Columbine and the folly of overvaluing school sports

Ten years later, we are still confusing athletic success with the moral and intellectual kind.

In December 1999, just eight months after 15 people died there, Columbine High School won its first state football championship. Americans love a happy ending, and this one was made for TV. National newscasts ran footage of the celebrations at Columbine, which followed a predictable media script: Athletic triumph tempers human tragedy.

And surely, Columbine High School needed any good news it could get. But the impulse to take comfort in sports reflected a larger problem, too: American high schools put far too large a premium on organized athletics.

As we pause to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Columbine murders, we should also reflect on the sports-crazed culture that helped produce them.

Let's be clear: Nothing can excuse the raw malevolence of the two boys, who gunned down 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives. And they didn't go looking for "jocks" to kill, as early media reports claimed. But they were bullied by athletes, who stood at the top of the Columbine social ladder.

Even worse, adults reinforced this hierarchy. At Columbine, as sociologist Ralph Larkin has confirmed, teachers and administrators looked the other way when athletes hit or harassed weaker students. When sports stars got arrested outside the school, meanwhile, Columbine bent the rules to make sure they could still take the field.

Most of all, the school awarded athletes a special place in its symbolic order. In foyer display cases, sports trophies and memorabilia spoke volumes about who really counted. The hallway leading to the gymnasium featured Columbine's Wall of Fame, celebrating – you guessed it – the school's outstanding athletes.

That doesn't make Columbine unique, of course. Indeed, other American communities lavish even more acclaim on their youthful sports heroes. At Permian High School in Odessa, Texas – made famous by the H.G. Bissinger book "Friday Night Lights" – school officials spent $70,000 for a chartered airplane to fly the football team to visiting games. Meanwhile, the school's textbooks were 15 years out of date – and nobody could come up with the money to replace them.

So let's use this anniversary to think about sports – not just violence – in American schools. Keep in mind that violent crime in our schools has declined – not increased – by nearly half over the past decade. And shootings are extremely rare. Over the past 20 years, about 10 students per year have been shot in school – roughly one per month during the academic year. That's one too many, of course, but it hardly qualifies as a crisis.

Our overemphasis on sports does. When we tie "school pride" to athletics, we give pride of place to student athletes. And we send exactly the wrong message to millions of children: The sports field is more important than the classroom.

Colleges exacerbate the problem, of course, by rewarding athletic prowess with scholarships and special advantages in admissions. That's because so much of their pride, too, is invested in fielding successful sports teams.

And that returns us to Columbine, which won the state football title again in 2002. Once more, the school celebrated its strength in the face of adversity.

"The team and the school and the community at large had every reason to quit, to give up, to descend into total despair, but we've come out of it to a great degree," Columbine's principal said at the time. "We showed amazing resolve and resilience, and maybe, in some way, we've given faith to others, who saw how we responded."

But sports victories don't signify strength, or resilience, or anything else; they simply mean that one team scored more points than another one did. Today, 10 years after Columbine, we are still confusing athletic success with the moral and intellectual kind.

We need some brave school leaders to stand up and state a few simple truths: Sports are not life, and life is not sports, and all of us need to relearn the difference. Any takers?

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," which will be published in June.

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