Thursday, May 20, 1999
On a sunny spring morning in April, two high school students in a well-groomed suburb of Colorado targeted jocks and minorities in a shooting rampage that left 12 students and one teacher dead.
We''ll never know what caused Eric Harris'' and Dylan Klebold''s confusion to erupt and turn Littleton''s Columbine High School upside down. Harris, a former Little League baseball player, and Klebold, who Time magazine reported played in a fantasy baseball league until the night before the massacre, reportedly felt jocks got all the breaks. They set out to punish them.
Whether that hatred led Harris and Klebold to act or if--as in the words of one local school psychologist--jocks merely became the symbols of two outcasts'' inner rage, we''ll probably never know. But the incident does raise questions about the consequences of school-age competition and the way it creates a split society: one of hero jocks who get all the attention and another of dorky nerds who are always picked last for team play when everybody lines up in P.E. classes.
What we do know is that athletic programs play a large part in the socialization, self-esteem and all-around well-being of youngsters. But when it comes to school sports programs, kids get cut--it''s as simple and as harsh as that. Some make it, but many don''t.
That may be reality, but some early advocates of public education, like Horace Mann or John Dewey, might be perplexed how the one purpose of the public school--as played out in the gym--has evolved into competition, with clear winners and losers.
"As a parent I would say it''s not fair," says Art Hunsdorfer, athletic director at Salinas High School, which sponsors 48 teams in 17 different sports. "But as an educator and a parent, I would say that athletics in the public schools and in the private schools teach kids about life, and part of life is being rejected at times."
Hunsdorfer''s view is shared by many coaches, most of whom point out that the goal of a sports team is to win, and retaining the best players is the way to achieve that goal.
But for others, a trophy just isn''t enough reason to banish young children--even if they are marginal players--from the fun and camaraderie of sports.
"Some people''s lives have been ruined because they didn''t make it on the freshman team," says Rich Aldrete, a former minor league baseball player who now runs the all-comers Aldrete Baseball Academy on Fort Ord.
Anyone who wants to play baseball can play it at Aldrete''s academy, where 148 kids from ages 8 to 18 play on six teams and take lessons on the basics of ball.
In school sports, Aldrete favors a no-cut policy up until the varsity level. The middle school and early high school years are "the peak time they''re trying to fit in," he says.
"At 14 or 15 years of age, those are precious minds, and they can take these things personally," he adds. "...And if you''re not good, you''re considered a dork, and nobody wants to be a dork."
Peaches and Cream--Not!
Dealing with disappointment is part of growing up. Your parents never listen to you. Kids in school tease and belittle. And when you do find something you like to do--say, playing basketball--it doesn''t mean you''ll make the team. Many students take such incidents to heart.
Dan Waiswillos, a school psychologist in the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, remembers one boy who was referred to him in a near suicidal state because he didn''t make a particular school team.
"That was a very serious situation," Waiswillos says. Other students were teasing and chiding the boy because of his poor athletic ability, and he was "very depressed" and "despondent."
In that case, the child was able to secure a space on another school team "and he did quite well," Waiswillos says. "So that''s a case of all''s well that ends well."
Of course, Waiswillos says, the boy was struggling with other emotions as well. Getting cut didn''t cause his depression, but it contributed to it.
Likewise, Waiswillos says, Littleton''s Harris and Klebold were probably dealing with some pretty heavy issues that made them go on their shooting rampage, and the school''s jocks probably became a symbol of their rage rather than the cause of it.
"The jocks are the visible kids," Waiswillos says. "They''re the ones who have ''made it,'' or at least that''s the perception of the disenfranchised child."
Others--like Aldrete--question the merits of a system that is inherently set up to create such young--and vulnerable--winners and losers.
"That''s why I started this academy, because I''ve seen a lot of people get cut, and I know what it does to them," says Aldrete, who makes sure that every child on the team roster gets to play in every game.
Still, not all Aldrete''s students make it on their school teams. Take 15-year-old William Lippincott of Salinas, for example. William has played Little League since he was about 4 and has been taking lessons from Aldrete for a year, but was nonetheless cut from the freshman baseball team at Palma High School.
"I was pretty sad about it,'''' says William, a natural athlete who was a starting player on the Palma High freshman football team.
William says he was surprised and hurt he didn''t make the team. Still, he says he''ll bounce back. He says the experience pushed him to try harder to make the junior varsity baseball team next year, and, instead of wallowing in his hurt, he went out for track and field this spring and excelled in shot-put and discus.
Williams says he would have preferred to play baseball, but he also knows getting cut comes with the terrain.
"If they just make it so anybody can be on the team, it doesn''t push people to do their best," says Brian Lippincott, William''s dad. "Getting cut gave my son a challenge to come back from."
But others don''t rise to that challenge. Salinas High''s Hunsdorfer says one of his students doesn''t talk to him any longer because he was cut from a team.
Not making a team "really introduces a fear of failure at an early age," Aldrete says.
We''ve Got To Have A Talk
No one likes telling students they''re not good enough.
"The hardest thing a coach at any high school has to do is make cuts," coach Hunsdorfer says, "but it''s kind of the reality of high school sports."
Just about every school and every coach has an individual philosophy on cuts. Many schools have no-cut policies in place on so-called alternative sports such as soccer, track and field, tennis, golf, swimming and water polo. Salinas High School even has a no-cut policy on its football teams, Hunsdorfer says.
Competitive student selection generally comes into play on the more popular sports, such as baseball, basketball and volleyball. Coaches say basketball and volleyball teams in particular are generally kept to about a dozen team members because only a few players can be on the court during game play.
Washington Middle School Athletic Director Talib Abdul-Khaaliq says a no-cut policy just isn''t feasible in many situations. He estimates that 40 to 50 students usually try out for the boys basketball team.
Yet Abdul-Khaaliq says he doesn''t just pick talent for his teams. Some of his players "need basketball more than basketball needs them," he says. He looks for athletic potential as well as the behavior and attitude a player will bring to the team. Good students'' habits and behaviors "kind of rub off on those who aren''t doing so well," he says. "They can improve the team as a whole."
For those who don''t make the team, Abdul-Khaaliq says he encourages them to find a place to play.
"As a coach, you''ve got to talk to the kids who don''t make the team and encourage them to play elsewhere," he says. He also offers team manager positions to kids who get cut.
Mike Groves, Monterey High School''s longtime baseball coach, follows a no-cut policy up through the freshman level. At the junior varsity and varsity levels, he still manages to keep most the kids who want to play. Groves says he typically has a junior varsity squad of about 24 kids, and his varsity squad has 22 players. Most baseball teams have 16 players, he says.
Both Groves and Abdul-Khaaliq say they don''t make winning games and athletic prowess their sole focus. Groves says he makes sure his players know he''s not interested only in what they do when they''re in the outfield or the batting cage, and he encourages them to pursue other talents outside the diamond.
"I certainly want to win," he says, "but if you do the right things as a coach, if you teach the right philosophies and mechanics, the wins will come."
Win, Win, Win
Attend most any Saturday afternoon Little League game and you''ll know it''s not how you play the game but whether you win or lose.
Or is it the other way around?
For most coaches, the wins are the reason to play. Tremendous pressure is placed on small bodies to bring home the trophy.
"I''ve seen coaches ringing out 9-year-olds, saying things like, ''How could you let that kid strike you out?''" says Nicholas Enriquez, an umpire for Hartnell Little League and a former Palma High School baseball player. "You can see fear in their eyes."
Enriquez, who is now a starter on Menlo College''s division III baseball team, has spent plenty of time around the playing field and he tells numerious stories of coaches "blowing up" at children. Usually, little kids get caught up in the crossfire of an adult''s drive to win, he says.
Waiswillos, the school psychologist, says several studies have shown that introducing elementary and middle school students to such extreme competition can have "detrimental" consequences.
"In a perfect world, we''d have more participation and less competition, at least at the middle school level," says Karl Pallastrini, principal of Carmel Middle School, which reserves space for only two sixth-graders on each of its popular volleyball and basketball teams.
Pallastrini, who says he would prefer an "exploratory" sports program rather than a competitive one, says it''s nonetheless difficult to ignore the competitive aspects of sports--especially considering the league most local schools play in: the Mission Trails Junior Athletic League (MTJAL) on the middle school level and the Mission Trail Athletic League for high schools.
"It''s hard to be exploratory in our league when you have powerhouse schools like Palma," Pallastrini says. "That''s part of what drives you--you''re playing schools like that."
"We belong to a competitive league," says Rey Tagami, athletic director and vice principal at San Benancio Middle School, "and all the schools have competitive teams. We must narrow our teams down to the best players in order to be competitive. If we let anybody on the team, it wouldn''t make for good games. I don''t think it''s the school''s responsibility to provide for everyone if it''s going to be competitive in sports, but we can lead them onto other areas where they can pursue playing on another team."
Schools aren''t the only opportunity to participate in athletics, Tagami and others say. Most cities offer recreation programs that are open to all players. San Benancio Middle School, in fact, sponsors a recreation league that is open to all the school''s sixth-graders. The cut policy for school sports doesn''t kick in until seventh grade.
"There are 54 teams at the high school level for any kid to go out for," Waiswillos says, "and many of them have no-cut policies. So there is a sport for a kid to compete in if they want to compete."
Aldrete, on the other hand, sees no reason why every child can''t play on the team he or she wants to.
"If you can''t find a spot for every kid that wants to play, then there''s something wrong there," he says. "And we''ll continue to have the kinds of problems we''re seeing today with violence and things like that."
Carrot and the Stick
Stories of suicidal kids don''t mean the negative aspects of the competitive drive always outweigh the benefits. For students who aren''t so academically inclined, athletics might be their only place to shine.
Waiswillos says he''s known some students who remained in school only for the opportunity to play sports.
Plus, Pallastrini says, the whole school experience--both inside and outside the classroom--is a competitive one ("I don''t know what happens [emotionally] to the kid who can''t get into algebra," he says). Middle schools, which are specifically designed to meet the needs of the gawky sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders they serve, are supposed to be a bridge where students begin to learn some of life''s tough lessons. In that sense, the competition teaches students the value of hard work to achieve their goals.
And, because all schools follow league-mandated eligibility standards, sports can act as the giant carrot some students need to get serious about their studies. The Mission Trail junior league, for example, requires students to maintain a minimum 2.0 grade point average and won''t allow players who have been suspended, are associated with drugs, or who have received more than two unsatisfactory marks in citizenship (formerly called "conduct").
Students who don''t make the grade cut-off can sign contracts with their coaches promising to improve their grades during the season. Because the contract involves a coach--someone who players oftentimes view as an all-powerful god--such contracts can have a tremendous, positive impact on a child''s academic record.
Five of Abdul-Khaaliq''s athletes signed contracts last semester, and all five raised their grades, the coach says.
"I gave them responsibilities," Abdul-Khaaliq says, "and they learned that if they didn''t take care of their business, there was a consequence."
Some Would Rather Play Tuba
The fact is not all students want to play sports--some would rather be in band, or drama, or even eschew school-coordinated programs for skateboarding, in-line skating or surfing.
Pallastrini estimates that only about 220 of Carmel Middle School''s 650 pupils are involved in sports, and the majority of teams his school offers favor no-cut policies.
Waiswillos says it isn''t important which avenue students pursue, but it is important for them to become active.
"Get involved, that''s what I say to the kid who''s having emotional problems," he says. "It gives a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a sense of school pride, and it can make all the difference between a kid who actively enjoys and has a positive high school experience, and the kid who just goes home."
Athletic programs and athletes, however, generally get the lion''s share of the attention, and the proof can be found in a visit to any school gymnasium, or in an assessment of any school budget (see sidebar, above). For the winners, championship banners for teams ranging from swimming to football decorate the ceilings and walls of just about any gym. The captain of the football team might even get his number retired and his jersey framed for the school gym wall. But try to find the jersey of the student who achieved academic excellence.
Because of this, many students view sports as the pinnacle of what they hope to achieve in high school.
"Playing for the school is a lot better than just playing in a league," William Lippincott says. "You''re representing the school, and it just has more meaning."
Ideally, every student would be able to play for their school, but since that doesn''t happen, Pallastrini puts it another way. He asks if it is better to water down a whole team so that lesser athletes can participate or if it''s more appropriate for a school to guide students toward other avenues in which they might be more successful.
"You try to evaluate each kid''s interests and try to find a way to meet those needs," he says. "Sometimes it''s by pushing for a spot on a team, sometimes it''s by guiding them toward something else."
Aldrete, on the other hand, says students don''t necessarily need to be good players to enjoy sports, and they shouldn''t be denied the opportunity to take to the field because they''re not future Mark McGwires.
"This is supposed to be developmental and educational," he says. "You''ve seen what''s been going on around the country with this. There needs to be some room for everyone." cw
Bradley Zeve contributed to this report.