Friday, May 13, 2011

Cheerleading, Confucius, and the Courage of a Survivor.

I’ve taught in colleges and universities for over 30 years, 20 of them in tenured or tenure-track positions. I’ve had my share of athletes in my classes—ranging from an All-American middle-distance runner to guys who sat on the bench for an NAIA school’s basketball team. The majority of these young men and women were essentially indistinguishable from their classmates: some were likeable, some were good students, some both, some neither. A small but noteworthy percentage of them, of course, were living incarnations of the stereotypical stupid, pampered, arrogant, jock.

There was the (married) one who thought that whispering revoltingly explicit suggestions to the women (one in particular) in an acting class was acceptable; the one who came in to complain about his grade on a scene, alleging I had been unfair to him because he had nothing in common with the character, who happened to be a student complaining about his grade (I couldn’t make this stuff up); the one who dragged his position coach along with him to argue that I should have excused his absence the day he was in court, being convicted of an E felony—he also wrote neither of the required papers, got a D on one exam and didn’t show up for the other, and got a 38 (counting the curve) on the final… curiously enough, he failed my course, conference all-freshman team recognition notwithstanding).

There’s at least one of these creatures in the small town of Silsbee, Texas, about two hours south of where I live. His name is Rakheem Bolton (I can use his name because he was actually convicted), and he’s apparently a pretty good football and basketball player. He is also a rapist, or, to be legally precise, he was accused of rape and allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge. This is Texas, after all. Did I mention he’s a good athlete?

The case made headlines a few months ago, not because there’s another jock predator out there (that’s hardly worthy of mentioning), but because the victim in the case, a young woman identified publicly only as “H.S.,” got thrown off the cheerleading squad for refusing to cheer specifically for her attacker, by name. The cheer in question? “Two, four, six, eight, ten, come on, Rakheem, put it in." Seriously. Needless to say, the school did back flips to coddle their prize athlete, justice be damned. Tanner Hunt, Jr., the school’s attorney, sniveled that they had followed the law: “For all anyone knew, it was a girl mad at a boy.” He also proclaimed that “If there was something to apologize for, we would.”

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t argue whether what the school did was legal. But I’m pretty sure of two things. One is actually incontrovertible: in a just universe, Tanner Hunt, Jr. would have his smarmy little face meet up with the business end of a baseball bat. And what I wrote in February about a different collection of jackass pseudo-educators in a different East Texas school applies pretty well to Silsbee superintendent Richard Bain, principal Gaye Lokey and cheerleading coach Sissy McInnis, all of whom bring dishonor to their town and their profession by valuing a rulebook over both people and justice. I described then my increasing admiration for the wisdom of the great Chinese sage Confucius:
One of the central tenets of Confucian thought is the avoidance of lengthy and complicated rules structures. Every situation is different, and one can never anticipate all the possible permutations. Confucius’s solution is not to try. He advocates placing authority in the hands of a junzi (gentleman) who is sufficiently endowed with both wisdom and ethical sensibility to be able to adjudicate disputes….

The idiot principal who pointed to the student handbook as if it had been divinely inspired, and who was unsurprisingly too cowardly to even face the press would have been lucky to have been laughed out of Confucius’s presence. More likely, we’d have found out the ancient Chinese word for “bitch-slap.”
Nice to know there’s consistency in the educational hierarchy, isn’t it?

The other point is less ontologically certain, but I strongly suspect that there were other legal means of handling the situation: suspending Bolton being an obvious solution. You know, punishing the criminal instead of the victim? There is no constitutional right to play basketball. I know laws are different in different states, but that high school in California I wrote about in February (February seems to have been a good month for stories about high schools) managed to suspend and ultimately expel an athlete accused of a sexual offense who ultimately wasn’t convicted of anything. If you can get thrown off the cheerleading squad for refusing to cheer for your rapist, shouldn’t… erm… being that rapist get you tossed from the basketball team?

I cannot improve on the commentary of Sports Illustrated’s Selena Roberts, “A school is supposed to be an emotional safe haven for all students, and educators should help, not harass, students in vulnerable positions…. Why not err on the side of compassion?” or of Jack Marshall on his Ethics Alarms blog, “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.”

The case is in the news again because the Supreme Court just refused to hear H.S.’s appeal, leaving the girl to pay $45,000 in costs for the school to defend a “frivolous” suit. I suspect that the law really is on the side of the school. What is legal and what is just are not interchangeable, as the ongoing saga of the Westboro Baptist Church continues to demonstrate. But if there’s anyone doing anything “frivolous” here, it sure as hell isn’t H.S. Unsurprisingly, Jack Marshall’s recent piece in the wake of that ruling hits the proverbial nail on the head: “As I find myself writing again and again, the law will sometimes support horribly unethical conduct, and an unlucky, courageous, abused young woman from Silsbee, Texas just learned this lesson the hard way. I’m so sorry.”

But that’s not where the story ends, I’m pleased to say. No, there isn’t going to be a reversal in legal terms. But a self-described “group of geeky women” in Los Angeles, one of whom I am proud to claim as a friend and former student, isn’t going to let H.S. be stuck with a $45,000 bill for doing what is right. Not if the League of Extraordinary Ladies has anything to say about it. They’ve taken up the cause, and they’ve already raised over $1200 towards their goal of paying off that $45K and hopefully having a little more to cover H.S.’s own legal expenses. (EDIT: there's now a separate website dedicated to the fundraising effort. I should also mention that the campaign is operating in cooperation with H.S.'s lawyer.)

As I said, I know one of these women, and if she says all the money is going to help H.S., you can count on it. And if they have their way, and I am certainly not going to bet against them, the lesson H.S. learns won’t be just that jocks can get away with anything, or that you can’t count on the legal system for justice. It will be that there is no shame in losing if you’re fighting for a good cause; that, idiot school administrators notwithstanding, people are more good than bad; and that if you show maturity beyond your years, exemplary courage, and a steadfastness of spirit, someone will have your back.

Talk, as they say, is cheap. This cause explicitly seeks “a large number of people donating a small amount,” even a dollar or two. The number of donors matters: symbolically, politically, and pragmatically. I made a contribution. If you can afford it, you should, too.


Karmic Restitution said...

Thank you for this post. You've said this far better than I could. I'm trying to H.S. and others like her via my site, I hope to have non-profit status by the end of the year.

manjushri924 said...

KR, you're very kind, as there is no lack of eloquence on your site. Good luck with your project.