If Only It Were Fake
To be a wrestling fan as a thinking adult is to accept that you're supporting a business that chews people up and spits them out, shortening their life expectancy as surely as heavy smoking. You justify this by knowing that the business is basically exposed nowadays, people know what they're getting into, and like NFL players, they choose to do it anyway. If it isn't immediately clear what the business like upfront, it soon will be, and they can leave it.
Or so we thought. Recent allegations against WWE's Vince McMahon, while unsurprising, reveal new levels of depravity that aren't part of what anyone signs on for. The problem -- one problem, anyway -- is that the business is somewhat founded on secrecy and abuse. Because of the notion of "keeping kayfabe" (pretending the fights and grudges are real and not cooperative), Hulk Hogan could go to wrestling school and have his leg deliberately broken the first day. If he came back, the trainers knew he was serious. That used to be the norm, when wrestlers were forced to "prove" they weren't "fake" fighters.
That in turn fosters a culture of, "Well, if you can't take it, get out." But there are things nobody should forced to take, and as a culture we are SLOWLY getting better at identifying what those things are. Wrestling nowadays gives at least token nods to being more progressive -- I'd like to see them also introduce an off-season, which could be achieved by staggering the rosters, and the option for wrestlers to either be exclusive employees or freelancers able to work multiple places.
Most pressingly, though, we clearly need for NDAs to be modified to exclude illegal activity and abuse, and make provisions for whistleblowers. For decades, Vince was answerable to nobody as top guy at WWE, because it was his own business. Any attempt to regulate it was met with Vince wining, dining, and bribing legislators. But actual illegality was going on, clearly, and folks like him need accountability.
Not unlike his buddy, pictured above.
I hate when news comes out that effectively "proves" critics of wrestling are right; that it's terrible and fans are stupid. I disagree with their premise, but while I've had friends who like to rub wrestling's worst aspects in my face, I'm not going to be a kneejerk defender of all they do.
Brock Lesnar the character gave me hours of entertainment. The person sucks, by most accounts. In wrestling fandom -- like a Republican fan of Hollywood movies -- you can only last if you don't pay too much attention to the real-life people and their beliefs. They are not generally selected for intellectual acumen, anyway. And that does not excuse things they do to harm people. It merely says, "I like watching AJ Styles in the ring, and if he believes the earth is flat, well, thank God he's not a science teacher."
WWE shows often have a disclaimer that WWE characters are not the same as the performers who play them. That's true to a degree. The Ultimate Warrior was from Arizona, not "Parts Unknown." Asuka doesn't actually spit poison. Karrion Kross does not front a real-life doomsday cult, etc.
And yet Randy Savage was a paranoid control freak. Hulk Hogan is an attention-hogging blowhard. Stone Cold Steve Austin is a beer-drinking redneck. The best wrestling characters are extensions of self, so a lot of people are saying, well, they always knew Vince was a perverted, abusive, power-mad sex pest because that was the character he played on TV.
Not so fast. Yes, in his case, it's hard to miss the parallels. But the problem with this thinking is that when someone perceived as good and right-thinking is then exposed as an abuser, there's a tendency to disbelieve or defend. And isn't it funny how so many terminally online voices who cry "Innocent until proven guilty!" refuse to believe the guilt verdicts later? Vince isn't "obviously" a rapist because he played one on TV. If he is one, it's because that's a thing he actually did, off-camera.
But if we based judgments on public personas and creative works, Joss Whedon would be innocent and David Cronenberg would be jailed. Louis CK was super-tolerant and transparent until he wasn't.
Wrestling has an had an inherent degree of toxicity to it, and one of my beefs with The Iron Claw movie is that it depicts Fritz Von Erich as the source of all of it, like he's the only one in the business talking tough and abusive-ish, as opposed to simply telling it like it was. To be clear, though, his problem was forcing kids into wrestling who didn't want to be there, and/or couldn't due to physical ailments. For the kids that wanted to be there? All the tough-love stuff that the character based on him in the movie says is essential survival technique. You have to get up when you're hit hard. You have to miss family events if the promoter says you do. If you want the championship, you have to make supporting that title your only priority.
And you had to protect the business, which used to simply mean not telling anyone how the show is done, which weapons are fake, and the like. Promoters abused it to mean, effectively, snitches get stitches. That's a mindset so ingrained in boys that they learn it on the playground, yet it is ruinous to the way law enforcement and corporate culture works. Hollywood is not immune either, but if you think Harvey Weinstein was the only bad guy, well, ask Fritz Vin Erich's ghost.
You're allowed to remember hours of entertainment people gave you, no matter what happened next. I know Jim "Warrior" Hellwig had some awful politics, and even though in some cases I think he was just trolling, that side of him sucked. The character of the Warrior, though, helped me through tough times, and that will always mean something.
Wrestling, however, can do better. And it must. Regardless of what you thought of the Mr. McMahon character, or what you perceived as Vince's terrible booking, that's irrelevant. If he did the crime, and the evidence appears strong, he must pay. Period. Steps must be taken to prevent another Vince McMahon from becoming that kind of abuser again. Vince cleverly avoided regulation years ago by breaking kayfabe and admitting wrestling wasn't a competitive sport. By process of elimination, it must therefore be acting and/or stuntwork...and both are regulated.
ADDENDUM: I know some of my friends will say "This is why I don't watch WWE! Just AEW and the indies!" Don't fool yourself. Tony Khan or whomever may be a better human being than McMahon -- frankly, that doesn't seem hard -- but the entire system that is in place allows for the kind of stuff Vince got away with. If a given boss isn't an abuser, it may be a matter of time before they're replaced by one who is.
Again, look at Vince's buddy above. Same idea.