Some weeks it’s hard to be a wrestling fan.
I admit, I watch mostly as a form of escapism.
Long before Disney acquired the Marvel Universe and someone decided that every DC hero needed a dark, gritty reboot, professional wrestling was as close as I could get to watching superheroes and villains do battle.
Professional wrestling is colorful. There are fireworks and loud rock music promising cartoonish violence. Inside the ring clearly defined good often triumphs over evil, but not so much that we’re left without a future battle. And best of all, done properly nobody gets hurt for real.
Events of this past week saw more complex, unpleasant realities bleed into the pro wrestling universe.
On June 15, 2022 the Wall Street Journal reported that WWE Chairman Vince McMahon is under investigation by WWE’s Board of Directors resulting from a $3M settlement between McMahon, aged 76, and a former employee. McMahon is alleged to have been involved in an affair with a 41-year-old paralegal, whose salary was doubled after the affair started and was swiftly promoted to more senior positions. It is also alleged that McMahon facilitated a relationship between the paralegal and WWE Head of Talent Relations John Laurinaitis. WWE has stated that the relationship between McMahon and his employee was consensual and that the $3M settlement, which was intended to prevent further dissemination of this story, was paid by McMahon directly and not by WWE.
Predictably, the internet commentariat is divided. Old school workers are quick to claim they knew about alleged abuses of power going back decades, or to point to how the problem is far from limited to the pro wrestling world.
Some apologists are quick to point to the anonymity of the leak and argue the claims are false or conspiracy based. The most aggressive of these point to Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon’s recent decision to step away from her role, and widely perceived demotions for Shane McMahon and Triple H as evidence of a coup aimed at deposing the McMahons in favor of Nick Khan.
Some former insiders speculate that this is how favoritism in WWE’s upper ranks has solidified-less about merit and more about some longstanding employees knowing “where the bodies are buried,” potential liabilities should they and their truths fall outside WWE’s corporate culture
Others speculate that McMahon will “get away” with his actions because he has to date. With what is known so far, all sides are quick to portray this week’s allegations in a way that matches their pre-existing views of a man who, depending on who you believe, redefined or ruined pro wrestling.
Pro wrestling has always turned a blind eye to conduct that’s at best inappropriate and at worst criminal-even worse than the present set of accusations facing Vince McMahon. In his autobiography, Jim Ross notes that while working for Bill Watts in the old Mid-South/UWF promotion, it was an open secret that booker Grizzly Smith and talent Bob Sweetan were child predators. Ross’ greater concern was that he himself was bullied by Sweetan. In the AWA Buck Zumhofe was welcomed back to the roster and his light heavyweight title in 1990, after vacating that title due to a criminal conviction for sexual misconduct. Missy Hyatt has alleged that after pointing out sexual harassment in the mid-1990s she was fired from WCW. She went on to file a lawsuit which was resolved in 1996.
Scandals have dogged the WWF (as it was) since the 1980s. In 1983 it is alleged that Vince McMahon and the WWF helped cover up the death of Nancy Argentino at Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s hands; wrestling journalists such as Irvin Muchnick stuck with the case and in September 2015 Snuka was finally arrested and charged with third degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in Ms. Argentino’s death, although he would later be found not competent to stand trial and passed away in January, 2017. Neither Snuka nor any WWE personnel were ever convicted, and the allegations were not proven in court.
Former ring announcer Mel Phillips, and wrestlers turned backstage personnel Terry Garvin, and Pat Patterson were at the center of a sex scandal of 1992 as former ring attendant Tom Cole came forward alleging sexual misconduct from Phillips and Garvin. Garvin and Patterson resigned from their posts (Patterson would later be hired back) while Phillips was fired. In 1999, Sable and later Nicole Bass would sue WWE for sexual harassment. Sable settled her case out of court and went on to work with WWE four years later. Ms. Bass lost her case. Jerry Lawler, Steve Austin, Ric Flair and the Fabulous Moolah, among others have all faced serious allegations while employed by WWE. Most of these cases never saw trial, which happens frequently when sexual misconduct is alleged.
McMahon himself has faced accusations of sexual misconduct well before #MeToo. The first female referee hired by the WWF, Rita Chatterton appeared on Geraldo Rivera’s television show and claimed that she was sexually harassed and assaulted by McMahon. As far back as 2000, he acknowledged affairs in a Playboy magazine interview. In 2006, he was accused of sexually assaulting a Florida tanning salon employee (as far as I know, that case never went to court either).
In June 2020, things outside WWE started to change. The #Speaking Out movement saw members of the pro wrestling community take action against the emotional, physical and sexual abuse which many had taken for granted. Similar to #MeToo in the broader entertainment industry, this phenomenon made allegations public against a number of well known wrestling personalities. Promotions like CHIKARA and Bar Wrestling closed as a result, while the UK’s Progress Wrestling shut down for a while and was ultimately sold to new owners.
Within WWE several talents associated with NXT, NXT UK and 205 Live were identified, with most being released. Wrestling fans were surprised when it appeared that the movement stopped there and did not make its way up through WWE’s senior management ranks, although the suggestion in early media reports that this is not the only instance where senior WWE officials have entered into agreements with potential accusers may provide some explanation.
There are two key points of difference between all of those scandals and the present case.
First, through most of its history WWF/E was a privately held company, the success or failure of which was largely determined by Vince McMahon directly. McMahon routinely gambled with house money because it was his house. WrestleMania and the Rock ’n’ Wrestling Connection propelled pro wrestling to higher visibility than ever; investments like the World Bodybuilding Federation, a Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Donny Lalonde boxing match or ICOPRO supplements failed. Scandals, sexual or steroid-driven would hurt the business, but accountability was still limited to the family in charge.
It’s a different game now: in October 1999 launched an initial public offering as a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. WWE has moved to professionalize itself in order to be responsive to shareholders and to legitimize itself as a media company. Partnerships with FOX and NBC’s Peacock network, and a broad range of cross-promotional work with a variety of media properties (including many marketed to children) may make it difficult for McMahon to survive in his current position as Chairman and CEO. In February 2022, CNN President Jeff Zucker resigned over his failure to disclose a consensual romantic relationship with a senior colleague (which would appear to have significantly less of a power imbalance than the current case).
Second, WWE has had the advantage of playing for time when dealing with past scandals. In cases like Snuka’s, it took decades for allegations to see the light of day, even if they were part of backstage gossip. Since the latest news broke, social media has been flooded with details and speculation and reaction from all corners of the wrestling world. The present scandal is playing out as the result of anonymous emails being leaked; it requires a quick response from a publicly held company with an awful lot to lose if its reputation (and that of professional wrestling in general) doesn’t improve. Unlike those other scandals, this one takes place in a world where the story breaks before material events actually happen. The United States Supreme Court has been embroiled in controversy since one of its draft decisions was recently leaked. By the time WWE’s inevitable internal investigation concludes it will be too late to manage the crisis caused by McMahon’s behavior, and the documentation that followed.
Whatever comes of the present issue, it’s hard to see the McMahons completely out of the WWE picture. Vince McMahon is still WWE’s majority owner. He retains a 38.6% ownership of the company’s outstanding stock and 81.1% of the voting power. Responses to other scandals suggest that high-ranking employees such as John Laurinaitis, who has been implicated in the current case, are more likely to be removed from their positions. This would be consistent with Patterson and Garvin’s exits during the 1990s, or more recently former Senior Director of Talent Relations Mark Carrano being fired for an alleged pattern of harassment and poorly treating talent on their exit from the company.
Like I said up top, it’s been a difficult week to be a wrestling fan. I’d much rather stick to happenings within that fictional universe, or if I must step out, the booking decisions that inform it. But events like this, and those which have preceded it need to be considered.
I can (and will) argue about promotions having too many belts and too few worthy champions, but right now that just feels disingenuous.
To be honest, I’ve felt this way before and I’ve taken my share of breaks from fandom. Sometimes for silly reasons like a storyline with which I disagree, so I just tune out until it’s over. Sometimes because of tragedy, or my disbelief that a form of entertainment I so enjoy can’t figure out a way to keep its performers healthy and safe and alive… and when it does fail in this regard, that the show just goes on.
The issues raised on June 15 are similar; they raise some fundamental questions about wrestling, the people who oversee it and the culture they create. They make me wonder whose pockets I’m filling as part of my fandom, and what is the real cost to the people who work on their behalf.
How do I navigate the fictional world when the reality underlying it keeps barging in?
TOP PHOTO: Vince McMahon appears on Smackdown on Friday, June 17, 2022. WWE photo