The Ethics of WWE and a Good Show Follow @bigvinvader
WWE have come under fire from a number of longtime fans and supporters for failing to comment on the president’s recent comments regarding the violence in Charlottesville. This isn’t a political column, and my opinions are not going on record at this time, especially since I don’t feel that I’m qualified to discuss such matters. Despite that, the fact remains that Donald Trump has been involved in the WWE product in varying capacities over the years, and is a member of the Hall of Fame’s beyond-dubious celebrity wing. In addition to this, the McMahons donated millions of dollars to Trump’s campaign, which all but ensured Linda McMahon’s appointment as Administrator of the Small Business Administration. Also worth noting is that wrestlers in the company were reportedly forbidden from commenting on the 2016 election on social media. Regardless of one’s feelings on any of these matters, it’s hard to argue that WWE (or at the least, the McMahons) is tied up into the whole issue through their long association. That being said, it’s kind of pointless to expect accountability for WWE’s behavior as it pertains to ethical issues, and there are a number of examples in the recent past that exemplify this.
Brock Lesnar is one of the clearest example of the company’s problems with accountability for their and their performers’ actions. It gets brought up every once in a while, but not often, that in 2004 Brock Lesnar told an ESPN reporter, “I don't like gays. Write that down in your little notebook. I don't like gays.” So not only is he on record with a homophobic statement (and off the record with even more offensive language), but he went through the motions to specify his meaning, not caring that it was made public. And he continues to be one of the company’s highest-paid, -drawing, and most protected wrestlers, not to mention the current Universal Champion. I don’t know of anyone going out of their way to call Brock Lesnar a good person, and that isn’t his intention in the slightest. He’s made it clear that he shows up, works, gets paid, and goes home. That’s all they need him to do as long as he draws big, gets a good reaction, and occasionally have decent matches. All of which he does.
Then again, that interview is over a decade old at this point, and Brock wasn’t even in the company at the time it occurred. However, after his concussion-inducing beatdown on Randy Orton at last year’s SummerSlam, Brock was approached by an angry, concerned Chris Jericho. In the skirmish that ensued, Brock is rumored to have called Jericho a number of homophobic and sexist names. Not only was Lesnar on WWE’s dime at the time, but he was also backstage at one of their events. And to this day, a full year later, there’s still been no release on the actual content of his comments, but that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone, and the event has basically been forgotten. All of this has conveniently faded away, especially for a company that openly touts its affiliation with GLAAD (not to even get into the issue of their essentially scripting a legit concussion).
This is all meandering on my part, so it’s important to remember that WWE is openly affiliated with GLAAD (not that they haven’t had several fallings out in the past). I obviously can’t speak for anyone else, but it makes you wonder how an openly-gay superstar like Darren Young must feel being part of the same company as a person on record as Lesnar is, all the while they tout their progressive affiliations and attitudes. Seems hypocritical. And imagine if Young were to try and call WWE to task for supporting Lesnar following his homophobic remarks. Is there any doubt that Young would essentially be told to take a hike if he doesn’t like it, simply because Lesnar is so much bigger a draw, with greater crossover appeal? Or what about Pat Patterson, who’s been with the company for decades, openly gay for much of that time, and who was even falsely demonized during the company’s early-90s sex scandals because of his sexual orientation? You have to wonder what his thoughts are regarding Lesnar’s role in the company, and how he feels about that infamous interview. The thing is, nobody has asked either of them, as Lesnar’s homophobic remarks are never discussed anymore. They’re on the public record for everyone to see, and WWE seems fine to let things rest at that because they don’t need another PR nightmare.
An even more recent, infamous, and actively troubling example of the company’s failure to hold itself or its employees accountable for their questionable actions is the entire Mauro Ranall-JBL bullying controversy. Mauro is easily the best announcer working full-time in professional wrestling today, and his presence on the SmackDown commentary team raised that brand’s play-by-play up from utter nonsense. He also suffers from bipolar disorder and has been very open about this fact, doing all he can to spread awareness and help others like him. Fans love Mauro, and his excellence as an announcer is highly-esteemed throughout the industry. JBL is a terrible person with limited wrestling skills, esteemed highly within WWE simply because he is a company man and has stayed loyal for over two decades, which led to his lengthy world title run on SmackDown over a decade ago.* He has a long history of harassment, bullying, and out-and-out drunken jackassery. Because of his tenure, and a seeming closeness with Vince McMahon, all of his actions are excused and swept under the rug. WWE has an alliance with anti-bullying campaign Be a Star, a fact they shove down every fan’s throat with endless commercial vignettes. This should not be a bad thing.
Earlier this year, JBL openly mocked Mauro receiving the Wrestling Observer’s Announcer of the Year award on-air, a move that was absolutely endorsed and approved by Vince McMahon himself. After missing several weeks for various reasons, it came out that Mauro had actually been suffering from severe depression. The culpability of JBL’s taunts were heightened when former ring announcer Justin Roberts’ autobiography was released shortly after, as that book contained several stories of specific bullying perpetrated by the former champion. The larger issue is that this is an ongoing thing, as other wrestlers (Edge, to name one), in biographies as well as interviews, have confirmed JBL’s influence backstage, as well as his brash, aggressive nature.
Ultimately, Mauro missed weeks of television and PPVs, before reporting his departure from the company. In the weeks prior to this announcement, fans and journalists were calling for JBL’s head, and considering his behavior and the risk at which it put Mauro, it makes sense. But after Ranallo’s departure, the whole thing kind of died down, stopping just before it became a full-blown scandal. In a statement that reeked of a non-disclosure agreement, Ranallo stated that his leaving had nothing to do with JBL. If that seems fishy, what then of his hasty return to the company a few months later, now working full-time on NXT, far away from JBL? I do have to say that it’s fantastic to have him back on a major stage, and NXT is arguably a much better fit for his hyper-energetic commentary style. But even with his return, there was little discussion of the events that made him leave in the first place, and that seems wrong.
I guess I’m just rambling, but the main point, I think, is that it’s kind of ridiculous to expect WWE to really back what they’re saying and work toward positive, progressive change in light of this kind of history. And that’s really discouraging, and I know of several folks who have given up on the company entirely in recent months because of such behavior. It makes it seem that the majority of the company’s charitable gestures and associations are solely for appearances, which makes sense in the most cynical of senses. To look at it historically, wrestling was never clean, family entertainment until Vince McMahon raided the territories and built up his semi-cartoon empire in the mid 1980s. At that point, wrestling became sports entertainment and was then answerable to network decency standards. Remember, the “family-friendly” WWE (then still the WWF) was beset with a host of cocaine and steroid addiction issues. Down the line the company faced a major steroid trial (although the testing policies resumed their formerly-lax course shortly after until the late 2000s), a sex scandal involving ring boys and enhancement talent accusing high-ranking officials, controversy over the raunchiness of Attitude Era storylines, Owen Hart’s horrific death during a PPV, and most notably the now-decade-old Chris Benoit tragedy. That’s a lot of dirt to dig up on such a public company, so no wonder they want to keep their image squeaky-clean. But why has nobody been prying into these more recent issues?
Things change in some respects, and remain entirely the same in most others. Vince McMahon is still reportedly body-shaming talent (Kevin Owens), putting titles on the most impressively-muscled guys on the roster, and burying popular underdogs (that would be Sami Zayn, as well as Bayley). As much as we may want the things and people we like and support to endorse the same beliefs as ourselves, it often ends in disappointment. Even when major issues like these arise, no matter what the fan backlash may be, WWE is an entertainment corporation above all else, and they will only take a stance on what they feel looks the best for them. To not comment on the violence in Charlottesville or the political situation it is wrapped up in, or even Lesnar’s homophobic attitudes and JBL’s line-crossing, is entirely within their rights. As disappointing as that is, it’s just where things rest nowadays.
Big Vin Vader covers WWE for Pencilstorm