Wrestling With Stereotypes

Students in the sports and entertainment marketing class at Chantilly High School learned a lot of fascinating real-world lessons that teacher Bryan Holland never put on his syllabus. Lessons on political correctness, for example. And victimology. And good ol' Semitic animosities.

All school year long, Holland's class worked on a hands-on learning project that was to culminate with a professional wrestling card being held in the Chantilly gymnasium. The students contacted wrestling promoters, helped select performers, oversaw contractual arrangements with vendors and wrestlers, and even sold advertising for the programs.

All that work, as things turned out, went for naught: Last Friday afternoon, just one day before it was scheduled to take place, Fairfax County school officials canceled the show. The cancellation came after three days of complaints, capitulations, and tag-team negotiations between school administrators, county officials, local pro-wrestling promoters, and a pro-Arab watchdog who—in the heat of battle—also became an anti-midget wrestling activist.

The first grievance came from a Chantilly teacher who thought that the women wrestlers would present the wrong image of womanhood to the schoolchildren. Rather than try to talk it out with the teacher, promoters Chris Jackson and Kevin Heillbronner, of the Alexandria-based Independent Pro Wrestling Alliance (IPWA), told the two lady grapplers not to bother flying in for their match. Bullet No. 1 dodged.

Next, and far more momentously, the promoters received a complaint about their main event from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a D.C.-based group. ADC opposed letting the wrestler known as the Iron Sheik perform in front of students, because in the group's view he presented a "racist" and "culturally insensitive" portrayal of Arabs.

Anybody even remotely familiar with pro wrestling is used to the cartoonish stereotyping that the IPWA, like all other wrestling promotional groups, thrive on. Along with the Sheik, there are sendups of African tribesman like Kamala the Ugandan Giant (real name: James Harris, a truck-driving Tennessee native), Italian goombahs like Vinnie Gambini (Luther Nigro of Silver Spring), towel-wearing Pakistanis like Abudha Singh (John Rickner, grew up in New Jersey), German fascists like Otto Schwanz (Murray Happer, at one time an offensive lineman from Georgetown University), and bald white males like Cueball Carmichael (played by none other than promoter Jackson).

The Iron Sheik's shtick is nothing new, either. The character was created for the powerhouse World Wrestling Federation by Hossein Khosrow Vaziri of Fayetteville, Ga., in the early 1980s, when anti-Iranian fervor was at a peak in this country because of the hostage-taking at the American embassy in Tehran. (Prior to that, Vaziri wrestled as the Great Hossein A-rab.) According to the wrestler's fictional bio, the Sheik hails from "Tehran, Iran," a town that is Persian, not Arab, and therefore wouldn't even produce a sheik.

But Andy Shallal, ADC's Northern Virginia representative, has never watched pro wrestling, either live or on television. And he was unaware of the anachronistic Sheik's existence until ADC faxed him a copy of the promotional flier being circulated by the Chantilly class. The flier offended him.

"To an Arab, a sheik is a village elder, a respected man in a town or village," Shallal says. "Here, he was a heel, a person who the crowd boos."

ADC officials say the group never protested a wrestling event before Shallal, who is also head of the Fairfax County Board of Education's human relations advisory committee, demanded a meeting with school officials and promoters. At that gathering, he started off by saying he wanted the Sheik taken off the card. With audible hemming, the promoters acquiesced. Bullet No. 2 dodged.

But even with the Sheik gone, Shallal kept going—he went after the smallest people on the card.

"The thought of wrestling midgets sounded really distasteful to me," Shallal explains. "I didn't think that should be part of a school production."

The promoters refused to cave in to Shallal's last demand: The women and the Sheik were gone, but Little Louie and King Sleasy were going to be there when the bell sounded.

"This had gotten absolutely ridiculous," says Jackson. "When he comes after the midgets, I'd had enough. I'm thinking, 'Wake up, fella! This is pro wrestling! What the hell are you whining about? Are these Arab midgets?'"

When told that the midgets were still on the card, Shallal left the meeting intent on continuing his war against the event. He says he stayed up until "2 in the morning" calling "everybody in my Rolodex" to try to get help pressuring the promoters to dump the midgets.

On the Internet, Shallal found the web site of a D.C.-based advocacy group for dwarfs, the Little People of America (LPA), and he began calling its officials around the country. Midgets have been a part of pro wrestling since its founding, but LPA never took a stand on the issue—until Shallal's anti-IPWA lobbying effort.

"He called me and told me that these promoters were trying to purport that this 'midget wrestling' is a typical way for people of short stature to act," says Lee Kitchens, a Texas resident and past president of LPA. "I think that's offensive if it's true."

The next day, Shallal went back to the principal and county school system officials saying that LPA was now backing his effort to remove the midgets. The county ordered the entire card canceled.

"We never bought into [Shallal's] complaints about the midgets at all," claims Dolores Bohen, a spokesperson for the Fairfax County Schools. "We can't stop people from wrestling because of their size. We just decided at that time that this whole event was inappropriate for a school to hold."

Shallal, in effect, gave IPWA a pile driver. But he remained unsatisfied with that dubious triumph. And after the cancellation of the Chantilly card, the whole plot really sickened.

Turns out that in the midst of discussions over the Chantilly match, Shallal got a business card from Heillbronner, and discovered that the wrestling promoter's day job is as a public relations man for the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Annandale. So, after the cancellation, Shallal launched another crusade, also under the auspices of ADC: He now wants Heillbronner out of JCC, just as surely as he wanted the Sheik and the midgets bounced off the wrestling card.

"I feel Mr. Heillbronner should resign from the JCC," says Shallal, pointing out that no stereotypical Jews were on the Chantilly card. "I'm very uncomfortable with him in that position in that type of organization after he promoted an overtly racist event. He saw nothing wrong with the portrayals he was trading. No question, he should resign from the JCC."

Heillbronner still believes that Shallal took up against the wrestling match with the best of intentions, but he questions the ADC rep's motivation for going after him professionally after accomplishing his original goals.

"My involvement with wrestling had nothing to do with my job at the JCC, and the JCC had nothing to do with the wrestling, either," Heillbronner shrugs. "Andy Shallal knows that. But now his big issue is where I work. He wants everybody to know where I work, and he hands out my work phone number to everybody he talks to. I think that's pretty sad."

Shallal, with great sincerity, insists he did and is doing the right thing for the students and the community.

"I didn't take this too seriously. I didn't push this too far," he says. "I have no regrets."

But Shallal's version of cultural sensitivity shows incredible pop culture naiveté, says Chuck Shorter, producer of Inside the Squared Circle, an enthusiastic if underfinanced weekly wrestling show seen on local cable-access channels.

"I thought that everybody knows by now that there is nothing sacred in professional wrestling," says Shorter. "I don't see how anybody would be offended at this point. You want stereotypes? How far back does Chief Jay Strongbow go? I mean, I even saw a tag-team of wrestling nuns recently. Everything's fair game." (Shorter also cites a briefcase-carrying accountant character who wrestled in the WWF as "IRS," for "Irwin R. Shyster"—real name Lawrence Rotundo—as proof that Jews are hardly stereotype-proof in the wrestling realm.)

Heillbronner and Jackson are still waging their own fight, too: The promoters informed the school and the county that they are preparing a lawsuit in hopes of recovering the estimated $15,000 they lost as a result of the failed promotion. County officials also ruled that schools can no longer promote wrestling events, so an IPWA match scheduled for Fairfax High School in May won't be held, either.

Lost in all the hubbub are Holland, the 24-year-old rookie teacher who came up with the idea to produce a wrestling card in the first place, and his students. The school year ends in a matter of weeks, so there won't be time to come up with an alternative class project.

For the immediate future, their primary concern will be how to finance a trip to a marketing conference in California for three award-winning pupils. Proceeds from the wrestling show were going to pay for that voyage. A class field trip to an Orioles game, where the rest of the wrestling money was to go, has already been canceled.

"My whole goal was to make learning fun, not to offend anybody, and I know the kids didn't want to offend anybody, either," shrugs Holland. "I thought I had come up with a good idea, a constructive, fun project that the kids would enjoy and learn from, something that fit our curriculum like a piece to a puzzle—wrestling is sports and entertainment, isn't it? Now, everybody's just down and disappointed with the way it turned out."

"I'm sure there is a great lesson that can be learned from all this," he says. "A great lesson. But right now I don't know what that is. We're all just feeling bad."—Dave McKenna

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