Gorman: Of sportsmanship, dignity and respect
There was a ceremonial coin toss involving their mayors, a national anthem played together by their bands and a banner bearing the signatures of fans from both schools who took the Sportsmanship, Dignity and Respect pledge.
What was missing Friday night at Brentwood Stadium was the taut racial tension that brought national notoriety after Monessen's visit in February.
Not to mention the kids dressed in banana costumes.
The schools took a step toward resolving their differences, their communities coming together to cheer their favorite team at a football game.
What started with accusations by Monessen of racial taunting at a basketball game at Brentwood forced both schools to take a long look in the mirror.
And then at each other.
“We came to the conclusion that, for as much as we like to think we are, we're not that much different,” Monessen principal Brian Sutherland said. “Through this whole ordeal, we've become closer. It's a shame something had to happen, but something good came out of it.”
Brentwood has long had a reputation for being racist but battled the allegations that it created a racially hostile environment. The complexion of the community has changed from its days as an all-white district.
“We've had it for years and years and years,” Spartans football coach Kevin Kissel, a 1974 Brentwood alumnus, said of the reputation. “Maybe it was like that in the past. Back then, there wasn't a black kid in the school district. But so much has changed. It's not like that now. We've got diversity in our school, on our team.”
What Brentwood didn't consider is perception can be reality, and students wearing banana costumes (even just in fun) can create connotations of racial stereotyping.
Especially when your community has a racist reputation.
Chartiers-Houston junior Miles Williamson, who is black, attended the Brentwood-Monessen game and sat in the visitors' section. When he heard of the incident, he immediately thought “it was ridiculous.”
“If that was me, I would have taken offense to it,” Williamson said. “If I'd have walked in and seen that, that would've been my first reaction, too.”
While the WPIAL found no evidence of wrongdoing on Brentwood's end, it decided to intervene to prevent future problems from occurring there or at any of its other member schools.
North Hills athletic director Dan Cardone was designated by the WPIAL to act as a facilitator and found that previous prejudices played a part. The death of Jonny Gammage, a black motorist who died during a traffic stop involving Brentwood police, was mentioned, even though it occurred in October 1995 — before most of these players were born.
“I think there's a lesson there for every school in the WPIAL,” Cardone said. “Our approach was to not only mend fences but providing a model for future occurrences. A lot of times we wait until something happens. We're reactive. Now we're armed with some strategies to deal with future occurrences.”
The focus for students was to treat not only each other, but everyone they encounter, with sportsmanship, dignity and respect, to follow the golden rule.
Such a simple concept.
“Sports broke the race barrier,” Cardone said. “It couldn't be done in society, but it was done in the arena of sports. That was the great equalizer. They couldn't ignore talent.”
Where the WPIAL got Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch to work with students from both schools, racial conflict resolution consultant Ron Porter worked with administrators to find common ground in the communities.
That involved taking them through guided bus tours of both communities to gain a better understanding of each other.
“I think that one of the challenges that we faced is that there are existing stereotypes about both communities,” said Porter, who taught at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School of Public Policy & Management and helped negotiate a community benefits agreement between the Hill District and Penguins. “People from Monessen and Brentwood, the initial thought when they talked to each other was to have a history lesson. What we really focused on is that the past is in the past and we need to focus on the future.
“Some of the issues around the tax base changing affects both districts. Both face declining enrollment. I know that, particularly among the school board, was that the commonalities affected them. They're kind of in the same boat, and that went a long way.”
Sometimes when we look in the mirror and then at each other, we get past our perceptions and realize that we share similar realities. It starts with showing sportsmanship, dignity and respect.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.