By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
“It is a privilege as always to stand before you, the WWE Universe — especially a privilege to stand before you in this ring in Minnesota. I’m here simply to remind you of the four words we just saw in what we call the WWE Signature. Those four words are ‘Then, Now, Forever,’ and the most important word is ‘Together.’ Welcome to SmackDown!” – Vince McMahon
40 seconds. That’s all it took Vince McMahon to say what he had to say. After holding an entire news cycle hostage for at least one day, that’s all we got. It was odd. Even a little uncomfortable. And it culminated a whirlwind of reports throughout the latter half of the week that ended with McMahon stepping aside as CEO of WWE.
By now, if you’re reading this, you’ve at least heard about the details of those reports. The Wall Street Journal broke the news that the WWE board is investigating a $3 million settlement McMahon agreed to make to a former employee over an alleged affair. At the center of the controversy is if that money came from McMahon himself or if it was somehow funneled through WWE. And there’s the matter of the former employee having her salary doubled. On top of that, the WSJ found additional non-disclosure agreements that had been signed through the years and those NDAs are related, in some way, to misconduct claims not only against McMahon, but also John Laurinaitis, WWE’s head of talent relations.
If it sounds bad, that’s because it is bad. In fact it’s so bad, that …
THEY REALLY DID IT
… Shame should be bestowed upon every single man, woman and child that stood up Friday night, clapping their hands, hooting and hollering in support of one, Vince McMahon.
On the surface, those 40 seconds were meaningless. Everyone expected more than what they got — so much so that it didn’t even feel like McMahon actually came out and spoke; instead, even now, a couple days later, it kind of feels like a blur. The move was little more than a preamble to another episode of a lukewarm, hit-or-miss Friday night wrestling television program. The theme song didn’t even air until after McMahon came and went.
But perhaps lost in all the fuss that McMahon and his shenanigans brought was the response he was bound to get by the atrociously labeled, outrageously pandering name that is the “WWE Universe.” Many people on Wrestling Twitter expressed their concern about how warm the fans might be that night as the day wore on. It wasn’t Story A when it came to speculation about how McMahon’s appearance would go, but it was probably a solid Story C, if nothing else.
Seeing is believing, though, and the primary curiosity came in the form of A) What the hell Vince McMahon had to say, and B) Why the hell anyone with a brain larger than a grain of salt would let him go out there in the first place. Heading into the segment, the crowd response was secondary but not irrelevant. Most of that was probably because said crowd response was as predictable as any Roman Reigns match has been over the last two years.
“They’re going to cheer him, aren’t they?” was the first thought I had, even though it was quickly followed up with, “But no, they can’t, right? At least not that much. This is unlike anything that’s happened before. There have been rumblings and rumors and reports about how awful of a human being Vince McMahon has been for decades now, but it’s never been this public. They’ll know better, right?”
There were literal signs of support. There were handshakes and hand-slaps as McMahon strutted to the back. There were cheers. There was applause. There was gratitude. There was a type of scary worship. There was an obvious disregard for any moral, ethical or professional wrongdoing that the 76-year-old has committed, pretty much ever. It made me wonder if the hyperbolic cliches we sometimes hear about leaders could actually be true. “He’s so great, he could run over my dog, and I’d still love him!”
Actually, the response made me flash on something that should have been obvious from the start: The McMahon family’s favorite president, one, Mr. Donald Trump. The loyalty in which McMahon basked Friday night was akin to that of his former president pal, who proved he could get away with saying quite literally anything and seemingly never lose his base. In fact, that brashness only gained him followers in the interim.
McMahon’s desire to trot himself out there for 40 seconds to say something utterly meaningless felt like a pretty strong indicator that all he really wanted to do was make sure those invaluable WWE fans still have his back. In another age, when things felt more reasonable and a moral compass felt more respected, that crowd might not have responded like that and McMahon himself might not have even taken the risk to being with.
But these days? In the age of defiance and groupthink and division and varying truth? Nah. That guy was golden. He was appealing to his fanbase all the while (let’s face it) making himself feel a little good after a week that was a lot bad. Why do you think the word at the center of his appearance was “together?” “We’ll get through this together,” was the obvious implication. And the people of Minneapolis bought it.
In fact, it wasn’t just the people of Minneapolis …
WHEN JOKES BECOME REALITY
It was also the … cue the music … media.
The biggest gripe among those following and commenting on the Vince McMahon saga last week – when it came to how it was covered in the mainstream media at least – was that few made mention of how McMahon is going to keep creative control, even if he is stepping aside as CEO and Chairman of the Board. That role is as important as any role McMahon has in WWE, a lot of people argued. The general public needs to know that’s not going away.
At first, I thought the complaint was a little too inside baseball for not just the casual fan, but anyone watching the nightly news. Imagine someone tuning in to watch Lester Holt, because that’s the nightly tradition, and a story about a guy who runs a wrestling company comes up. For a grandfather in the middle of South Carolina or a mother living in Maine, I had my doubts that they would even know what “creative control” meant in the context of the situation, and therefore, why would any mainstream media outlet care to dissect that aspect of the equation?
But then I had another flashback. And that flashback took me back to a couple years ago when I was sent to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to cover a rally on the steps of the state capital that was aimed at bullying the Pennsylvania governor into opening up businesses again as COVID-19 had only recently taken hold of the country. And while the gathering was supposed to be about opening businesses and doing away with wearing masks, the afternoon turned into a de facto Donald Trump rally.
This was toward the beginning of the pandemic, remember, so not only was everything pretty much shut down, but some people were still pretty scared about the ramifications of the virus. The people on that day, however, were not. And block after block found dozens of trailers dedicated to selling Trump gear. As I made my way into the mob of protestors to get quotes for the story I would write, someone asked me if I was a member of the media. I said yes. Boom went the dynamite. People blindly yelled at me, accosted me, threatened me … it wasn’t fun.
So, what’s the parallel? The media’s unwillingness to even explain the entire immediate ramifications of McMahon’s punishment suggests that few in the mainstream are taking this seriously. It wasn’t all that long ago when a certain billionaire’s intentions to run for president of the United States of America weren’t taken all that seriously as well. But wouldn’t you know it — the guy won. And America would never be the same, for better or for worse.
It’s the same thing with McMahon. How can we believe that he’ll ever come face to face with his sins if nobody of any consequence takes him seriously enough to do it? And don’t tell me the fine pro wrestling media outlets fall in the category of “someone of consequence” to Vince McMahon. We’re nothing to him. Perhaps the more scary thing, however, is that because of the general response that mainstream media has given this scenario, my guess is that anyone or any outlet in that echelon means nothing to him, too.
And if that’s the case …
How can you be sorry if you feel like you never did anything wrong? And how is Vince McMahon going to feel like he ever did anything wrong if no one — the fans and mainstream media alike — has the gall to make him come face to face with any of it?
Spin that forward a little bit and consider this: More than ever, we now find ourselves at the point where people who do very bad things are never actually held accountable for their actions because …
Well, just … because?
Look, I’m the furthest thing you’ll find from some type of morality police because I’ve made a zillion mistakes in my life and I also believe that people deserve second and even third chances. You won’t catch me being sanctimonious about most of anything. But knowing that the majority of the fans in Minnesota on Friday night most likely knew at least an inkling of everything that McMahon has been accused of over the last week … and then to see them sort of laugh at it, disregard it or push it aside on account of Vince being Vince … that’s a little too much, even for me.
And if the fans are going to give him a free pass, what else does he need? There are more than a few reports that say he’s long been estranged from his wife Linda. Son Shane McMahon was told to get out at the beginning of the year. Daughter Stephanie … who the hell knows what’s going on with that. So, at the end of the day, what else does Vince need? He purportedly lost his family long ago. He’s 76. Walking out into a crowd of thousands who cheer his every move is probably all he can ask for at this point in his life.
The sad part is that those fans Friday night were more than happy to give it to him, regardless of what it says about the world of professional wrestling to those not accustomed to the world of professional wrestling.
Oh, and about that …
ONE OF A KIND
Some people complain about the disrespect pro wrestling gets when it comes to sports or the mainstream or popular culture. Those same people say that the wrestlers are real athletes (which they are), and that the stuff they do is dangerous (which it is) and even if it’s scripted, the work still hurts (it sure seems like it does). Because of all those things, why can’t pro wrestling have more respect among the masses?
Well, this is why. I can’t think of a single other form of entertainment, sports or not, where something like Friday night could happen. When accusations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced, you didn’t see him send out a press release stating he was going to address the crowd that night before his latest movie’s premiere. Louis C.K. went away for a long time and even now as he tries to scratch his way back to prominence, the general populous isn’t really having it.
Vince McMahon, though? Hey, it’s cool. Just do your funny walk, grab a microphone, say something sort of vague, and kiss babies on your way out. The fans don’t have a problem with you. Don’t worry about it.
I mean, come on. That’s wild! It proves how much of a bubble pro wrestling really is, and it’s unsettling. The blind loyalty that fans of both companies and wrestlers alike is frightening, and, as I said earlier, eerily Trump-ish. If you’re a father and your daughter really likes wrestling and loves WWE, how can you feel comfortable taking her to a live show, knowing the reports of how that company and that man treats women? Better yet, how can you justify cheering said company and said man?
None of this makes sense to me beyond some thoughtless, drone-like approach to fandom. There isn’t a single good reason any person in that arena Friday night should have cheered McMahon. Conversely, imagine if they wouldn’t have. Imagine if they would have booed. Or, to take it further, imagine if they didn’t know what to do and there was a hush over everything. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. And that cliche is amplified by a million in pro wrestling, considering how loud boos are as valuable as fervent cheers. Ambivalence on that night might have knocked the guy out for good.
But that’s not what happened. And instead, the emperor reigned supreme yet again. That self-indulgent, defiant, tone-deaf, ignorant, petulant, detestable, smug emperor — he reigned supreme yet again. And for all he can tell, his kingdom isn’t in any danger.
Even if a peasant like me says otherwise.