If we were to transport ourselves back to a simpler time in the history of pro wrestling and explain to fans back then how we would analyze pro wrestling in the present, you would probably terrify them with a bleak, dystopian future.
Imagine telling fans of Bill Watts’ Mid South Wrestling, WWF Superstars, Wrestling at the Chase, or any other classic wrestling television program that in the future, not only would we watch wrestling every week, but we would spend countless hours after the show has concluded reading, listening, watching, and discussing our various opinions and analyses on the pro wrestling industry.
Every booking decision would be looked at through a microscopic lens and analyzed for its potential strengths and weaknesses. Every match is closely examined for any hiccups or botches. The constant debate about the future, who should be beating who, who should be the world champion, etc., would be permeating throughout your daily life in a non-stop barrage of podcasts, blogs, Tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook posts. If you ever stop and think about just how much time you spend each day analyzing the weekly wrestling product, you begin to think about the absurdity of it all.
The constant and endless discussion and analysis around a weekly wrestling product has added a new dimension to the pro wrestling industry, one that promoters are still struggling to grasp and understand. In previous generations, there may have been newsletters, magazines, and maybe the odd radio show here and there, but nothing compared to today. In the 90s there was the internet, which opened up a new portal of discussion for a hardcore set of fans that were tech savvy, but still pale in comparison to our lives in 2022.
The growth of social media and the ubiquity of smartphones has made sure that the latest takes are always at our fingertips. Fans are constantly consuming other opinions and thoughts and sharing their own on these platforms, at all times. The podcast boom has given numerous voices larger platforms to speak directly to fans and share their thoughts and opinions. YouTube has provided a similar platform, complete with a powerful algorithm that is only one click away from sending you down a new path of wrestling analysis.
This is true not just for pro wrestling; any form of entertainment is facing this problem. There is way more analysis for anything, movies, television, sports, video games, music, etc. The way our pop culture has evolved in recent decades along with technology has made this a universal truth. However, since this is a wrestling site, we will be keeping this discussion to wrestling.
Wrestling on television was not designed to be this hyper-scrutinized. Storylines are meant to unfold over weeks, months, sometimes even years, before reaching a conclusion. Each and every chapter of a story or creative direction was not designed to be reviewed and examined endlessly; it is designed to be more passively consumed without too much critical analysis put forth. At the end of the day, the concept of pro wrestling is absurd and the storytelling keeping things together is flimsy; micro-analyzing the product each week is unproductive to appreciating the product.
Imagine you are watching a movie. After each scene, you pause the movie and discuss what just happened in the scene, the impact it had on the characters, and what that means for the story going forward. You then spend a week listening to podcasts, reading articles and scrolling through Twitter all discussing the scene from the movie. Then next week you turn on the movie and watch the next scene, and the cycle repeats itself.
Chances are you will discover more holes in the story that is unfolding and discover that the movie doesn’t really make sense if you think about it too hard because after all, it’s a work of fiction and your suspension of disbelief can only go so far.
There is a reason we don’t watch movies like this. Television series do work from a similar premise, but since the number of episodes are limited per season, fans are more conditioned to accept that they are working towards a conclusion and be more patient with the product.
Wrestling, with an unlimited amount of television content it produces, has to constantly be answering questions about the creative direction on the shows. On top of that, wrestling is much more likely to have inferior writing, producing, acting, and direction when compared to movies or television, which can expose plot holes and a poorly produced product much easier.
Those discussions that fill the time in between each weekly episode of wrestling influence the opinions of the viewer, and that in turn can influence the success of the product. If the discussion of something that happened one week turns too negative on social media, that can have a negative business impact for the company later on.
Fans who are participating in social media discussions are inadvertently working at a grassroots level to advertise a product. Fans on social media raving about a wrestling product are probably more likely to entice other fans to give the product a try than a traditional advertisement produced by the company itself. Given recent improvements in TV ratings and attendance, it’s hard to deny that the positive reviews most analysts and fans seems to be giving Triple H’s WWE shows lately have had a positive impact on getting people to tune into Raw and Smackdown, or buy tickets to live events.
Which is why it isn’t enough for wrestling promotions to put on an entertaining wrestling product. The promotion needs to win the optics battle to not only have a good show, but convince people that the show is on a positive trajectory and more people should tune in next week to watch.
For WWE, this has been a major struggle until recently when Triple H took over creative. Fans across all spheres of social media have been more optimistic about the product and in turn, that has led to a surge in business for WWE. Despite the fact that the product hasn’t introduced any hot new storylines, nor seems to be that much different than it was before Triple H took over, the positive word-of-mouth has been enough to impact business in a positive way.
Ultimately, individual companies are powerless in being able to control the narrative that takes place after each of their shows. They can put on a show that is perfectly in-line with a long-term creative vision, but the discussion that unfolds afterwards can be almost random. There is a form of chaotic balance in the personal biases people will have; some fans will say a show is bad no matter what and others will say a show is good no matter what; but realistically the narrative about a show can spill in any direction, based on the indeterminable tastes of the viewing public, and the various algorithms that dictate our social media viewing habits.
An episode of wrestling on television can’t afford to be presented in the same way that it could during previous, less tech-heavy periods of time. Promoters and performers have to be more in tune with the current narrative behind their products, and do their best to cater toward a positive spin in the public conscience despite its unpredictability. The patience of fans is slimmer, and the demand for a product that caters towards a specific fan has never been higher.
When it comes to analyzing or discussing the product, fans need to take a few steps away from the weekly battle in the trenches. It’s hard to look at a single episode and make a broad determination on anything that is happening, just as it would be hard to watch one scene from a movie and understand the creative vision that surrounds it. Analyzing weekly wrestling and reacting to every small thing that happens was never how the product was supposed to be consumed.
The way we analyze and discuss wrestling is simply wrong. The instant reactions to and reviews of most shows will struggle to find the point of anything because the product is never designed to be self-contained; it’s always moving forward, churning ahead to the next city for the next episode. It takes a keen eye and experience as a viewer, something many reactions on social media lack, to provide valuable insight into a product. Unfortunately, the way technology has impacted our society means that few of those voices will be heard.
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.
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“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.
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 out of 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 being 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?