates the tale of an ethical outrage, one that will makes your heart sink at the realization that there is so much incompetence, lack of common sense, cruelty and irresponsibility in the world…and that so much of it resides in high school administration.
A Silsbee (Texas) High School cheerleader, identified in the story only as “H.S.”, had told police that she had been cornered in a room by three school athletes during a party, and sexually assaulted. Her screams were heard by others at the party, and charges were filed. Roberts writes, “In a town whose population is 7,341 and whose high school football stadium seats 7,000…the alleged assault prompted two questions: How would it affect the girl? And how would it affect the team?”
After a grand jury decided there was not enough evidence to pursue charges against the three young men, they were permitted back on campus and back into the sports program. Months later, a second grand jury examined the case and did bring charges against Rakheem Bolton, one of the H.S.’s assailants and a school basketball star. Between the first and the second grand jury, however, Bolton was allowed to play for the Silsbee team…meaning that his victim, “H.S.” would be one of the cheerleaders on the sidelines.
Silsbee cheerleaders are bound by “the Cheerleader Constitution,” a code that requires cheerleaders to cheer equally for all, and in basketball, support any player at the foul line by shouting his name. In the first half of his first game back on the court, Bolton was fouled twice. Each time Bolton went to the foul line, H.S. declined to cheer for one of the men whom she said had attacked her, folding her arms, stepping back and remaining silent while her squad cheered, “Go, Rakheem!”
Administrators were horrified. H.S. found herself surrounded at halftime by Silsbee superintendent Richard Bain, principal Gaye Lokey and cheerleading coach Sissy McInnis, who reprimanded her for refusing to cheer for Bolton. They issued an ultimatum: cheer for Rakheem Bolton or go home.
She went home.
The following Monday, H.S. walked into cheerleading class and was ordered to go to the principal’s office, where she was told that she was off the squad. Her family filed a civil suit against the school district, and on Sept. 16, 2010, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that H.S.’s silent protest was not protected speech under the First Amendment, meaning that she could be disciplined for violating the cheerleading conduct code.
Never mind the court decision. Whether it was protected speech or not, the young woman’s protest should have been respected by the adults who knew her situation, and certainly should not have been punished. The school was in a bind, no question about it. Bolton had been (temporarily) cleared; there was no way to fairly bar him from playing as long as the legal system said he was not guilty of anything. H.S., the victim in the matter, had every right and reason not to allow Bolton to compound the harm he had done to her by forcing her to quit cheerleading rather than to have to cheer her attacker. H.S.’s silent refusal to cheer was a reasonable compromise under difficult circumstances—fairer to her than having to give up an activity she loved; kinder to Bolton than shouting, “You assaulted me, you bastard!” while he was trying to sink a foul shot. In fact, she showed remarkable restraint. This was no time for the school’s administration to insist on the letter of cheerleader protocol, which, reasonably enough, omitted any guidance regarding the proper way for a cheerleader to cheer on a player who raped her and got away with it. “They chose to support the athlete,” Larry Watts, H.S.’s attorney, told Roberts.”They chose to support the male. It’s just good ol’ testosteronic East Texas.”
No, it’s worse than that. This isn’t just bias, or sports mania. This is a black pit of an ethics vacuum, shared by a school, a culture and a community. If the entire town didn’t rise up after this incident and send Bain, Lokey and McInnis to the unemployment line, then this is another small American town where values have gone to rot, like Obion County, where the fire department let a man’s house burn down, and Itawamba County, where the entire populace conspired to make certain that a gay student didn’t get to go to the prom.
Small towns are often hailed as places where real American values thrive, but they can also, as this story shows, become pockets of soul sickness where ethical values are dying or mutating in awful ways, and innocent people get horribly mistreated as a result. “If there was something to apologize for, we would,” the town’s lawyer told Roberts.
No, punishing a teenage gang-bang victim for not cheering for one of her rapists isn’t something to apologize for. Not in Silsbee, Texas.