In the latest school shooting outside of Portland, one has to wonder if the social hierarchy produced by sports is a factor in the tragedy. While details are still emerging about the Troutdale, Oregon shooting, we do know the perpetrator shot a soccer player in a high school locker room.
One commonality among school shooters is that they are socially marginalized and male athletes often sit atop school social hierarchies. Studies reveal that athletic departments can be the most homophobic places on any school or college campus (Jacobson, 2002). It’s not surprising, therefore, that Kimmel and Mahler (2001), found that in 23 school shootings, the perpetrators were subjected to homophobic taunts and slurs, even if they identified as heterosexual. Additionally, the valorization of athletes was certainly a factor in the 1999 Columbine shooting where students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 of their classmates and wounded 21 others. At Columbine, a star football player was elected prom king despite being on probation for burglary, the wrestling champion parked his $100,000 Hummer in a 15-minute parking spot all day and another football player teased a female student about her breast size in class without repercussion (Adams & Russakoff, 1999). Harris and Kiebold were both teased about being gay (Newman & Fox, 2009), and the two boys railed against athletes in their writings before the shooting.
Other studies have confirmed that social marginalization is often a motivator for school shootings. UC Berkeley professor Cybelle Fox, along with four other colleagues, wrote a book called, “Rampage, the social roots of school shootings” in 2004 and marginalization was a centerpiece of their findings. Later, Fox and Princeton’s Katherine Newman (2009) wrote an academic article examining school rampage shootings from 2002 to 2008. Two common factors in rampages were social marginalization and the need for the shooters to establish their masculinity, which is often subjugated through alienation and bullying. Thus, by doing something that most other students will not do (i.e. murdering), perpetrators are making a distorted attempt to re-establish their masculinity.
Other factors in school shooters included mental illness, lack of surveillance and availability of guns. Studies point to the increased militarization of masculinity as a precursor for resolving conflicts violently. That was a factor in the Troutdale, Oregon case, where 15-year-old Jared Michael Padgett was a group leader in the school’s ROTC program. Of course, not all ROTC programs turn out murderers; however Padgett listed several gun and knife sites on his Facebook page and valorized his older brother who served in Afghanistan. Again, the aforementioned factors alone do not lead to tragedy, but they can when combined with characteristics outlined by Fox and Newman.
Consequently, classes and talks centered on LGBTQ acceptance in athletic departments and elsewhere would be a positive step in reducing school tragedies. Additionally, valuing academics, art, leadership, debate and other school pursuits could place athletics in its proper perspective.
Journalist, parents, coaches, teachers and even students should be aware of the critical need to accept and include all students into school social structures, and that, once again, bullying can too easily turn into tragedy.
Adams, L., & Russakoff, D. (1999, June 12). Dissecting Columbine’s cult of the athlete. Washington Post, P. A1.
Jacobson, J. (2002). The loneliest athletes: Facing derision in a macho culture, many Gay athletes in team sports hide their sexuality. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v49/i10/10a03601.htm
Kimmel, M., & Mahler, M. (2003). Adolescent masculinity & homophobic violence: Random shootings, 1982-2001. The American Behavioral Scientist, 46, 1439-58.
Newman, K. & Fox,C. (2009). Repeat tragedy: Rampage shootings in American high school and college settings 2002-2008. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1286-1308.