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Posted on Tue, Sep. 17, 2002

Body slams and midterm exams


At Penn State-Altoona, a professor is using pro wrestling for a short course in American values.



Inquirer Staff Writer

The Tuesday afternoon seminar for Penn State-Altoona freshmen was wrapping up. In the cramped little classroom, crowded with 27 students despite a course limit of 20, all eyes were focused on a TV monitor.

"OK," said professor David Parry, glancing at the clock while rewinding a videotape, "I think we've still got time to watch Bruno Sammartino get his neck broken."

The legendary wrestler's injury came toward the end of a late-1960s Madison Square Garden match. Parry's careful review of that moment took place with two minutes remaining in his popular, one-credit Pro Wrestling class.

At first glance, body-slams and big-torso theatrics might seem as irrelevant to a college education as pipe-welding. But Parry uses wrestling to develop research and critical-thinking skills in a post-Hulkamania generation of college freshmen.

"What better way to teach people how to research than to teach a topic where there are no books, and where no one has access to the real story?" Parry noted.

Three years ago, convinced the school's methods for orienting freshmen to academic life were, in his words, "insultingly moronic," Parry devised his course examining the tongue-in-cheek spectacle of professional wrestling with an analytical eye.

"The courses they offered took a kind of 'How to Succeed in College' approach," Parry said. "We would do a section on balancing a checkbook and one on transmitted diseases. The students actually felt sorry for the people who had to teach [the courses]. So some of [us] just said 'Let's see how we can make this interesting.' "

It did not take him long to turn to pro wrestling as a subject. A devoted fan since the 1960s, the University of Pennsylvania graduate had accumulated a Stone Cold Steve Austin-sized body of information on the topic from Web sites, newsletters, magazines and other fans.

"This gets them thinking," he said. "If you understand professional wrestling, you understand America. There's a current that runs through American cultural life where we have this will to see the exact opposite of what we're actually seeing. Watch CNN's Crossfire. It's a bad version of professional wrestling.

"If the students can understand that, they can understand other things, too. If they know they are being lied to by [wrestling promoter] Vince McMahon, nothing Al Gore or George Bush says is going to get past them."

The classes meet twice a week for about a month in a trailer on the edge of Penn State's leafy campus, just beyond the stagnant downtown of this Rust Belt railroad town.

"What better place for a course on pro wrestling than in a trailer?" said Parry, who also teaches philosophy at Altoona, Penn State's largest satellite campus.

There aren't a lot of pro-wrestling textbooks, so his classes use Captain Lou Albano's The Complete Idiots' Guide to Professional Wrestling. And while the course's degree of difficulty might not approach Quantum Physics 101, a soft groan arose when Parry assigned students to read 110 pages by Thursday.

"It's not brain surgery," he reassured them. "It's not like reading a book on calculus. It's not something you need to read again and again. Once is enough."

In addition to the homework, each student must watch televised wrestling shows, subscribe to one of two newsletters (Wrestling Observer or Pro Wrestling Torch) and, at course's end, make a 15-minute presentation.

Parry's teaching style is a compelling mix of monologue, philosophy and criticism, with anecdotes and plenty of old wrestling videos added for spice.

On this day, he showed his students black-and-white matches from the 1950s and 1960s involving such mat legends as Gorgeous George - the boasting, preening wrestler whose theatrics inspired Muhammad Ali - and Argentina Rocca. He discussed wrestling as entertainment and as a business, and occasionally displayed a wrestling hold or the proper way to get slammed into the canvas.

Along the way, Parry raised questions on everything from the role of morality and ethnicity in wrestling to how many of the 19 men and eight women in his class had seen the previous night's matches on the nationally-televised Raw. (Seven said they had.)

"These are morality tales where good and evil are clearly defined," he told them. "Moral ambiguity is for Russian novels, not pro wrestling."

With his sizable bulk, his bleached hair, his thick silver earring and his facility with words, Parry himself might be mistaken for a pro wrestler.

He was disabused of that notion, however, when, as a young man, he first felt the sting of a mat on his cranium as he fooled around with a friend in the gym.

"I did, however, get pretty good at projecting pain," he noted. "My mother would belt me for something I did, and I'd whip my head back and yell, 'OWWWWW! Mom, you're killing me!' "

Not surprisingly, this atypical course has become wildly popular among freshmen in this school of about 4,000 students - which, according to Parry, speaks not just to the vapidity of the course's mundane predecessors, but also to wrestling's allure.

The NCAA won't be sanctioning pro-wrestling teams anytime soon. But with courses like this one and with pro-wrestling clubs popping up at Penn State and other campuses, and with shows like Smackdown! and Raw as popular TV fare in the nation's dormitories, pro wrestling, once on the margin of sport, is making inroads in American colleges.

"It could, by some standards, be more popular than major-league baseball right now," Parry said.

His three courses this semester are overflowing. He had to announce to his Tuesday afternoon class that unregistered students ought not attend.

Forty-five minutes away, in State College, Pa., Penn State's Pro Wrestling Club stages several live programs a year, with the students performing every function short of climbing in the ring themselves.

"I've always been a fan," said Dave Citro, the club's president. "As a kid I was influenced by [Hulk Hogan] and the 'Rock 'n' Wrestling' phenomenon. My interest subsided, then grew again in the very late '90s, around the time I was a senior in high school."

The students in Parry's class seem to be a cross-section of college types - men and women, nerds and jocks, baggy-garbed hip-hop hopefuls and note-taking studious types.

• 

Parry grew up in Allentown when Vince McMahon Jr. - who would become the sport's central figure and the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment (the World Wrestling Federation until a World Wildlife Fund lawsuit forced a change) - was taping weekly televised bouts for his father's World Wide Wrestling Federation there.

Parry followed other sports, but his esoteric tastes kept bringing him back to wrestling. Killer Kowalski and Chief Jay Strongbow (South Philadelphia native Joe Scarpa) were among the future professor's favorites.

"The first baseball season I experienced was 1964, so that pretty much killed my interest in the Phillies," he said. "I was just fascinated by wrestling. And I soon learned that all fans were not toothless morons."

Pursuing his passion became simpler with the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s. That technological innovation, coupled with World Wrestling Federation champion Hulk Hogan's immense popularity in the 1980s, increased public awareness of pro wrestling.

But with so much scrutiny suddenly focused on wrestling, and with a means to disseminate instant criticism, it could no longer pass itself off as legitimate sport.

"By 1990, fans who spent real money on wrestling all understood they were seeing a performance," Parry said. "And through the Internet, they had developed a language to evaluate the quality of the performance as sophisticated as any music or art criticism I've ever read - and better than most literary criticism.

"People who are wrestling fans understand how the WWE works better than football fans understand how the NFL works. NFL fans pretend [football is] a game and not a business. No wrestling fan would ever be naïve enough to believe that. McMahon eventually saw that being honest about... wrestling was allowing fans to enjoy the product without having to become semi-barbarian knuckle-draggers."

A few of Parry's students from previous years have gone on to find background jobs in the pro-wrestling industry, he said. But that's not the point.

"We want to give first-year students the experience of scholarship," he said. "And this is a great way to do it. Wrestling is a reflection of American values. It's the purest form of pandering imaginable. All its officials care about is what will fill an arena."


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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