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Columbine and the Cult of High School Sports

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Two weeks ago, President Clinton went to Colorado to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings. Occurring on the day that a copycat gunman had shot six of his classmates in a Conyers, Ga., high school, the May 20 visit was a natural forum for decrying violence in movies, profanity on the Internet, and the surfeit of firearms throughout our society.

Such sentiments are fine with me. But I also wish the president had used this moment to question the great sacred cow of American education: high school sports.

Most commentary about Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold has focused on their penchant for heavy weaponry and their heinous, Nazi-inspired racism, transmitted in quasi-secret via e-mails and World Wide Web pages. The boys were much more open about their animus against athletes. In the months preceding the tragedy, Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold could be heard complaining, "Oh, the jocks think they're so cool. They run this school."

About this, and this alone, the killers were correct. Male athletes do "run" the American high school, occupying the very highest rung on its ladder of prestige.

That wasn't always the case. In the 19th century, when a tiny fraction of Americans attended high school, sports were informal, small-scale, and--most of all--student-sponsored. Operating without adult oversight, student athletic associations raised money, secured playing fields, and scheduled matches between various boys' teams.

The big change came at the turn of the century. As school enrollments swelled, especially with immigrants and their offspring, school officials sought ways to control and discipline this clamorous, diverse population. They seized upon athletics, which would supposedly teach students the American virtues of cooperation, hard work, and fair play.

But first, athletics would require adult direction. Denouncing student-led leagues as unruly and unsafe, schools placed sports under the supervision of principals, interscholastic-league officials, and an entirely fresh breed of educator: the paid, full-time athletic coach.

Ironically, the weakening of student power spawned another new figure on America's social landscape: the high school sports hero. Celebrated rather than censured by adults within the schools, the hero received further praise from politicians, businessmen, and journalists in the larger community.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold heard our message, loud and clear: Jocks run the school.

Eventually, of course, the students themselves followed suit. In Middletown, their classic 1929 study of Muncie, Ind., the sociologists Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd found that high schoolers reserved their highest respect for successful athletes. Boys envied their popularity, while girls longed to date these public icons of "male physical prowess."

As the Lynds recognized, however, adults--not students--remained the driving force behind the deification of sports. Returning to Muncie during the height of the Great Depression, the Lynds watched local boosters raise more than a third of a million dollars for a new basketball arena--even as these very citizens fought to slash school budgets for teacher salaries and supplies.

Today, of course, the same incongruities continue. Consider the case of Chicago, where a 90 percent cut in funds for school supplies in 1991 sparked only the slightest public objection. When the school district announced plans to eliminate interscholastic athletics the following year, by contrast, a whirl of protest gripped the Windy City. Led by Michael Jordan and his erstwhile corporate sponsor, Nike, private sources raised more than a million dollars to save high school sports.

To be sure, sports promote health and confidence in millions of American students--especially in girls, who have too frequently been excluded from high school athletics. But what message do adults send when they elevate athletics over everything else, including academics?

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold heard our message, loud and clear: Jocks run the school. However troubled, warped, or simply evil--and I would vote for simply evil--these two boys got one thing right. We should all take heed, and we should work to prove them wrong.

Jonathan Zimmerman is the author of Distilling Democracy and teaches history at New York University's school of education in New York City. This essay is adapted from a commentary appearing in the May 22, 1999, Philadelphia Inquirer.

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