When news broke on Friday about the racist comments by Hulk Hogan, recorded years ago, it stirred up a lot of emotion. Hogan is an iconic figure and a key superstar in the history of professional wrestling. Even on our own SLAM! Wrestling staff, there was a lot of differing opinions on what Hogan did and should do, and how WWE reacted. So we gathered together in virtual roundtable to debate our thoughts.
1. Did WWE do the right thing in ending their relationship with Hogan based on the transcripts of his alleged racist comments? If not, what would you think is appropriate action?
JOHN POWELL: Absolutely. In this the digital age, companies devote large portions of their annual budgets to marketing, publicizing and protecting their brands. They have every right to sanction or even terminate employees for outside conduct, including posts on social media. They have the right to protect their shareholders’ investments by distancing themselves from employees whom they feel reflect badly on or misrepresent their brand. As long as the comments or behaviour can be documented, I don’t see this as unfair. Situations such as this are why some people have public social media accounts and then private ones only accessible to friends and family.
NOLAN HOWELL: Short and sweet answer here is yes. It’s a no-win situation here because of the situation Hulk Hogan put the WWE in with these comments being leaked, as an examination of the racially insensitive history pro wrestling has would be under a huge microscope. However, just because the WWE has a bad history doesn’t mean that they should avoid doing the right thing. Whether it was a simple PR ploy or not doesn’t really make a difference because they made a decisive and correct call on paper, which they should be commended for … if just this one time.
MATTHEW BYER: Looking at this situation from a business perspective, the WWE is a publicly-traded company answerable to its shareholders, and has had a very public anti-bullying campaign for numerous years. Advertisers and some of its past and present wrestlers could possibly have issue with WWE continuing to employ Hogan, so it did what it felt was necessary to protect the company. If WWE was still a privately-held company, and this happened during the Attitude Era, it is possible its reaction might have been different. During that time WWE was pushing the envelope and actively trying to court controversy, not to mention survive the Monday Night Wars against WCW, so how it might have reacted to this situation was probably have been different.
Was it the right thing morally and ethically? That one will really depend on your perspective, background, and opinion. Me, I’m Jewish and during my lifetime I’ve had anti-Semitic comments hurled my way so I have some idea of what it feels like to have charged and ugly language designed to make me feel less directed at me. I, also, can recall Mel Gibson making some rather disgusting anti-Semitic comments years ago when he was drunk and being arrested and ever since I can’t bring myself to watch a movie with him in it. I personally feel that such racist language, that has such a history behind it, shouldn’t be used by anyone and has no place in our society.
Now that being said, I haven’t directly answered the question of whether this was the appropriate action on WWE’s part, have I? I think it was as it needed to do something to demonstrate publicly that what Hogan said was not something WWE believed or condoned and ultimately there was really no other way to do so except to end its relationship with him.
PATRIC LAPRADE: They did. It’s 2015 folks. If in the past, some people were suspended or something, nowadays, that’s not enough anymore.
2. Is removing all references to Hogan off of WWE.com website and programming reasonable in this situation?
JOHN POWELL: I can understand his profile and merchandise but I think removing everything, like photos from recent episodes of Tough Enough, is a bit much. I don’t think any reasonable person would be upset or angry if they saw older mentions of Hogan on the site. With the merchandise and bio removed, I think the message has been sent loud and clear that the business relationship has been terminated. No further action needs to be taken.
Hogan, the wrestler, the in-ring personality, was such a large part of not only WWE but wrestling history as a whole. Most wrestling fans can make the separation between the private individual and the persona they see in the ring and on television. For example: Many movie-goers still love Mel Gibson’s performances in Mad Max. Lethal Weapon, Braveheart and many of the disgraced actors’ films but have a problem with Gibson on a personal level based on his behaviour. His movies are still released on Blu-Ray and people still watch them. Fans can still appreciate Hogan, the wrestler, even though they may be disappointed or even appalled by Hogan, the man.
NOLAN HOWELL: Is it reasonable? Yes. Absolutely. It is a bit tougher than a simple “is it the right move” though because it reeks of trying to completely deny that a person who did wrong was under your employ, which WWE has faced before in a major way. You can’t wipe out those memories from people who lived through it. I find it best for them to leave it on the ledger, but never speak on it again aside from passing facts (which is rarely done on WWE programming to begin with, so not much to worry about there). NFL games still put OJ Simpson graphics up when discussing a historic season for a running back, but aside from stating he may have had such and such statistic that year, they don’t go into heaping praise onto him. I think you can say Hulk Hogan won a title in such year or had such a reign or won however many belts, but stay away from all accounts of him being the biggest draw in WWE history in the eyes of some or statements that lend gravitas to his stature.
MATTHEW BYER: This one is a little more tricky. I understand that the removal of Hogan from the website and programming is to erase any connection to somebody who has made the racist comments that Hogan has made, but pretty much everyone in the world knows Hogan’s long tenured history with WWE. That being said removing Hogan as one of the judges of Tough Enough had to be done and taking down his merchandise was necessary to show it didn’t want to make money off him any longer. Removing Hogan from the Hall of Fame section of the website I have mixed feelings about. As I said earlier I feel such racist language has no place in the world, but there is no denying that Hogan was the biggest wrestling star of the 1980s and early 1990s so I really am not sure if Hogan’s removal from the Hall of Fame part of the website was appropriate. I’ll leave that for others to decide.
If the intention, though, is to eliminate Hogan from all past WWE programming that will be particularly problematic since he is so intertwined over the years and it’ll make a mess of things. Rewriting history is always a dangerous thing and that is in many ways what WWE would be doing if for example they take Hogan out of all the WrestleManias he appeared in. So erasing Hogan from every past WWE program may be a step too far.
PATRIC LAPRADE: Yes. As a company, it’s a question of protecting your image. I’m sure Hogan will be back on the website one day. But at this moment, you want to be associated with him as little as possible. That being said, there are still 59 pages of links for him on the WWE Network. And that’s okay too, because the general public don’t have access to that.
3. Is WWE hypocritical in doing this, in light of their previous actions. Examples: suspending Michael Hayes for using the n-word in a conversation with Mark Henry; firing Albert Del Rio for standing up for himself against an employee who made a racist joke; Vince McMahon saying “my nigga” in a backstage promo involving Booker T.
JOHN POWELL: They made the right decision but the WWE is far from guiltless in this regard. Over the years, many of their characterizations and more importantly, the roles assigned to certain wrestlers in the past are infamously controversial. I mean, we are talking about a company who thought it was all in good fun to create a developmentally-challenged character and make him the butt of all sorts of on-air jokes. Good taste isn’t the WWE’s strong suit and while some of the words, actions have been part of storylines meant to spur drama like any Hollywood movie, there are times when the WWE has not only walked that fine line, it has crossed it.
Just like any other entertainment industry though, professional wrestling should have the freedom to tell stories such as that of Colonel DeBeers or heel JBL putting down Rey Mysterio Jr.’s heritage. Again, what weighs more on my mind are the roles assigned to the various talent because of their backgrounds and ignorant stereotypes.
NOLAN HOWELL: Yes and no. This is a different time where things like racism and sexism have rightfully become issues in the forefront of society. Kudos for WWE not being completely blind to that and making a good judgment call. Do I expect their programming tropes to change regarding racial caricatures or sexualized women to change? Not at all. Basically, it’s best to look at this as a singular instance given the publicity and severity it has and they have done right just this once. It doesn’t erase their past or gain them clout in their future, but it was the right move in the present.
MATTHEW BYER: The short answer is yes the WWE is hypocritical based on how it handled racist comments in the past. If WWE wants to portray itself as having integrity with this issue, it must first address those past instances. Otherwise this is just a case of WWE trying to protect its own interests by distancing itself from Hogan and not a genuine reflection that it feels racist language is wrong.
PATRIC LAPRADE: My gosh no. Other times, other customs. If Hayes had said today what he said 10 years ago, he would end up being fired too — a suspension would not be enough. Del Rio was a private matter with no witnesses and moreover, not in front of a camera, so that’s a whole other thing. And an angle still is an angle. We see that kind of “jokes” in movies or sitcoms or series. In this case, it wasn’t Hulk Hogan saying those things, it was clearly Terry Bollea.
4. Do you think Hulk Hogan will be able to recover his image after this incident?
JOHN POWELL: As John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Part of being famous, is accepting praise as well as the criticism that goes along with it. In the case of Hulk Hogan and others, what matters to me is whether there is a pattern of vile behavior. While most of us have common sense and don’t use ethnic slurs even in anger, we have all said awful things, things we really regret to even our closest friends and family. Things were are not proud of. We are human after all and shouldn’t be judged overall on such shortcomings in moments of anger or weakness. We all deserve a second chance but if continued behaviour is what we are discussing then that is a problem and another issue entirely. Can Hogan bounce back from this? That depends whether this is an isolated incident or the true colours of childhood hero. That remains to be seen.
NOLAN HOWELL: Unlikely. With social media becoming a mass radar for public shaming of those who make controversial statements, this will probably live on forever. I don’t think Hogan is necessarily dead in the water from here on out regarding jobs or endorsements, but I don’t think he will be back in a national spotlight ever again without whispers from those watching or uneasiness from employers … unless a wrestling promotion totally desperate enough to cash in off this and his impacted legacy comes calling.
MATTHEW BYER: Just like Mel Gibson, this will always be brought up to some degree with Hulk Hogan for the rest of his life. No matter how much he apologizes or what actions he takes to try and make up for things this will always follow him. Mel Gibson’s career never really recovered, though admittedly that wasn’t solely due to his Anti-Semitic comments. However, the comparison is a decent one enough to demonstrate that Hogan’s image will never fully recover. The question really should be will Hogan’s public image descend to the level of a social pariah or will he be able to limit how much this damages him? I honestly don’t know because it will really depend on what other information is released publicly and what Hogan does next.
PATRIC LAPRADE: Maybe not to the level it was, but to a certain degree, yes. Time heals all wounds.
5. Do you think WWE will ever welcome back Hulk Hogan?
JOHN POWELL: See above. If Hogan can prove those comments were isolated and truly not how he lives his daily life and he honestly regrets those words, anything is possible.
NOLAN HOWELL: After him and his team going public and calling Vince McMahon a hypocrite for using racial language in a backstage skit? Not a chance.
MATTHEW BYER: Cynically, I think if the WWE thinks it can someday make money of Hulk Hogan without being vilified for it it will. The Hogan-WWE relationship will never be what it was because of this, but if enough time passes, nothing else becomes public which makes this situation worse, and Hogan takes actions publicly to try and repair his public image, then the WWE might consider reestablishing a relationship with Hogan. However, if that happens it would certainly be appropriate to point out that WWE would be hypocritical if it did so.
PATRIC LAPRADE: I’m pretty sure he will be back on the website. He can’t be erasd from history forever. Will he ever get back on WWE television? I honestly doubt it, unless something we don’t know yet is proven in court or something. Even if he’s never brought back, and dies in 10-15 years, WWE will make a big deal out of it, and rightfully so.
6. Hogan’s alleged comments were made in 2006. Do you believe it’s appropriate that the actions should be taken now for something that the person said nearly a decade ago?
JOHN POWELL: The timeframe matters not. It would only be relevant in relation to Hogan’s state of mind at the time and again, if this was completely and utterly out of character. There is no statute of limitations when it comes to being an idiot. It is not like Hogan was a teenager or a young adult when he said what he said. He was a mature adult who should know what is right from what is wrong. It is not like the material in question was a matter of public record either. Whether there are nefarious reasons for the material being brought to light is a whole other matter entirely.
NOLAN HOWELL: Yes. This is something severe enough that it deserves reprimand throughout all of time to an extent. This isn’t just a one-time slip and the incident wasn’t just a slight misuse of the word or stereotypes. It was a barrage of n-words blended in with racial stereotypes of expectations what a black person should be and shouldn’t be to a white person. Everyone should have to face this if something this severe is said and Hogan has handled it in the fashion most any wrestling fan who knows of his history expected him to. I’m even inclined to forgive someone like Michael Richards for this more given his profuse apologizing, refusal to turn it around on anyone but himself, and sabbatical from the public eye to try and repair himself and make up for his actions despite the equally and perhaps more insensitive rant he went on. The only victim Hogan can play here is a victim of his own questionable legacy as a person and this is a big due he is going have to pay over a long time.
MATTHEW BYER: The reality is that this isn’t the only instance of Hogan publicly using racist language, but simply the worst case of it. Hogan also utilized the same racist words in a 2012 radio interview on DJ Whoo Kid’s Sirius XM Shade 45 show called the “Whoolywood Shuffle”. During the interview Hogan discussed the use of racist words and it leaves the impression that he does use them in his everyday life from time to time and doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t. Add that to the audio comments taken from the sex tape that the National Enquirer has released so far, it paints a pretty ugly picture and is not simply a case of WWE taking action due to what Hogan said back in 2006. Being that the National Enquirer will be releasing more audio that might have Hogan saying even worse things and that they are undoubtedly looking for any other cases of Hogan’s use of racist language, the WWE is looking to distance itself as much as possible before that happens and the situation becomes even worse.
PATRIC LAPRADE: Yes, because they are known now. Again, if those comments would have been made public in 2006, I’m not sure he would have gotten the same consequences. The weird part is that when the tape was made available a few years ago, when Hogan was with TNA, nobody, no reporters, mentioned anything about those comments. It really says that when you’re a big celebrity, you need to be careful all the time to whom you’re speaking and what you’re saying.
WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE?
There are Hulk Hogan supporters out there — have you seen the Change.org petition? — and others who will never want anything to do with him again. What are your thoughts?