Boston. -- To understand this story you have to know what high school football means to small-town Texas. Which is to say, dang near everything.
To understand this story you have to know that the only female place in the football firmament is as a cheerleader. It also helps to know how seriously the Lone Star State takes cheerleading. In 1991 one mother tried to increase her daughter's chances of making the squad by hiring a hit man to bump off a competitor's mother. You get the idea.
With that background then, we arrive at Hempstead, Texas, where things are not going very well. The Hempstead Bobcats are 0-4 for the season. The Hempstead cheerleaders are 4-15. Four out of 15 of them got pregnant.
The school banned three of them from the squad. The fourth, who had an abortion, has been allowed back on but sat out last week's game for fear of being booed.
These stats have raised the stress level and brought the national media to this town of 3,500 where parents and teen-agers are offering their own play-by-play, a running commentary on teen-age pregnancy. The questions being debated run like this:
Should a girl be banned from cheerleading because she's pregnant? Should a girl who had an abortion be back on the field? Does the school policy allowing her to rejoin the cheerleaders promote abortion? If she stays on the sidelines, is she being punished while girls with better luck or better contraceptives are not? And if the pregnant cheerleaders are benched, what about the impregnating boys, at least one of whom is allegedly playing football?
These questions circle around fairness and equity. But they cover a set of concerns that puzzles most of us: how on earth to support pregnant teens and discourage teen pregnancy?
In the not-so-distant past, if an unmarried girl got pregnant, the response was a shotgun marriage or an eviction. Girls were cast out of families, shipped to distant relatives or left to the streets. Some went to back-alley abortionists and some to homes for unwed mothers from which they would return empty-handed. And some girls struggled on their own.
We are no longer that punitive. We have made life easier -- although not easy -- for pregnant teen-agers. We have welfare so they won't starve and programs so they'll stay in school. And we worry greatly about the increase in single mothers and kids.
The conundrum is made even greater because of the argument over abortion. Pro-lifers may condemn unmarried sex and come down on welfare mothers, but they have beatified girls who choose to carry their babies. They have tied themselves into a knot -- the Murphy Brown knot.
Pro-choicers have been tied in their own knots, in an effort to be seen as even-handed people who favor a woman's right to decide and not just her right to abort. In many high schools, including Hempstead, it seems that the peer-group pressure is now toward motherhood.
But surely, if we can draw the line anywhere, a line between stigmatizing pregnancy and promoting it, we can draw it at the 50-yard line.
It's one thing to keep pregnant girls in school. It's quite another to provide them with maternity cheerleading uniforms. Sooner or later, they won't be able to do the back flips and cartwheels anyway. We don't have to punish pregnancy but we don't have to celebrate it with pompons at halftime.
As for the girl who had an abortion? I guess there's no right to privacy in a small town. But unless there's a chastity test for the squad, the team, the school, she should be able to go back on the field without being booed.
The school policy isn't a statement in favor of abortion. It's a statement about reality. Like it or not, women choose abortion so that they can go back to their life. The future is different for a girl who has a baby. To deny that is to perpetuate a fantasy already common among girls. And, anybody who would choose abortion because she doesn't want to give up cheerleading is dismally unaware of the real sacrifices that come with motherhood.
As for the boys, ever since we put away the shotgun, we've tried to figure out a way to promote male responsibility. I'm all for leveling that playing field. If that means benching the fathers, so be it. A football player or two ruled offsides could be the best abstinence or contraceptive program in Texas since cold showers.
In the meantime, what we need is a new cheer for the squad in Hempstead, Texas: ''Two, Four, Six, Eight. You're Too Young to Procreate.''
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.