Past OTL Shows

Tom Farrey

High school sports in the age of Columbine

The glory of an athlete

The loneliness of an outcast

The leadership of a coach

The prayers of a principal


Results of ESPN Chilton survey of high school students

Sound off on Outside the Lines message board

Chat wrap: Educator Gerald Tirozzi


Jason Ryals says if the gun didn't jam, others could have been shot and killed.
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 National Association of Secondary School Principals official Gerald Tirozzi says bullying is high schools' dirty little secret.
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 Ryals says other athletes harassed the student who shot him in the stomach.
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 Rochester high school student Charles Rich says athletes harass him.
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This five-part online series is a companion piece to the Outside the Lines television show.

June 24, 1999
America's most wanted

Tom Farrey,

There is blood on the grounds.

There is dried blood on the school grounds, and there is a young man with a bullet lodged in the tissue next to his spine, and six years later this is about as good as it gets, for that slug from a .22 caliber semiautomatic handgun could have done even more damage as it rumbled through the body of Jason Ryals, entering below his left rib cage, then working its way, like a Tasmanian Devil, through his stomach, liver and pancreas, and missing his heart by a quarter-inch before coming to rest, mercifully, at the other side of a torso that bled, he recalls, "like a hose."

Online and on television, Outside the Lines this week looks at the relationship between athletes and non-athletes at high schools in the age of Columbine.

The half-hour show originally appeared on Tuesday but will re-air on July 1 at 4 a.m. and July 4 at 1 p.m. ET. From Tuesday through Friday, also examines a unique aspect of the issue through the lens of one New Jersey high school where tension exists.

And if all this is a little too real for you, then maybe you're not ready for high school.

As all the world knows now, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris hated athletes, enough that in the course of their murderous rampage they walked into the Columbine High School library and told all "jocks" to stand up. A nation wondered what the athletes could have possibly done to provoke the worst school shooting in United States history.

Nothing they deserved to die for, to be certain.

At the same time, Columbine has given shape to a discussion that has been percolating for generations but never addressed in any formal manner -- the social role of athletes in high schools. Incidents such as the one above from 1993 involving Ryals, a Gilroy (Calif.) High School football player shot by a student who had been harassed by athletes, now seem less like an isolated, local incident and more like an early warning of a national problem.

School districts and administrators across the country are responding by devising programs to deal with the issue of bullying among students, with a greater awareness of relations between athletes and non-athletes. In the past three weeks, a task force in Littleton was formed to examine the culture of Columbine, where some athletes harassed other students. The police department in Bristol, Conn., which ESPN calls home, has gone so far as to apply for a $100,000 federal grant to deal with school bullies.

I first became aware of the depth of emotion surrounding the topic after writing an April 29 column in which I encouraged coaches to talk to their athletes about defusing any tensions that may exist in their schools. The response was overwhelming, with more than 300 readers -- athletes, non-athletes, ex-athletes, parents, coaches, teachers -- writing back to share their stories of fear, regret and tolerance.

 Fence at Bernards High School baseball field
Athletes and non-athletes often live in very different worlds, separated by very real barriers.

The subject matters to people because it is real, as borne out by an ESPN Chilton random telephone survey of 800 high school students conducted this month. Some of the findings:

  • More than 72 percent of teens said there is some (defined as little or more) tension between athletes and non-athletes at their high school. One in 10 respondents described "a lot of tension" between the two groups, a figure that translates to 4,000 schools nationwide.

  • More than 57 percent said that the statement "athletes bully non-athletes" describes at least some athletes at their school. Verbal mistreatment was most common, although half of teens said that "athletes physically mistreat other students" describes at least some athletes at their school.

  • Football players are perceived as causing most of the problems, with 71 percent of students, who were aware of athletes mistreating non-athletes, saying that athletes in that sport most often mistreated non-athletes. Female athletes and those in other boys' sports were rarely cited as the worst perpetrators.

    The survey results (a more detailed account of which can be viewed by hitting the link in the left-hand column) do not paint a flattering picture of today's young athletes -- or more commonly, the minority of athletes who do most of the bullying and aren't stopped by their peers or responsible adults.

    "Hopefully people will start raising questions about the parents of student athletes," said Jay Coakley, a University of Colorado-Colorado Springs sociology professor, noting that the parents of Klebold and Harris came under scrutiny after their sons shot up their school. "Do they know what their sons and daughters are doing in school? Are they aware of the fact that maybe there's something going on that they would like to talk to (them) about?"

      The only way they feel they can fight back is to bring a weapon.
    —  Jason Ryals

    Most athletes are not bullies, say teens. Many are true student leaders, who treat other students with respect and, often, serve as bridges between different social cliques. Even the term "jock" is an elusive concept, applied to some athletes but not others, and used more often to describe those students who are empowered in the school social structure.

    Still, athletes are loathed in enough places that danger lurks. They have become America's Most Wanted -- not only by girls who want prom dates, coaches who want victories, and principals who want school pride, but by outcasts like Klebold and Harris, who in their teenage rage figured that the crime started with the athletes who taunted and provoked them.

    How did everything get so turned around? Aren't athletes supposed to be admired, cheered? It's a question taken to heart by Ryals, who was friends with the boy who shot him and believes that it was other athletes -- football teammates who harassed the boy -- who were targeted on that December 1993 day when he opened fire on a pathway outside the school gym.

    "I guess now I kind of stand up for the person who's being picked on," Ryals told ESPN's Arty Berko and Shelley Smith, "because I don't want that person to have to do the same thing. The only way they feel they can fight back is to bring a weapon."

    After watching Outside the Lines tonight on ESPN, join this week as we explore the dynamics behind the tension between athletes and other students at one school -- Bernards High in Bernardsville, N.J. -- that is extraordinary only in the resources it has to confront the issue. As the series unfolds, share your thoughts in a special online message board.

    School's out for summer, but for educators, the heat is on. Senior Writer Tom Farrey ( produces the online companion to the Outside the Lines series. He also writes a weekly general column.

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