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Columbine and the folly of overvaluing school sports

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

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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 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 Meanwhile, the school's textbooks were 15 years out of date – and nobody could come up with the money to replace them.

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