Opinion: Privilege in Wrestling

“I’m not saying that white people are better but being white is clearly better! Who can even argue? If it was an option I would re-up every year.” – Louis C.K.

When I ask students in the political science classes I teach what they think of when they think about privilege, students respond with phrases like, “Having an advantage over someone else”.

I define privilege as having the luxury of not having to think about issues that another person or group has to consciously think about.

When my fiancé and I are walking down the street and holding hands, never once do either of us think to ourselves, “Hey babe! Maybe we should stop holding hands in this neighborhood because we might be discriminated against for being straight.” 

However, if we were a same-sex couple, it is something we might have to worry about because, let’s be honest, in the United States, there are plenty of neighborhoods where same-sex love is frowned upon.

I encourage everyone to think of privilege from this vantage point. If you are white, are you ever afraid of being pulled over for driving while Black? If you are a male, are you ever worried about walking into a job interview seven months pregnant and not getting the job because of that? Just some food for thought.

Abrahams Lawsuit

So you might be wondering why I’m asking these questions and what it has to do with former writer Britney Abrahams’ lawsuit against WWE. 

When I saw how long Abrahams’ 33-page complaint was, I Immediately regretted volunteering to write an article about this. After all, in a past life, I was a paralegal and I hated it. I would get cases way longer than this and found the work to be very tedious and boring.

But the more I read this case, the more intrigued I was. I actually read it twice just to make sure I understood the complexities of this case.

These things should not be “complexities” but, because of the way WWE — and society as a whole — is structured, they are.

Abrahams alleges “discriminatory treatment, harassment, hostile work environment, wrongful termination, unlawful retaliation against the Plaintiff due to her race, color, and gender.”

One idea pitched was to have dark-skinned African American male wrestler, Reggie participate in a storyline where he’d be hunted like an animal by Australian wrestler Shane Thorne. 

“In a nutshell, the said hunting gimmick pitch for new wrestlers, Shane Thorne, and Reggie was, ‘since Shane is Australian, we should make him a crocodile hunter, and instead of crocodiles, he hunts people.’” 

Well, I guess if you’re Black, it’s good to know WWE’s stereotyping isn’t just limited to African American talent — if you want to look at that as the glass half full. 

Elsewhere, writers pitched WWE Raw champ Bianca Belair say a phrase stereotypical to Black women, there was an idea reveal Mansoor was behind the 9/11 attacks, a storyline where a Muslim woman would be subservient to a man, and more.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, these are claims about WWE in 2021 and 2022.

Later in Abrahams’ court filing, it states, referring to the idea of Reggie being hunted, “As the WWE writing team’s sole person of color, Plaintiff was devastated that none of her white, Caucasian co-workers stepped in to complain about this discriminatory and offensive pitch.”

The above statement speaks directly to the privilege in a WWE writers’ room where none of Abrahams’ colleagues have to care or even think about how this might come off to Black audiences so long as it is “entertaining.”

With all that said, bad ideas are just par the course for writers, and, since a lot of what Abrahams alleges never made it passed the cutting room floor, it will likely be hard to prove racism on this front.

So I guess the question you might be asking is am I accusing WWE of being racist? 

The answer is a little more complicated than ‘Yes, they are card-carrying members of the Klan” or “No, they are the textbook definition of progressive,” which brings me back to the word privilege.

Mark Henry

Like in life, in wrestling being Black is a full-time job, especially in an environment where there are very few Black writers and no one there to advocate for you. 

On Huff Post Live back in June 2014, Marc Lamont Hill interviewed Mark Henry. In true Marc Lamont Hill fashion, Hill pressed Henry about the stereotypes in wrestling. 

Henry was initially reluctant but then finally brought up when WWE gave Henry the nickname, “The Silverback”. Yes, there was a point in time in WWE where they were calling Henry a silverback gorilla. In the interview, Henry recalls, “Honestly, I could not do it. I told them: ‘I can’t do that. I got two little Black kids at home.'”

This is the same Mark Henry who was in a storyline relationship with 70-year-old Mae Young, where she gave birth to a hand and the same Mark Henry who was made to look like the butt of a joke when he was lured into trying to get sex, in a segment that can best be described as transphobic.

I swear that Henry has the patience of Job for being able to withstand the onslaught of bad storylines that he was given during his WWE tenure, but it is good to know in 2014 that even Henry believed that comparing him to a gorilla was a bridge too far. 

There was also the time back in 2008 when Michael Hayes was suspended for 60 days for telling Henry that he was more of an N-word than he was. 

I swear Henry must’ve taken the path of least resistance approach to WWE, and how this idiot Michael Hayes still has a job in the company after saying something like that isn’t that much of a mystery when his boss said the same word on TV.

Bianca Belair vs. Becky Lynch: Hair vs. Hair?

I recall some WWE fans suggesting Bianca Belair be in a hair vs. hair match with Becky Lynch. I specifically remember Stephanie Hypes from TruHeelHeat’s Serving Face and Heels admonishing that idea. I also brought up the historical context of Black women and their hair.

As angry as I was at the suggestion, I understand there are a lot of fans who don’t know this history, but ideas like this are a prime example of the colorblind racism that exists in wrestling, where white fans and writers don’t even have to think about how storylines affect Black people or other people of color.

I was very happy with the way WWE course-corrected Bianca Belair’s loss to Becky Lynch in mere seconds at last year’s Summerslam. For all intents and purposes, Belair is the closest thing WWE has ever had and probably ever will have to a female version of Cena. But that someone thought that was a good idea is mind-boggling, and keep in mind this is after they did something similar to Kofi Kingston, just not giving any consideration to the Black kids who were inspired by Kingston’s title win, instantly defining him down by having Brock Lesnar squash him. I couldn’t even fathom Cena winning the title and then losing it in a matter of seconds; WWE would instantly think about how it would affect the kids.

Speaking of Cena, he got over using hip-hop culture. Even he admits that he was dead in the water until he adopted the rapping gimmick. King Eric from Off the Cuff Radio believes that John Cena owes hip-hop culture for the way he used it — and abandoned it — once he became mainstream. It’s hard to argue that point. If I were a guessing man I would say that Cena was following marching orders from McMahon but the point is that when Cena began wearing the Fruity Pebbles shirts and stopped rapping, he had the privilege of being able to turn into what McMahon wanted him to be. 

Jinder Mahal: A Heel for Being Indian

I recall back in 2017 when Jinder Mahal was given the WWE title. Fans and journalists scoffed and bemoaned this but I really liked the idea of Jinder Mahal being the first person of Indian descent to be world champion. 

In the beginning, I thought Mahal did a more than serviceable job in his new role as world champ. I then saw an episode of Smackdown where Jinder was made to go out to the crowd and get heel heat, not for being a bad guy, but for simply being an Indian.

I really scratched my head at this crap and didn’t understand it but then I listened to an episode of Talk is Jericho. In this episode from 2017, Jinder tells a story about Vince McMahon rewriting one of his promos.

“He had rewritten my promo. The original promo was something totally different. So when I finished calling the match, one of the writers was like ‘Hey, Vince changed your promo’. I was like okay, bring it to me. Can you please bring it to me? So they brought it to me and I had read the [anti-]American comment and all that, and, I was like, I like the old promo better. It was like, I tried being peaceful and nobody was listening but now I have everyone’s attention. I just beat five of Smackdown’s very best [wrestlers] and I did it all alone. Something like that. It was just a regular heel promo but then the new one was like, ‘You Americans,’ this and that. I was like, I don’t think we should go there but I’m like, Vince wrote it, it’s okay, but I did it and the reaction that I got, I was like ‘Oh man, Vince is a genius!’ He knows exactly what’s going to draw the most heat.”

Of course, Jericho agreed, and they both waxed poetic about how much of a genius McMahon is for the following four minutes or so.

All I could do was shake my head and think about the Jedi mind trick Vince played on Mahal to get him to think that going the cheap heat route that relies on outdated stereotypes is better than cutting an original promo that doesn’t rely on that type of antiquated bullshit.

Keith Lee: You Don’t Sound Black Enough

Keith Lee is a man that looked like he needed someone to give him a big hug his entire main roster run in WWE. He went from being the “Limitless” Keith Lee to “Bearcat” Keith Lee, the latter, a character he couldn’t relate to because he didn’t know what it was supposed to be. Bearcat Wright was a wrestler from the 1950s who is the disputed first Black world champion in professional wrestling (before Ron Simmons).

In another Talk is Jericho interview, this one from 2022, Lee admits that McMahon was not a fan of the way he spoke

Lee says McMahon told him that he sounded too smart for his own good. When I heard Lee say that, I was shocked but not surprised. I guess Lee didn’t fit the stereotype of what a big Black man should sound like. With the limited context that I have of this, it comes off as extremely racist. 

What’s Gonna Happen?

Privilege is a luxury in wrestling. I don’t think WWE is thinking about the fact these characters are minorities when they’re placed in these aforementioned gimmicks and storylines and unfortunately, that is the problem.

I’m not sure if Britney Abrahams will succeed with her lawsuit. Should the case actually make it to trial, I’m not sure whether Black wrestlers will testify against her and I seriously doubt any will stand in the gap for her. 

It’s my hope that all wrestling companies have a diverse writing staff, especially if they’re going to rely on the talent of minority wrestlers.

I hope that all the minority wrestlers and writers know their value. I’m not suggesting they need to fight the writing staff over every single thing but when something doesn’t feel right, they should be free to vocalize it without the fear of being fired the way Abrahams was.

The knee-jerk reaction for a lot of WWE fans is to say, “WWE is not racist” at the mere suggestion that something in WWE might be. I remember when Sasha Banks and Naomi walked out and so many fans just knew for a fact that it was not race related even though all we got was that ridiculous statement from WWE and nothing from Sasha or Naomi.

I cannot emphatically say that WWE is racist just like none of us can emphatically say that they are not racist. The one thing I can say is, WWE has a culture problem and this problem is not brand new.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.

Opinion: What AEW could learn from ADKAR

“Determine what behaviors and beliefs you value as a company, and have everyone live true to them. These behaviors and beliefs should be so essential to your core, that you don’t even think of it as culture.” – Brittany Forsyth

Last month, I wrote an article where I addressed the potential for toxic positivity existing in AEW. I did not quite understand the extent of it until I watched the AEW All Out post show press conference on September 4. I came to the conclusion that it’s worse than I originally thought after listening to the comments of CM Punk, and then hearing that after the press conference there was a violent outbreak. 

On September 7, Tony Khan announced that the world title and the newly-minted trios titles were vacated. It was reported by Sports Illustrated that all parties involved in the alleged melee; including CM Punk, Kenny Omega, and both the Young Bucks; were suspended. Needless to say, AEW has a few problems.

The signs were always present. When AEW became a viable alternative to WWE and an attractive destination for wrestlers, for all praises that were sung for AEW, there were people in the background, like Brian Cage and Joey Janela, who, while they didn’t outwardly bash AEW, seemed to not be creatively fulfilled.

In business psychology, one of the tools taught to organizational leaders when things start to go awry is the Prosci ADKAR Model. It’s an important model to look at when the toxicity of an organization has spilled over into the public and is no longer simply an “in-house” issue. ADKAR uses five building blocks for successful change: awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. 

ADKAR methodology is usually associated with managers, but it can be used to improve overall culture. In this article, I am going to go over each step in the process to examine AEW.

Awareness – of the need for change. The first major component to the Prosci ADKAR methodology is the understanding that changes in the organization have to happen. One can hardly watch the All Out press conference and assume anything other than AEW has issues. From my vantage point, it’s got more issues than a subscription to The New York Times. Their world champion CM Punk went on an expletive-filled rant about the EVPs of the company, Colt Cabana (referred to in the press conference by his real name, Scott Colton), and Hangman Adam Page. Punk said:

“It’s 2022! I haven’t been friends with this guy [Cabana] since at least 2014/late-2013, and the fact that I have to sit up here because we have irresponsible people who call themselves EVPs, and couldn’t fucking manage a Target, and they spread lies and bullshit and put [it out in the] media that I got somebody fired when I have fuck all to do with him, want nothing to do with him, do not care where he works, where he doesn’t work, where he eats, where he sleeps. And the fact that I have to get up here and do this in 2022 is fucking embarrassing.” 

He said all this while eating breakfast pastries.

The part I find the most amusing about this rant is Punk laments needing to “have to” talk about Cabana, when no one at this particularly press event asked Punk about Cabana. Punk interrupted before the first question of the scrum could be asked and went into his tirade. Anyway, I digress. 

Whether one likes Punk or not, this complaint speaks volumes to a management problem in AEW and there is at least one wrestler who is publicly implying that he has no respect for management. Khan needs to examine this thoroughly. Punk’s rant was unprofessional and wrong, but before we go blaming him and dubbing him the cancer in this situation, Khan needs to sit down with every single person on his roster to see who or what is the problem in this company and why it has gotten so bad that it has spilled over to the public. Prosci maintains that the ADKAR Methodology is based on the understanding that organizational change can only happen when individuals change. 

The question Khan has to ask himself is, “Did CM Punk join AEW and introduce this toxic behavior to the locker room?” or “Did this toxic behavior in the AEW locker room already exist and Punk just shined a light on it?”

From there, he can determine if the goals of people in the locker room are congruent with the organizational goals of AEW as a whole. If the individuals involved in the backstage altercation do not have goals that are aligned with the companies, this means that they are not a good fit for AEW, which brings me too…

Desire – to participate in and support change. This step is important in the ADKAR process because it gets rid of all of the bad apples that do not want to be there. For a lot of people, change is scary. The fear of change is why a lot of people stay in loveless marriages or jobs that they hate. Moreover, humans are wired to fear change. For the Bucks, Page, and Omega, they have been operating one way in AEW that they have been used to and were comfortable with. For Punk, he has made clear that there are certain individuals that he does not like. If all of these individuals are to maintain their influence in AEW they will need to have a desire to change and get over whatever egos that they may have. They will have to want to change.

Knowledge – on how to change. Outside of just AEW, I often wonder who wrestling companies defer to when talent is dealing with mental health issues. From a historical standpoint, while there have been successful wrestlers who have retired and have meaningful lives once their careers are done, there are plenty who have died early, get incarcerated, and seemingly do not know what to do once they are out of the limelight. I believe a lot of these issues come from the fact that wrestling is a bottom line business. Promoters pay close attention to who is drawing, who is selling merchandise, and what wrestlers have the highest ratings when they are on screen. It would behoove all wrestling companies to hire Industrial and Organizational Psychologists or I/O Psychologists. It’s the job of I/O psychologists to understand what is going on with individuals in the companies, through interviews, questionnaires, and observations. 

As soon as the All Out press conference ended, I started seeing memes across the internet of Khan looking confused and disheveled after Punk’s rant. What I found the saddest about all of this is, I seriously doubt that he saw it coming. To fully understand the knowledge milestone in ADKAR, Khan is going to have to hire people to do necessary research and actually get to know his talent, who will maintain the anonymity but will report common complaints.

Ability – to implement desired skills and behaviors. This milestone in the process comes when people in the organization have the ability to implement change once other steps have been completed. The toxicity that AEW is experiencing did not happen overnight. It didn’t even begin when CM Punk joined AEW or when Cody Rhodes quit AEW. The potential for this chaos in AEW existed the minute Khan came up with the idea of starting the company. Since AEW is still in its infancy, these negative behaviors are not yet baked in and can change if the individuals in the company want and desire change. 

Reinforcement – to sustain the change. Finally, the ADKAR methodology understands that it’s easy for an organization to jump back into bad habits. Some of these bad habits in wrestling have been going on for decades. There are plenty of wrestlers historically who have relished and even celebrated bad behavior. I do think that is starting to change, but old habits die hard. AEW needs to make clear to talent that these public call outs and people going into business for themselves in promos will not be tolerated by anyone.

Khan actually set a precedent against this by doing things like publicly tweeting why he got rid of Big Swole. He set the stage for “call out” culture where talent goes public rather than keeping discontent in-house. 


Somewhere along the way, Khan lost control and it resulted in a culture of disrespect among top talent in the company, which will continue to spill over to other talent if it’s not addressed. I believe that blame in this situation can be easily spread. I think Khan hired the EVPs because they could interact with other talent in a relatable way. 

I don’t think anyone in this situation has to be fired, including Punk. However, if this conflict results in litigation, then all bets are off. 

I don’t think the EVPs titles should take away because this is their first true test. I believe if they survive this, they will become better EVPs, as the mettle of management is tested in bad times, not good.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.

Toxic Positivity in Wrestling

Toxic Positivity – (noun) The overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state results in the denial, minimization and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. 

Without doing scientific experiments on the topic of toxic positivity in wrestling, I can’t help but think that these phenomena happen in wrestling more times than wrestling promoters might want to admit. The signs of toxic positivity rear their ugly head in various ways. I have seen toxic positivity in every wrestling company since I began covering wrestling.  

What often happens is wrestlers will appear in wrestling media and sing the praises of the wrestling company that they work for; promoters and wrestling executives will tout the positivity and growth of the company and cite specific examples of momentous events; and then seemingly out of nowhere the wrestler quits the company or asks for their release and as wrestling fans, we are left scratching our heads.  While the race of wrestlers will be focused on in this article, I do not think toxic positivity is limited to minority wrestlers. I just notice it the most with minority talent (Black, in particular) because there are so few of them in comparison to white wrestlers, so they stick out more to me.

For the greater part of the last three months, I have been following the drama involving Sasha Banks and Naomi with WWE. I do not know exactly what happened with them but I do know only a year ago WWE seemed happy and elated to tout that for the first time, two Black women (Banks and Bianca Belair) were main eventing WrestleMania. Everything seemed positive! Then in May, Sasha Banks and Naomi won the WWE Women’s tag team titles at WrestleMania, and not even a couple months later, they bounced on WWE like a bad check! Now that HHH is in charge of WWE, there is a good chance that the two will return to WWE so I guess we will wait and see.

If you think that toxic positivity is only an issue with WWE wrestlers, I will point you to the curious case of Lio Rush in AEW. Last year, AEW started promoting Lio Rush in a series of vignettes. “LBO Lio” was set to make his debut. As a Black wrestling fan, I was ecstatic! I was not a big fan of Lio Rush’s WWE run but it looked like he was actually going to get a chance for redemption in AEW.  Rush, himself, admits that he did not really understand his LBO character in AEW, but from my vantage point, it at least, looked cool.

Then before I knew it, Tony Khan and Big Swole had a dust-up in public. Swole mentioned a few of the issues that she saw in AEW in a diplomatic way and Khan mentioned on Twitter the lack of progress of Swole (in a childish way), as the reason why he is not renewing Swole’s contract. Soon after Rush tweets to TK that he should apologize, and the short version of this story is, I never see Lio Rush on AEW TV again. Rush, himself states that it was an amicable split between Lio and Khan but it does seem a little convenient that it happened so close after this incident.

Fast forward to June 23 and we get reports of Jonathan Gresham demanding his release. In my street voice, I just want to ask TK one question and that’s, “What’s really hood, my dude!?!” 

There is something going on in AEW that needs to be fixed. I am not sure exactly what it is but the signs point to toxic positivity.

I have been following Jonathan Gresham’s career since 2014. From the very beginning, I could tell he was a gifted performer. I have never seen any of his peers talk about how difficult he is or how much he complains backstage. For all intents and purposes, he seems to be a team player. Speaking to the generosity of Gresham, Seth Rollins stated on Twitter:

“One time a young JG paid my booking fee—when the promoter couldn’t come up with the cash—so I would stay and work. We ended up tearing it up in front of about 6 people, & had a couple more bangers months later. He never looked back. Invest in yourself, friends.”

Bryan Danielson has also spoken highly of Gresham, praising his wrestling ability and saying, “[T]he title is in good hands with Gresham”. 

With such praise heaped on the former Ring of Honor World Champion by some of the most well-respected men in wrestling, it seems he would be a perfect fit for Tony Khan’s new vision of ROH. A guy that can wrestle, has the respect of his peers and has seemingly stayed out of legal trouble.

The talent who work for AEW loudly sing the praises of the company and its CEO, Tony Khan. As an outsider looking in, it does not seem like AEW is a toxic work environment. It is clear to me that the wrestlers who love working in AEW really love working there.

Now that Vince McMahon is not in a creative role in WWE, it seems like more wrestlers are coming forward in subtle ways, expressing their grievances with AEW.  Recently, former AEW TNT Champion, Miro, liked a tweet where a fan suggested that he was used better in WWE.

Could this be a sign of Miro legitimately not being happy in AEW? Perhaps this is a subtle way of Miro telling TK that he is not a fan of his creative direction and is willing to go back to a HHH ran, WWE. 

I often wonder, though: What happens when a wrestler does not love working in the company that launched in 2019 as an alternative to WWE Is it an unwritten rule that if you work in AEW you must be happy all of the time?

I ask this question as a fan, as someone who has traveled out of state on more than one occasion to attend AEW shows. I have paid to watch literally every AEW pay-per-view.

With all this stated, my criticisms of AEW on the diversity front have been consistent, and are similar to the criticisms that I have with WWE as well. And those criticisms ultimately come down to this simple question: How much thought is put into the creative direction for minority talents in these companies?

Please understand that I am not saying that AEW or WWE are not diverse. Both companies are clearly diverse. I question instead whether either company thinks about the relatability of minority talents and the communities they represent.

I wonder how long it took Vince McMahon to come up with the idea of jobbing out Bianca Belair to Becky Lynch in seconds or how long it took TK to come up with the vision of Scorpio Sky’s lackluster TNT Title run. I also can’t help but notice that Keith Lee and Swerve Scott have not defended their titles on Dynamite.  Granted, it’s only been a month, so we will wait and see.

It does not seem that storylines are fleshed-out when it comes to the minority talent especially when they hold titles. In fact, it seems like often when minorities win titles in AEW or WWE that they are just placeholders for the next white man or woman that the promoters really want to have the title on.

When Kofi Kingston won the title in 2019, it was a magic moment for his fans. Like Daniel Bryan before him, Kofi Kingston’s fans organically got behind him; I do not know of anyone who would say Kingston was the chosen one. And he had a good run with the WWE Title… until he lost to Brock Lesnar in a nothing match on the debut episode of Smackdown on Fox in less than 10 seconds. He has not seen the world title picture ever since.

Back to AEW. My favorite wrestler in AEW is the longest-reigning women’s champion in the company’s history, Hikaru Shida. She carried the women’s division during the early pandemic era without full capacity audiences. She eventually lost that title to Britt Baker as AEW started having shows in front of packed crowds again. And as a fan of Shida, her title run seems like an afterthought now. Shida herself stated (translated to English):

“At the time of the launch, the women’s division of AEW relied heavily on Japanese female pro wrestlers, and that was one of the selling points of the division. But that was only for a while after the launch. Nowadays, being a Japanese female pro wrestler is not as much of an advantage as it used to be.

“On the contrary, it has become more of a handicap in terms of language barrier, obtaining a work visa, and the Corona disaster. I myself am no exception to this, and even as a member of the AEW since its inception and a former Women’s Champion, I am struggling to survive in the current AEW.”

Reading this statement broke my heart. I understand that the talent level in AEW has risen among the women but should it really be as dramatic as feeling like she is struggling to survive? Shida is someone who should still be in the upper echelon of stars in AEW so for someone as creative as Tony Khan to not be able to find a meaningful role for her is mind-boggling.

Someone else who is a favorite of mine in AEW is Scorpio Sky. He has been a mainstay in AEW since the beginning like Shida: the first African American to hold the company’s tag title and the first African American to hold the TNT Title. I was extremely excited he got a chance to be TNT champ but, like Kofi in WWE before him, he just seemed like another Black guy in a wrestling company who was keeping a title warm for the white guy that the promoter really wanted to have the title. I do not think it is hyperbolic for me to say that Scorpio Sky, my favorite male wrestler in AEW, is the worst TNT champion in that company’s history through no fault of his own.  I say this because outside of his feud with Sammy Guevara, he did not have any meaningful feuds.  He looked like he was on his way to becoming a top babyface but nonsensical booking hampered that and him turning on his SCU cohort, Frankie Kazarian, almost seems like a forgotten afterthought.

This brings me back to Gresham and the reports that he wants out of AEW. At the time of this writing, it seems so bad that even his on-screen manager, wrestling legend Tully Blanchard wants out.  

Tony Khan is a minority himself, and he has admitted that he did not always like the way Asians were portrayed in wrestling from a historical context. Granted, there are no overtly stereotypical wrestlers in AEW, and it does not seem like wrestlers are asked to portray caricatures.

However, the bar in AEW for minority wrestlers needs to be higher than, “Well, we do not have any stereotypes.” I was never a fan of HHH when he was a wrestler who destroyed everyone in his path (the less said about his feud with Booker T, the Better), but on the original version of NXT, I can honestly say that I didn’t feel like any of the minority talents were there just to be placeholders.

It pains me to have to put Gresham in this category but he seems like another Black wrestler who was asked to drop a title in favor of a white wrestler that the promoter sees more potential in. It hurts because I love Claudio Castagnoli and few in wrestling deserve a title more than him but did it need to be at the expense of Jonathan Gresham in his infancy of Tony Khan’s ROH?

Are the frustrations of people like Shida or Gresham listened to in AEW? Or are those wrestlers just expected to be happy simply to be there and making money? Must they pretend to be happy even if they are not? And are they allowed to voice frustration? I have gone on record to say I did not think it was a good idea for Lio Rush to publicly tweet his boss to apologize, but it didn’t seem like a fireable offense. But I have not seen Lio Rush in AEW since that tweet. 

Toxic positivity seems like an industry-wide problem and it goes double if you are a minority. From Kofi to Scorpio Sky, from Shida to Sasha Banks, minority wrestlers should not be penalized for not pretending to be happy in a promotion. I hope that TK publicly addresses this situation with Gresham, because, granted, there are a lot of Black wrestlers in AEW like Jade Cargill who are thriving and who seem to be happy, but the ones who are not happy have stories that are way too similar. 

In both companies, I want to believe that when Black or other minority wrestlers win titles, they will have honorable reigns and not be forgotten about when they lose. Far too often it feels like the reigns of these wrestlers are to fulfill a quota and for the company to simply say that they had a minority champ.  

The real world is not always Shangri-La. And for wrestlers, I want them to know that it is positive to sometimes acknowledge that things suck.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.

We’re in this together, right?

“A press that is free to investigate and criticize the government is absolutely essential in a nation that practices self-government and is therefore dependent on an educated and enlightened citizenry.” – Thomas Jefferson

This quote from Jefferson is still relevant in 2022, perhaps now more than ever. In the wake of the latest scandal involving Vince McMahon, I have given a great deal of thought to wrestling’s relationship with wrestling media and the mainstream media.

I have been following wrestling media since I was in high school. While most of my friends stopped caring about wrestling as they got older, I stayed a fan. Full disclosure, I probably would not be such an ardent wrestling fan for as long as I have been one if it wasn’t for guys like Dave Meltzer or Wade Keller. As far as I am concerned, sometimes the behind-the-scenes stuff is more intriguing than the stuff that goes on in front of the camera in wrestling. For example, I care way more about how the backstage drama with Naomi and Sasha Banks will play out than I care about who’s going to be the next member of Maximum Male Models.

Additionally, the recent news of Vince McMahon allegedly engaging in sexual relationships with a former paralegal and other women under his employ in his company — allegations that include sexual coercion and sexual harassment — has me thinking about the way mainstream media covers wrestling.

There was an episode of Dark Side of the Ring, airing on Vice last September, where the topic was the now infamous ”Plane Ride from Hell”. In this episode, wrestling personalities like Tommy Dreamer, Rob Van Dam, Terri Runnels, Jim Ross, and others were documented by producers Evan Husney and Jason Eisner talking about an infamous plane ride where the passengers got belligerently drunk and caused hell for the flight attendants and others on the flight. This plane ride was so infamous that it got Curt Hennig and Scott Hall fired almost immediately and, almost twenty years later, Tommy Dreamer was suspended from his duties on Impact Wrestling and Busted Open for brushing off allegations from flight attendant Heidi Doyle, that Ric Flair flashed himself in front of her and forced her to touch his penis on this now infamous plane ride.

This brings me back to the Jefferson quote. The relationships between media and politicians has always been a complicated one with a lot of layers. The same can be said about wrestling media and wrestlers. As with the media and politics, the job of wrestling media is to be a check on the wrestling industry and help unblur the lines between rumor and reality. The media is often nicknamed “the fourth branch of government” (in addition to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) because the media exists to make sure that political actors are being honest and giving the public the truth, whether we want to hear the truth or not. It is important for me to illustrate the complicated relationship between media and politicians to underscore why I believe wrestling media’s relationship with promoters and wrestlers have similar complications.

From Watergate to “fake news”

In the 1960s President John F. Kennedy had a media image of a devoted family man. While this might be true on the surface, it had been rumored as early as 1962 that Kennedy was a notorious philanderer and had multiple affairs with women of note, like Marilyn Monroe.

There is much speculation as to why the media did not run with this rumored affair of JFK and Monroe. One of the most prevailing thoughts is that because there was no hard evidence. Outside of eyewitness accounts to suggest that JFK and Monroe were romantically linked, the media did not want to report on mere speculation. Another reason why the media might have protected JFK is because many in the media felt that the president’s reputation should be protected at all costs by the media during this time.

Fast forward to Richard Nixon. In 1972 journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered what is now known as the Watergate scandal, which included audiotapes of Nixon conspiring with Bob Halderman about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. What made this scandal unique is the hard evidence it produced in the form of audio tapes. Woodward and Bernstein had to make an ethical decision: Should they report the evidence they have or should they protect Nixon?

Fast forward to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and his multitude of extramarital encounters that included famous WrestleMania 14 alumnus Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, etc. The mainstream media not only reported on all of Clinton’s philandering, it was sensationalized.

Since the advent of social media, the relationships between media and politicians have been turned upside down. So much so, that two former presidents have used Twitter to generate media buzz. When Barack Obama announced who his running mate in 2008 would be, he did so via Twitter. Donald Trump has also openly admitted how he used Twitter to generate media buzz to help him win the presidency in 2016. Like with these former presidents, Twitter has given wrestlers a chance to take control over their own narratives.

Outside of being a former president and media star, Trump is also famous for how he was able to bypass the checks and balances of the media, and proclaim on a huge platform that any negative story he was involved in was “fake news”. People laughed at this until he was able to rally up a group of his faithful supporters in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. What followed was a disgusting display of rebellion and a complete disregard for the law. At the cornerstone of all this is Trump discrediting the media to garner public distrust and disdain for the media.

Antinomy of the liar

So how is this similar to wrestling? Well, Trump was able to use the public’s natural distrust for media outlets to build up his supporter base. This has been referred to by psychologists as antinomy of the liar or simply a false dichotomy. The general premise behind this fallacy is the notion: “If I tell you that I am lying, am I really lying?” For someone like Donald Trump, who will outright say anything he wants, no matter if it is a lie or not, to a lot of his followers, he will come across as honest since he has no filter and others in the same political space that he is in do have filters. Essentially it is a fallacy that can be used to garner distrust of media outlets and trust for himself.

Following the earlier report of alleged misconduct by Vince McMahon, in June, he made a grandiose appearance on the June 17 edition of Smackdown on Fox where he reminded fans of WWE’s signature tagline: ”then, now, together, forever”. He also appeared on the next Monday’s Raw in a similar grandstanding gesture. The unassuming WWE fan might come to the conclusion that, well, since he is this bold in the middle of this huge scandal, he’s at least more honest than the media. Those fans who truly believe in the aforementioned tagline might fully embrace that not-so-subliminal message that an attack on Vince McMahon is an attack on them as fans, similar to the way Trump was able to convince his supporters that the election wasn’t just stolen from him but from everyone who voted for him.

To mainstream media, the thought might be, “Well, this is just fake wrestling and who cares what Vince McMahon does?” This was evident when CNN’s Jake Tapper scoffed at the announcement that McMahon was going to appear on Smackdown a mere two days after news of the scandal broke, when Tapper dismissively said, “Of course he is,” as if the anchor had better things to do then report on this stupid wrestling story.

If all this wasn’t enough, to add gasoline to an already wild fire, the Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that McMahon, over the course of the last 16 years has paid more than $12 million dollars in hush money payments to various women. While the totality of this seems more egregious than the initial allegations, it has seemingly gotten less coverage by mainstream media than the initial allegation involving the paralegal.

Hiding in plain sight

For someone like McMahon who runs WWE and is also from time-to-time an on air character, mainstream media might just assume that since wrestling is a circus anyway, this story might not be worth spending much time on since currently we are dealing with more pressing matters in the world such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In this regard, McMahon is able to hide in plain sight right in front of the mainstream media. Often when a wrestling scandal breaks, mainstream media defers to people who actually work in wrestling and not those of us who cover it. But this is where wrestling media should come in, because wrestling media is capable of investigating and vetting stories. 

For some fans and people in the wrestling industry who do not understand power dynamics in business, they might think this story is much ado about nothing. Chris Jericho recently stated in an interview, apparently recorded before the Wall Street Journal revealed additional allegations: 

“When you look at it, it’s really not illegal. He had an affair, paid the lady off to not say anything, and moved on. It’s almost like, okay, and? It was a mutual acknowledgment of the affair, he paid the lady to say nothing, and she took the money. I really know Vince well and it sucks that it happened. It sucks that he did it, but is anything really going to happen from it? I don’t think so. Is it morally right? Absolutely not. Is it illegal? No. Is it something that is going to get him into real trouble? I don’t think so.”

It would be very easy for me to pass judgment on Jericho. He is someone who often has takes I do not agree with but I have often found this to be the prevailing thought, not just in wrestling, but in business generally. While Jericho is almost certain that Vince did nothing illegal, the legality of what McMahon did or did not do is really tough to say with the limited information the public has on this.

In the 1986 case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, Sidney Taylor was a Vice President at Meritor Bank. He hired 19-year-old Michelle Vinson as a bank teller trainee. Over the course of four years Vinson advanced to the position of head bank teller. Vinson was then fired for excessive absences but she claimed that she was actually fired for ending a sexual relationship with Taylor. Vinson said she felt if she didn’t comply with Taylor’s advances, she would be fired. She believed that once she grew tired of the sexual relationship Taylor decided to fire her. Taylor, of course, denied everything Vinson accused him of. Initially, Vinson lost and Taylor was able to keep his job. However, on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court took into account the explicit conditioning of sexual receptivity and stated that such an act is sexual harassment and a violation of Title VII. Additionally, if the employer sees an instance of sexual harassment the employer must take action.

So, contrary to what Jericho might believe, the story about McMahon’s relationship with the former WWE paralegal might go beyond a simple breach of ethics. McMahon could have possibly broken the law.

I am not sure if Vince McMahon is guilty of a crime. We do know that his lawyer admitted that he was in a “consensual” relationship with a former paralegal and that further reporting from the Wall Street Journal is suggesting it goes deeper than that. While McMahon may or may not have committed a crime, in most corporate settings it is not ethical for a superior to start sexual relationships with employees. One might ask can a sexual relationship with an employee really be “consensual” if the employee is desperate for money? In any case, it says a lot about the culture in WWE.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.

Power dynamics in wrestling are shifting

The great author, Alice Walker, once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” 

For over 20 years, WWE has held supreme power in the North American wrestling scene. In those 20 years, WWE has been able to cultivate what looks like subservience from both fans as well as wrestlers who work in the company. 

The relationship between business owners and workers is mutually symbiotic. A worker is hired to do a service, the worker is compensated for the service, and a mutually agreed upon payment is rendered to the worker. This in itself is a contract and, contrary to what some might believe, an employer is not doing a one-sided favor by giving someone a job, both sides benefit each other.

Enter Sasha Banks and Naomi. Both of these women are, as of this writing, “independent contractors” for WWE. There’s a great deal of speculation about why they decided not to work the May 16 edition of WWE’s Monday Night Raw, but we haven’t heard from them directly yet.

A mere two weeks later in All Elite Wrestling, MJF, no-showed a fan fest in Las Vegas prior to AEW’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view event and it led to speculation that he would no-show the pay-per-view, itself. Of course, he did show up and wound up on the receiving end of a symphony of powerbombs from Wardlow and was then stretchered out of the arena. Then, on the June 1st edition of AEW Dynamite, he cut a worked shoot promo on Tony Khan and what he deems as Khan’s bias toward former WWE wrestlers.

So within a calendar month we have two different instances of wrestlers making defiant power plays and the wrestling media seems to be concerned with who’s right and who’s wrong. I am more into the business psychology of what is going on in wrestling and what it might mean for the future.

I want to start with Sasha Banks and Naomi, real names Mercedes Varnado and Trinity Fatu. This is a layered situation and no one in the wrestling media can give a definitive reason as to why they left. We do have WWE’s one-sided account of the events in question and their statement reads as follows:

“Even though they had eight hours to rehearse and construct their match, they claimed they were uncomfortable in the ring with two of their opponents even though they’d had matches with those individuals in the past with no consequence. Monday Night Raw is a scripted live TV show, whose characters are expected to perform the requirements of their contract. We regret we were unable to deliver, as advertised, tonight’s main event.”

This public display of disdain is usually frowned upon in the business world. So much that most companies will not even provide negative references for former employees out of fear of possible litigation. Maybe because WWE wrestlers are technically not employees of WWE and the contracts they sign state that they are independent contractors, perhaps this is the reason why WWE feels they can be this brazen with their online and on-air rebuke of two of their wrestlers.

Some in the wrestling media are very quick to say that Sasha and Naomi were unprofessional, and leaving right before an episode of Raw is inconsiderate. I have even heard some emphatically state that Sasha and Naomi’s refusal to “do business” has nothing to do with race or gender. As someone who has followed the WWE product closely since I was a small child, I feel very uncomfortable definitively stating that. I mean, Vince McMahon is the same guy that made Trish Stratus bark like a dog in 2001 while thousands in the arena cheered him on, and the same man who I witnessed on TV use the n-word with a smile on his face in 2005. It is for these reasons and many more that WWE does not get the benefit of the doubt with me.

In business psychology, an entity or person with expert power is defined as one who possesses knowledge or expertise in the field that they work in. It matters in 2022 because WWE is arguably no longer a monopoly and has a legitimate disrupter to their business in AEW. 

One of AEW’s biggest criticisms is their women’s division and additions to their roster like Sasha and Naomi would seemingly complete their women’s division. Perhaps, Sasha or Naomi would not be as bold as they are if AEW did not exist, maybe they have their sights set on Hollywood, or maybe they have just reached a point in their careers where they feel that they are not only defined by what they do in the squared circle.

Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s story is slightly different but the same in a myriad of ways. When MJF signed with AEW in the company’s infancy, he was not as well-known as he is today. As AEW proved itself to be legitimate competition to WWE, it began to attract bigger names and it is assumed that MJF, perhaps felt that his current contract was not matching what he brings to the table.

While I have not always been a fan of MJF and some of his low-hanging fruit promos, I can’t deny the value he brings to the table, and, like Sasha and Naomi, I am sure that he will be able to find greener pastures should he decide that AEW is no longer a good fit for him. 

The event that MJF no-showed was an AEW fan fest. We couldn’t find the original pricing info since the event has already passed, but I recall right, it had a $54 ticket price, plus if you paid upward of $100 you were able to participate in a meet and greet with stars like MJF. Not only did MJF not show up for the fan fest, Fightful reported (subscription required) that he had a plane ticket in his name to fly out of Las Vegas, with the assumption being that he might skip Double or Nothing. We all know now that obviously didn’t happen.

Sasha, Naomi, and MJF’s situations are proof that the power dynamics in wrestling have shifted. Nearer to a monopoly in prior years, WWE had free rein to create their own vision for what they deemed sports entertainment. If WWE did not see value in Sasha and Naomi, or if AEW did not see the value in MJF, I am fully convinced that those wrestlers would have gotten kicked to the curb a long time ago.

This is only the beginning for such power plays for wrestlers. MJF rose up the ranks in a new company and has proven and recognizes his value. When he started off in wrestling he needed AEW. Now that he is an established name, he can bring his name and value to WWE. Likewise, Sasha and Naomi understand that if they are not feeling creatively fulfilled, there is an AEW that they can go to and perhaps thrive in. The power dynamics in wrestling are shifting. In a competitive wrestling industry, talent will recognize their power and need not think that they don’t have any.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.