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On this, the holiest Sunday of our tribal calendar, let us consider the lesson of Joshua Vannoy, who knocked the stars and planets out of alignment by wearing the wrong football jersey to a class on ethnic relations.
The sparse facts are these: Joshua, 17, decided to gig his classmates a bit by wearing a John Elway Broncos jersey into the halls of the Big Beaver Falls Area High School the week before the Steelers faced Denver in the AFC playoffs. John Kelly, the teacher, had Joshua sit on the floor and allowed classmates to hurl crumpled paper at the boy.
This teachable moment about group identity having passed, life continued in its predictable course: a protest was made about being "dehumanized," lawyers were summoned, the national media ruminated and, before tragedy could be averted, a 17-year-old was presented with a recliner lounger from Mr. Elway's publicity-savvy furniture outlet.
Why is it always the children who have to suffer?
Only in the final days of an investigation did we learn that Mr. Kelly's class uses role-playing to instruct students in what it is like to be members of a subjugated group.
"The class is designed to have the students look at issues of discrimination, prejudice, racism," Mr. Kelly told me. "We start the class off at the beginning of the year by having students research their own pasts." In one project, students take on the persona of a murdered civil rights worker and wear a sign around the school that includes a line, "please ask me my story."
If stopped, they have to tell the story, even if it makes them late to the next class and, true to the caprices of Jim Crow and Bull Connor, late students must accept and serve a period of detention. It is one thing to hear that life is not fair. It is another to taste the inequity.
By year's end, students in Mr. Kelly's class will play the role of Jews in the run-up to the Holocaust.
So, the atmosphere into which Joshua Vannoy walked with his Denver jersey was a place in which group identities are played with for purposes of understanding their inherent dangers. What no one could have guessed was that he wandered into a minefield of identity politics that seems to have few practical rules of civility.
A man was once beaten to death at a diner near my house because he told someone he didn't like the Steelers. I once attended a Steelers-Jets game wearing my warmest ski jacket, which happened to be green. I had to be protected by companions in the stands. We might not be a people who always know what is worth dying for, but we seem confident about what is worth killing for.
When it comes to sports, we do not lose all perspective. We simply create a new one recognizable only to members of our sports clan. Consider coverage of the buildup to today's Great Rite. News broadcasts feature reports in which reporters are missing only the pom-poms. Newspapers, including the one you are reading, have sought out everything from the "hottest Steeler" to the loudest fan. Were a tsunami to consume Japan on a Friday, I half expect the next day's headline to read, "Thousands to miss Super Bowl."
Students will play victim and oppressor in Mr. Kelly's class, but the taking on of roles can be a tricky thing. Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist, created a legend in the field 35 years ago when he created a "prison," and divided students into prisoners and guards for what was to be a two-week experiment into the effects of power relations and incarceration.
"By the fifth day there was sexual humiliation taking place," Mr. Zimbardo said. One lesson appears to be that people believe the roles assigned to them. Mr. Zimbardo called off the experiment on the sixth day.
Much chortling and guffawing has been directed at Joshua, but what is important here is to understand that he really did feel aggrieved, truly did feel put-upon, did experience hurt feelings in a place where feeling is more salient than thought. Neither side in Mr. Kelly's classroom that day fully grasped the irrational depth to which people identify with mythical Steelers nations or Bronco posses.
The relationship ceased to be peer-to-peer. It became powerful vs. powerless, if only for a long enough moment for someone to slink from that place with an invisible wound. No one could have known because we are used to seeing ourselves in terms of our race, religion and politics, never understanding that we have, perhaps to our discredit, allowed an entertainment preference to dictate our self-image. Overdone, that's a dangerous thing, not because of what we do to others, but because of how we mess with our definitions of ourselves.
That was Joshua Vannoy's chance for an epiphany and perhaps ours. Instead, a 17-year-old ended up with a chair more befitting a 68-year-old man, and nobody seems to have grasped the idea that, just sometimes, football is a game.
First Published February 5, 2006 12:00 am