By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
In my eyes, it’s just not real. If 100 out of 100 people say something like, “I love chocolate,” my mind immediately goes to, “Well, at least 15 of you aren’t telling the truth.” Nothing against chocolate, of course. It’s great. But sometimes you need a Starburst instead of a Reese’s Cup.
Anyway, these days, it’s hard not to consider that metaphor …
… when thinking about AEW.
Forget the polarizing talk. Forget the with us/against us rhetoric. Forget the side of the wrestling media that refuses to respect anything AEW does. Forget the side of the wrestling media that refuses to admit AEW isn’t perfect.
Throw all of that to the side and consider the actual talent involved. No matter the missteps (bring Miro in to be a … gamer?), cringe-worthy moments (an exploding ring that has less explosives than a box of sparklers) or a handful of tone-deaf reactions (read: Tony Khan’s defiance when addressing said exploding ring that has less explosives than a box of sparklers), we, as the public, never hear a single negative peep out of any current AEW employee.
There’s nothing wrong with that. If everyone wants to be a company person, then so be it. Still, if that’s the case, I have to guess that all this means is either AEW must be heaven on earth, or Tony Khan has dirt on everyone he hires and if anyone dares to speak up, he’ll ruin him or her in 240 characters or less. That’s a joke, of course, but the frequency with which we see/hear AEW wrestlers jump to the side of Khan to defend him against any and all naysayers is enough to make me skeptical.
It’s also enough to make me wonder two things. One, how much does Khan benefit simply by playing the role of “Not Vince McMahon?” And two, what exactly would Khan have to do someday to have something bad stick to him? Naturally, that leads us to …
DIVERSITY IN WRESTLING
… Big Swole.
Now, before we move forward, it’s imperative I make one thing clear: I am a schlubby white male who eats too much pizza and only occasionally does something productive, like, say, “wash the dishes.” I have no authority to speak on race or gender issues, because of all the categories of people this world offers, I am acutely aware that I fall into the most privileged one. So, not only can I not speak authoritatively on minority experiences in America, but I’m also not smart enough to add anything anywhere near revelatory to a discussion about diversity in professional wrestling.
What I can do, though, is recount what Big Swole said last week on her podcast. And among the things she said was this:
“I do not beat around the bush when it comes to diversity and my people. There is no representation, truly, and when there is, it does not come across in the Black community as genuine at all. I don’t know why everybody is so afraid to accept it or say it, but it’s not a good look. What happens is, you have this wonderful company that treats people like family, but there is nobody that looks like me that is represented at the top and in the room with them. They are not helping to necessarily influence decisions, but to explain why certain slang and certain words shouldn’t be said. There is no one else who can explain our culture and experience except for us.
“I knew something was up when my daughter, who loves watching wrestling, would watch AEW all the time and seldomly watch WWE. She’s not a big fan unless dad was on TV, which stopped happening after they botched the Hurt Business. She would say, ‘Mommy, there is nobody that looks like me on AEW. There’s nobody that looks like daddy.’ Then she started watching WWE because she saw Bianca and Big E. She saw herself represented. If that wasn’t a ‘click — you are absolutely right. I don’t have an explanation.’ It’s 2021. Why are people saying, ‘It’ll take three years for AEW to have a Black champ?’ This is a scripted sport. It should not take that long if you have been watching WWE for 50-plus years and you know what not to do.”
The comments might not have made waves, but Fightful.com transcribed what she said and published a story with the headline, “Big Swole Explains How Lack Of Diversity And Structure Led To Her Leaving AEW.” Because the one rule in AEW is that nobody talks bad about AEW, Tony Khan caught wind of Big Swole’s words and tweeted this:
“The top 2 AEW execs are brown (me & Megha)!! Jade, Bowens, Caster, Dante, Nyla, Isiah & Marq Quen all won on tv this month. The TBS Title Tournament has been very diverse. I let Swole’s contract expire as I felt her wrestling wasn’t good enough. #AEWRampage Street Fight TONIGHT!”
As a result, Lio Rush hopped into the mix. Then Rush said he talked with Khan, he doesn’t believe Khan is racist, everything was cool between him and Khan and he hopes 2022 is a year of positive change. Powerhouse Hobbs said some things. Swole said her comments were somewhat taken out of context. So on and so forth. It wasn’t a great way to spend a few minutes on a New Year’s Eve.
So, what did this do?
Above all else, it reignited a conversation in the wrestling world that should be more prominent than it is. It’s not to say strides haven’t been made and it’s not to say that there is clearly, in part, an effort from companies all around the world to be better than they’ve been in the past. If nothing else, the WWWF/WWF/WWE isn’t building characters based around race and/or gender stereotypes anymore, and it’s clear that the company, which is the most celebrated and popular pro wrestling brand in the universe, would probably give any man an opportunity as long as he is 6-feet, 8-inches tall, 300 pounds and built like a house. Then again, as for the way the company treats women … um, the jury is still out on that.
That said, the comments Swole made about her daughter watching wrestling were the most poignant because those types of comments are not uncommon to hear. They are also somewhat heartbreaking because while we may hear them in our personal lives from time to time when diversity in wrestling is discussed, we don’t hear them enough. And, to be frank, my guess is a lot of us don’t think about them enough, either, me included. It’s a real issue that has a long way to go before it’s entirely corrected (if that’s even possible), but it’s also an issue that could be helped along by more people speaking out more regularly about it.
And that’s the thing. The issue of diversity in wrestling very much feels like the issue in the room that is only picked up off the shelf when people in power are reminded that … well, eh, it’s not great? And then when those people in power are reminded that diversity in wrestling has a long way to go, they respond accordingly, say enough things to fan out the flame, maybe make a few promises and then place it back on the shelf until someone has the audacity (the audacity!) to bring it up again.
Or, well, that is unless you are Tony Khan.
I mean, this dude listed off the People of Color who got television wins last month like the 55-year-old white guy at the end of the bar who rants for 45 minutes about how he didn’t trust President Obama because of his ethnicity and then claims he’s not racist because “his best friend is Black.” Then, on top of that, he publicly degraded Swole’s wrestling skills, which isn’t a great look for the boss of a company who has three hours of national television time to book each week before reminding everyone that Rampage was going to be on in a few hours.
But you already knew that. Or, I guess, if you’re on The Twitter, you knew that, because everyone hopped on it the minute the “send” button was pressed. So, piling on here in regards to Khan’s immaculate ability to be wildly tone deaf isn’t really productive. Even so, it did bring back into question how teflon both Khan and AEW seem to be. More so, it brought into question Khan’s ability to shrug off a criticism or two.
Can you imagine Khan having to endure the steroids trial that Vince McMahon survived a few decades ago? Not possible. He’d be tweeting with the fury of a Donald Trump, insisting the government was out to take him down because a few Senators happen to be friends with Urban Meyer, and then shamelessly ending the tweet by adding a plug for Chris Jericho vs. John Silver on the next Dynamite.
Hashtag street fight.
What I think gets lost in this pattern — Khan throwing a fit for not getting credit for bankrolling the pay for AEW talent show appeared on the NWA Empowerrr pay-per-view; Khan arrogantly dismissing criticism for not delivering on his death match promises; etc. — is that Khan never really says sorry. He exposes these weirdly petulant sides of himself, walks away from the situation and that’s kind of it. We don’t hear from him again. We hear from some wrestlers and whatever the issue is, those wrestlers always go to bat for him. Even after Rush came out a day later to kind of/sort of walk back his initial anger at the Swole response, Khan didn’t add a subtweet or a statement that acknowledged what had happened, both in regards to his message for Swole and his conversation with Rush.
Where this becomes a slippery slope …
… Is when you start to get into a conversation about credibility.
Your employees might love you at all costs, but if the success of your product is predicated on public satisfaction and consumption, at some point, you have to enter the public into the equation, too. If you’re pumping up this week’s Dynamite card as the best wrestling in television history … but then, say, an audio recording of you saying derogatory things about women’s wrestling leaks and you never address it, let alone apologize for it … well, at that point, you’d just be a carnival barker whose audience is diminishing by the minute.
There are flaws in AEW. Let’s not turn the other way on that. Think of the men’s side of the card — how many People of Color are near the top of it? Right now, you have Danielson, Page, Omega, Jericho, Darby, the Bucks, MJF, Sting, Punk, Moxley, Cole … I can keep going down, from the top of the card to the middle of the card, and it’ll be a minute before names like Dante Martin or Andrade, who is also a minority, gets a shout. Then, there’s the women. Unless if there’s a hashtag street fight, women typically get between three to seven minutes on Rampage for their one segment. Dynamite is a crap shoot. And while the TBS Title concept is great, and I applaud AEW for having a second women’s title in the company, there’s no denying that the females could use a little more television time each week.
The problem with the flaws, however, is that they can never be properly addressed if Khan’s reaction to them is filled with contempt. Does he really think he runs a perfect company? Does everyone in that organization truly believe that the weekly shows, be it on YouTube or Turner, never feature mistakes? And if there are mistakes, is there anyone in that orbit who wants to correct them? Or is it just an environment where perhaps some people might be hesitant to bring certain things forward in fear of receiving a response filled with condescension and anger?
Vince McMahon has the reputation of being the devil in the pro wrestling world and it seems like he revels in it a bit too much sometimes. But Vince McMahon also ain’t out here tweeting at the former Braun Strowman, saying he fired him because he sucks in the ring. The thing is, I don’t think he would have done it even if Twitter was around 40 years ago. Sure, he might have found other ways to step in the mud and get people to loathe him if social media existed in the 1980s, but I’m not so sure he would have exposed himself like Khan did on New Year’s Eve.
So, what now? Well, it’s easy to be cynical about Rush’s ultimate response, but I’ll go the opposite way and say I agree with him. Change needs to happen and change doesn’t happen over night. If Rush says he’s proud to “work for a boss and company that try to make these strides in social equality,” I’ll believe him. That doesn’t mean Swole was wrong, though. More so, she was also right about people listening to the podcast episode to hear the tone of her comments in context because it does change the narrative a little.
At the center of it all, though, we have to be reminded that these truly are issues deserving of the dialogue they received in the last few days. Even if AEW, WWE and everyone else in between are working to be better — and, for that matter, even if they are better today than they were one month ago, one year ago or one decade ago — there is still room for improvement on every side of the ball.
And that’s even if Tony Khan or anyone else currently in AEW doesn’t want to admit it.