The irony is that mainstream media reporters are asking wrestling media people in recent days how the inquiry surrounding Vince McMahon will play out. It’s those interviewers themselves, their colleagues and editors, who will determine the outcome — more than WWE’s Board of Directors and its arcane means of corporate governance.
If you’re a wrestling fan you’ve probably encountered a non-fan who first learns about your affinity for this strange medium that overlaps sport and drama, and jocularly asks you after a knowing pause, “You know it’s fake, right?”
It must be you who doesn’t know where the line is between fantasy and reality.
I learned in the last few days the opposite is true. It’s the non-fan, the rest of the general public that’s not making that distinction when it comes to pro wrestling.
I’m reminded, too, of the question from a member in the studio audience at the end of the 1992 episode of the Phil Donahue Show about sexual misconduct in the WWF.
After sitting through details of numerous allegations, she was compelled to ask:
“Isn’t wrestling fixed anyway?”
Maybe she thought what she was seeing was part of a fictional wrestling storyline. Maybe she thought that because the subjects were involved in pro wrestling it was worthy of no moral or legal scrutiny anyway. I don’t know.
Revisiting that moment in Between the Sheets’ review of the “Titangate” scandals of 1992, I figured there must’ve been some progress in the 30 years since.
I was too optimistic.
Wrestling is still seen as tacky fake-sport and society can’t get past its fixation on that quality even in the face of serious misconduct by WWE’s billionaire CEO.
CNN anchor Jake Tapper opened a two-and-a-half-minute segment on Friday about Titangate 2022 with the kind of punny play on words that frequently undermines the sincerity of mainstream coverage on wrestling.
“From in the ring to on the ropes,” Tapper teased, alluding to Vince McMahon’s latest scandal.
CNN correspondent Jason Carroll narrated: “The wrestling world” is “waiting to see how this real world match will end.”
The short segment was spliced with B-roll of goofy highlights from Vince McMahon’s onscreen career: getting his head shaved by Donald Trump, ripping apart his tank top in the ring.
Tapper scoffed, “Of course he is,” when Carroll informed him that Vince would appear on that night’s Smackdown.
Vince’s Smackdown live address on Fox later that evening was a ratings hotshot and sadly effective piece of public relations. The broadcast showed WWE fans cheering on Vince regardless of the Wall Street Journal’s reporting of his alleged improprieties. Vince baby-faced himself to the Minnesota crowd, growled a few of his well-developed buzzwords, didn’t so much as allude to the Board’s investigation, and slapped hands with fans on the way out.
The rest of mainstream media’s reporting on the story is with a similar surface-level reading as the CNN piece, spreading WWE’s message crafted in the Friday morning press release: “Vince McMahon steps down”.
But what did he really step down from? Less attention is paid to the fact, stated in the joint statement from WWE and its Board, that Vince will remain head of creative, the role he’s been most active in, as more traditional corporate duties in recent years have instead increasingly been overseen by President and Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan and others.
Vince will at least temporarily stop serving as CEO and Chairman until the Board completes their investigation. Stephanie McMahon serves in those roles in the interim.
But are those changes in title-only? Or — to make another one of these obnoxious puns — is Vince’s withdrawal as CEO and Chairman no more real than the action in the ring?
I’ve yet to come across any mainstream scrutiny into that subject beyond CNBC’s Alex Sherman’s tweet on Friday.
Fellow members of wrestling media and I have been called on this week to bring some background and insight to this story in guest appearances and sound bites. We’re asked to predict what’s next. Journalists at “real” news publications ask those who cover the “fake” world to report from the future about cultural icon Vince McMahon’s destiny.
But whether Vince McMahon, John Laurinaitis, and possibly others are held to account for their alleged transgressions depends largely on whether mainstream media reports as seriously and persistently on this “fake” world like all the “real” industries they manage to report on without puns or silly video clips.
WWE’s Board of Directors will feel much more comfortable to mildly reprimand Vince and restore him officially as CEO and Chairman if the public doesn’t care or isn’t aware of the story.
WWE’s institutional shareholders will be more tolerant of the idea of having accused sex pests for a CEO and Chairman and Head of Talent Relations if that’s a notion the average person isn’t more than vaguely informed about.
Business partners and sponsors will be less bothered about cooperating with Vince’s company if the public doesn’t have enough information to question those brands’ association.
The Board’s independent members are current or former executives in media and other businesses. Some, like Barstool CEO Erika Nardini, may be all-too familiar with downplaying alleged sexual misbehavior of men like Vince McMahon or Dave Portnoy.
The Board’s oversight will be more trustworthy if there’s competent scrutiny of whether Friday’s announcement is anything more than that. Wrestling reporters will report, but our work, indiscriminately labeled that of ”the dirt sheets” and dismissed as part of a “vocal minority” will certainly not be enough.
If you’re a non-wrestling fan reading this — or even a member of the more prestigious non-wrestling media — you’re among those who have some real influence in how this unfolds. And unlike WWE’s executives or its Board or its business partners or shareholders, you’re lacking incentives to protect a powerful billionaire.
Even though it’s fake pro wrestling, this story — you know it’s real, right?