Part One is here.
Paul Heyman is in love. The most dastardly manager in all of wrestling stands across the ring from the behemothic Ryback, a villainous wrestler known for his immense musculature and sheer power. Getting down on one knee, Heyman expresses his admiration and love for Ryback, and proposes the two be joined as manager and client forever. The crowd jeers at the romantic display between two men, and make their feelings of disgust known loudly, just as Vince McMahon knew they would, because in the WWE, no less can be expected from its fans.
McMahon has spent the last three decades attempting to rebrand WWE as a “Sports Entertainment” company, a stage name for a staged sport. After all, in today’s WWE, the acronym, once standing for “World Wrestling Entertainment,” now stands for nothing, the official name of the company having been changed several years ago to explicitly remove the reference to wrestling. The change from an acronym to a meaningless brand name is more the answer to a trivia question, though. WWE is synonymous with professional wrestling despite McMahon’s best efforts.
His attempts at legitimacy stretch far beyond the superficial. Within McMahon’s portfolio is WWE Studios, which develops and produces feature-length films – most of which have nothing to do with wrestling, and many of which do not even feature wrestling performers in the cast. Yet with few exceptions (2013’s Oculus being the most notable), the films produced by the studio have been largely unsuccessful. By WWE’s own admission, the company has lost millions propping up WWE Studios. McMahon invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in an app called Tout, a Vine analog lacking the advantage of being bought by and integrated into Twitter.
Perhaps nothing better exemplifies McMahon’s desire to be something, anything, other than a wrestling promoter more than the late, lamented XFL. Formed in 2000, when the then-WWE was at the height of its powers, the XFL was Vince McMahon’s chance to break through into legitimate sports. It was going to be football with an edge! No fair catches! Cameras in the locker rooms, including the cheerleaders’, and, of course, He Hate Me, a nickname plastered on the back of the relatively-anonymous Rod Smart’s jersey that briefly made him a larger than life character.
It didn’t work, of course. Whether any entity was capable of challenging the NFL by that point, Vince McMahon was not the right man for the job, badly misreading his potential audience. Football fans simply had no faith that a league run by the leading purveyor of fake sports would feature real contests, and everyone else was turned off by the poor level of play. Tawdry stunts, such as promising to sneak a peek in the cheerleader’s locker room — a promise, for obvious reasons, not delivered on — did not help matters either.
Having failed so many times in other business interests, McMahon and his family took their money and attempted a different avenue toward respectability: politics. Despite throwing nearly 100 million dollars of his family’s own wealth at a vulnerable Senate seat, his wife Linda McMahon still lost two open-seat races in the span of three years–the former of which occurred in 2010, a wave year for Republicans.
While one could argue that’s more a product of a Republican running in New England, let’s not forget that former NFL lineman Jon “Dred Scott is a recent Supreme Court case I disagree with” Runyan won a Congressional seat in the same region and time period. If one prefers statewide office, look no further than Scott Brown, a Republican who found success running a pickup truck-laden everyman campaign in deep blue Massachusetts—the same state that recently elected a Republican governor. Admittedly, neither Runyan nor Brown ever kicked their spouse in the genitals on live television, and Linda McMahon noted in campaign post-mortems that her association with WWE presented a significant hurdle in her campaign.
Undaunted by all of this, Vince McMahon turned his focus toward his core product: professional wrestling.
In many ways, McMahon and WWE have long-since cleaned up their act: the days of roided-out behemoths bashing one another in the heads with steel folding chairs are largely over.
Consider, for example, that WWE actually has a rather progressive policy on concussions. Indeed, Chris Nowinski’s work on concussion research with the Sports Legacy Institute comes from first-hand experience during his WWE days. WWE observed a problem and acted to correct it. Note that the WWE concussion policy explicitly bans blows to the head, and penalizes performers who break these rules. Indeed, WWE recognizes its performers as its greatest asset and has taken steps to prolong their careers.
Which isn’t to say the WWE has anything approaching a spotless record on the labor-relations front. Its hiring practices frequently consign performers to the status of independent contractors rather than full-time employees, and the changes to the concussion policy are too late for many: professional wrestlers suffer frightening rates of premature death. At the same time, though, WWE is uniquely castigated and stigmatized for doing what largely every other professional sports league does.
Consider how much money the NCAA rakes in each year on the back of its unpaid talent. Yet the vaunted O’Bannon decision, recently reached, will perhaps give these players a few thousand dollars, held in trust until their eligibility expires. Or consider that Minor League baseball players are governed by a collective bargaining agreement that the vast majority of them were not allowed to vote on. Or consider the “slotting” system in the entry draft in nearly every major American sports league – a system designed to suppress the salaries of incoming athletes.
Yet none of these compare to the elephant in the room – the NFL and its shameful disregard for the health of its concussion-prone participants. That the NFL is willing to pay almost a billion dollars to make the legal problem go away suggests it is cognizant it has far more to lose in a prolonged legal battle, and that the settlement is a rather paltry sum relative to how much revenue it brings in each year. Nearly all American sports exploit their labor force, the NFL especially so, yet its advertising value skyrockets.
The same comparison holds true when examining steroids. It’s true that professional wrestling (WWE then being known as WWF; a settlement with the World Wildlife Foundation and the subsequent acronym-to-nothing rebranding coming later) has a long history of PED abuse. Yet in 2014, WWE’s drug-testing policy is comparable to that of the other major sports. Simultaneously, we’re barely a year removed from former MLB most valuable player Ryan Braun being suspended for almost an entire season for performance enhancing drug abuse. His colleague Alex Rodriguez just finished serving a year-long suspension for a variety of infractions related to substance abuse. Again, while there’s likely more WWE could do on the drug front, it’s certainly no worse than its counterparts.
Having failed at other businesses, in the political arena, and with attempts at improving objectionable aspects of his brand, Vince McMahon finds himself a man with enormous sums of wealth, yet no prestige and no influence. The source of his wealth is what keeps him shackled socially, and, aware of this relationship, McMahon treats his fans with the same disdain that advertisers treat him.
Let’s not pretend that WWE is anything approaching “high culture.” One will never mistake a night at the opera for Wrestlemania. That said, McMahon wallows in stereotypes that would be out of place in the 1990s, to say nothing of 2014. WWE makes the assumption that its fans want racist, misogynistic, and homophobic content, apparently without either noticing or caring that cultural norms have shifted significantly away from such content and continue to do so.
One cannot view Cryme Tyme or The Mexicools, who literally drove to the ring on lawnmowers, as anything other than cynical attempts on the part of WWE to appeal to a perceived lowest-common-denominator. Consider the fallout after the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shootings, and ask yourself whether any reasonable human being — including advertisers — want to be associated with a brand that traffics in such ridiculously harmful racial stereotypes. Besides, almost 23% of WWE’s audience is black, per comScore – a proportion far greater than any other competitor except the NBA’s 27%.
Better still, consider the aforementioned Ryback/Heyman same-sex marriage scenario. Unlike racism, where all but the most unabashed racists will cloak their racism in Voter ID and Stop-and-Frisk laws, opposition to same-sex marriage is something that numerous Americans vocally claim without subterfuge. Yet a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, a shift in attitudes largely on the backs of those born in 1965 or later—precisely the audience that WWE has. One could credibly argue that the audience opinion more likely reflects that of wrestling’s biggest stars, including Cena, who both has a gay older brother and publically supported fellow wrestler Darren Young after Young came out. McMahon’s audience is poor, but they’re not a bunch of racist homophobes. WWE is appealing to a stereotype of an audience that, for the most part, does not exist.
It’s worth noting that professional wrestling’s most successful recent endeavors are devoid of the stereotypes that plague the brand. Look no further than how WWE promotes its most lucrative pay-per-view events. The build for this year’s SummerSlam, traditionally its #2 or #3 PPV of the year, and the biggest event outside of the Wrestlemania season, focused on the WWE Championship Match between Brock Lesnar and John Cena. Lesnar, the former UFC Heavyweight Champion, spoke simply about wanting to demolish Cena to prove that he was simply the best wrestler in the company. Cena, for his part, did not dump a ton of feces on his opponent, but instead vowed not to lose his championship to Lesnar, a man he (in terms of the storyline, anyway) did not respect.
No racism, no homophobia, no sexism. Just a simple story of two men vying to be deemed the champion – a scenario that virtually every boxing match features at the weigh-in. It worked. By concentrating on the wrestling itself rather than trafficking in uncomfortable and offensive stereotypes, SummerSlam 2014 was a hit.
Contrast this with the struggles of WWE’s wrestling-focused competitor Total Nonstop Action (yes, the acronym is TNA) – a league far cruder than anything WWE has done in the past decade. TNA is currently in dire straits, with previous rightsholder Spike TV having recently canceled TNA, forcing the company to scramble just to get a new television deal with micro-network Destination America, an offshoot of the Discovery Channel that barely reaches half of American homes. One of the central reasons behind TNA’s contract problems, or so it has been reported, is that it had secretly re-hired Vince Russo, a writer best known for his belief that the lowest common denominator would also result in the highest ratings. Admittedly, seeing a 300-pound man powerbomb a middle-aged woman through a table to the cheers of hundreds — as happened at the end of TNA’s July set of tapings with the Spike TV executives in attendance — probably did not help matters.
Indeed, the success of SummerSlam 2014 and the tenuous existence of TNA serve as further evidence that the least objectionable, and yet most compelling aspects of professional wrestling are its storyline and the talent of its performers. Yes, the storylines are absurd, but given that the #1 ranked cable drama in America involves re-animated corpses haranguing a small group of southerners who make increasingly stupid decisions, let’s not pretend an absurd storyline is anything objectionable.
Yet McMahon — either out of anger at being unable to escape his legacy as a wrestling promoter, or out of a genuine inability to recognize that 2014 is not 1984 — continues his love/hate relationship with the audience that keeps him shackled to the ring. The week after SummerSlam, Los Matadores — two cousins dressed as bullfighters along with a little person dressed as a bull — made an appearance in the ring. It’s not difficult to envision a self-loathing on the part of WWE: “If we’re lower class, then dammit, we’re going to be the most absurd caricature of lower class entertainment there can be!” Enter the racism, sexism, homophobia, and yes, John Cena dumping a ton of feces on his enemies.
It is something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Wrestling is seen as low culture, and the well-heeled, historically speaking, are not consumers of low culture. WWE, appealing to the audience it perceives, doubles down on its efforts to keep the lower classes enthralled, which, in turn, just emphasizes its position as low culture. Asking whether it’s the poor demographics or the poor reputation of the product that continually results in disappointingly low television rights fees misses the point to some degree, as the two problems feed off each other.
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. WWE can clearly be successful without its ancillary terrible attitudes that discomfit the audience and repel advertisers. But the repeated failures of McMahon to become something other than a glorified carnival barker have taken their toll, and he seems unable to heed this lesson.
Which, in a sense, is the tragedy of WWE and Vince McMahon. He desperately wants mainstream acceptance, and, from time to time, he shows that he understands exactly what he should be doing to clean up his sport’s reputation. It’s just that, between those moments of seeming lucidity, he buries pro wrestling under a ton of shit.