WWE can be the family-friendly company or it can be the seedy carnival. It cannot be both, and the crisis surrounding alleged bullying by the announcer JBL shows why.
U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Reeba Critser
It was a good week for WWE creatively, at least. Last week's Raw, the first after WrestleMania and the traditional kickoff for new storylines, opened with one of the most remarkable moments in the promotion's history: ten straight minutes of an openly hostile crowd dumping on Roman Reigns, constantly interrupting him every time his mouth even hinted at opening, before Reigns delivered a simple one-line retort alluding to the Undertaker—"It's my yard now"—and walked out to raucous boos. Finn Balor returned. Shinsuke Nakamura was finally called up from NXT on Smackdown.
That's not what this column is about. That's not what any pro wrestling column is or should be about right now, because WWE is in the midst of a crisis of its own making, a collision of its stated goal of being a benign, pleasantly sterile corporation and its carnie culture of bullying and practical jokes. One man, the devastatingly talented commentator Mauro Ranallo, is currently sitting out his contract with WWE rather than return to work, and the man rumored to be the catalyst for this sad state of affairs, his co-announcer JBL (short for John "Bradshaw" Layfield), seems untouchable despite being at the center of a decades-long reign of terror behind the scenes.
A full accounting of what's going on is needed for context (you won't find anything better than VICE contributor David Bixenspan's rundown on Deadspin), but the very truncated version is that Ranallo disappeared before WrestleMania, his first, with little word on what had happened. Ranallo is very open about his battle with bipolar disorder and fans were naturally worried. Bit by bit, it leaked out that he'd been the subject of bullying by JBL, notably by MMA great Bas Rutten, a friend of Ranallo's.
Shortly thereafter and quite independent of the Ranallo situation, former WWE announcer Justin Roberts released a book about his time in the wrestling business called Best Seat in the House. He alleges that JBL tormented him deliberately and with a particular zeal, up to and including stealing his passport.
WWE has remained mum on the subject, but this follows a pattern of confirmed bullying that JBL has established over the years. A full cataloging of incidents detailed in shoot interviews—wrestlespeak for non-character "true" interviews, with the understanding that everyone is still given to rampant self-promotion—and wrestlers' biographies is shocking. They include, but are by no means limited to:
- Deliberately busting open Blue Meanie during a brawl; the punishment was WWE brass looking the other way when Meanie's friend Stevie Richards delivered retaliatory, very real chairshots to JBL's head during a later match between the two.
- Grabbing Edge's buttocks in the shower.
- Unspecified hazing of Mark Henry.
- Trying to pick a fight with legitimate martial artist Steve Blackman.
- Tormenting former announcer Joey Styles during a tour until the much smaller man knocked him out.
The full list of things JBL has been accused of goes on for pages. Many of them are very much confirmed, such as with the Blue Meanie and Steve Blackman incidents. Others are hazier, as so much of the real side of pro wrestling tends to be—like the story of JBL taping a naked Charles Robinson to a golf cart and driving it around, or the way people "hear things" from friends in the impossibly insular pro wrestling world.
It's a problem, and it is not one limited to JBL. Wrestling has a long history of such behavior, from the culture of "ribs"—practical jokes, but generally of a particularly cruel and creative variety—to the allegations that New Japan's dojo was home to some of the worst hazing of all in the 1980s and 90s. There's a toxic relationship to bullying and hazing in pro wrestling, which stems from the very real sense that jockeying for status and favor translates to money and fame. It's nothing to go from currying favor with a promoter or trainer to breaking the other wrestlers as best you can so they're no longer your rivals.
This is a particularly rancid problem for WWE, however. Its refusal to sanction or fire JBL shows just how hollow its corporate makeover has been. This is not the happy company with the kind face where everyone is just playing costumed real life superheroes, not if JBL or anyone else backstage gets away with violence and abuse. WWE doesn't get to be that when it's cruelly obvious that, in its dark heart, it's still Vince McMahon the carnival barker and his traveling freak show. There's no joy in stating that—for all that old-school pro wrestling was amazing, it is a better world when men and women aren't dying young, or at very least not getting swirlies delivered by overgrown middle schoolers.
The easy deflection is that the wrestling-wide nature of the problem means we shouldn't single WWE out for criticism. The problem with that argument is that WWE doesn't just claim to be a wrestling promotion; it claims to be the wrestling promotion, and even pro wrestling itself. That comes with attendant responsibilities and scrutiny. Right now, WWE is under heavy fire from its fans on the internet and the media for the Ranallo situation and, by extension, the sudden realization of just how much JBL has gotten away with over the years.
WWE has to make a choice and it has to make it now—the stories about JBL are blowing up into a firestorm. It can be the family-friendly company or it can be the seedy carnival. It cannot be both. If it decides on the former, it also can't stop with JBL's firing (and it must be a firing, not a simple suspension); there has to be a company-wide examination of the crudity of its culture. No more mean ribs. No more Vince McMahon pulling "hilarious" practical jokes on people like the time he had very real cops pretend to arrest an employee. No more initiations, no more hazing.
WWE's defenders will cling to the same kind of outmoded appeals as those who defended the NFL's Richie Incognito before this: that we, as outsiders, can't understand the interior culture of this world, that perhaps it's even necessary to have these crude rituals of masculinity and dominance in order to get the shows we enjoy. The response to that should be that our craving for entertainment does not overrule the safety of those we're entertained by. Blue Meanie's head is more important than whether the ladder match is four or five stars, just as Mauro Ranallo's mental health is more important than someone's sacred right to be a dickhead backstage at WWE. This isn't coddling; it's decency, and none of us in the real world would, or should, put up with this around us. Being immersed in the unreality of pro wrestling—or the culture of a locker room, or any other—is no excuse.
JBL has to go, and then WWE needs to put a stop to this. One of the most talented announcers of his generation is gone. Who knows how many other wrestlers and staff have skipped out on WWE over the years because of the culture JBL typifies. Unfortunately, just like with Incognito, the bad guys don't always lose, and they tend to stick around longer than they should. That's not something anyone, WWE employee or wrestling fan, should be proud of.
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