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Artillery Row

Live not by kayfabe

The dark side of professional wrestling is the dark side of institutional life

The allegations levelled against Vincent Kennedy McMahon in a new lawsuit from an ex-employee of World Wrestling Entertainment are so grim that it is hard to summarise them for a general audience. The former owner of World Wrestling Entertainment and current executive chairman of its parent company TKO Group Holdings stands accused of hiring Janel Grant when she was down on her luck after her parents’ deaths in 2019 and then beginning an exploitative sexual relationship which involved sexual assault, offering Ms Grant up sexually to McMahon’s friends and colleagues, sharing naked photos of her without her consent and making implicit legal threats and threats to her employment status to keep her in line.

The lawsuit alleges that various WWE officials, employees and performers were complicit in the mistreatment of Ms Grant — and that an investigation into McMahon’s behaviour, which followed revelations that other WWE staffers had signed non-disclosure agreements after sexual relationships with Mr McMahon, pointedly failed to investigate her claims. Ms Grant signed a non-disclosure agreement as well but argues that Mr McMahon stopped making payments.

McMahon’s lawyers claim:

This lawsuit is replete with lies, obscene made-up instances that never occurred, and a vindictive distortion of the truth. He will vigorously defend himself.

One hopes that both sides’ claims will be investigated with appropriate thoroughness. That McMahon has been involved in some amount of sexual impropriety seems obvious (a faithful husband and responsible employer does not have to sign more NDAs than most of us have haircuts). But it will be important to establish the scale of that amount. Having affairs with his staffers sounded sleazy but unexceptional. Ms Grant’s allegations, on the other hand, sound like a horror story.

Wrestling history is full of horror stories. You can find evil men in any institution, of course. That is human nature. The worm, sadly, is never far from the core. But the level of pretence in professional wrestling, where the real and the imaginary are always blurred, seems to have enabled an unusual amount.

The blurring of the lines is part of the appeal for modern fans (this author included). It’s fun to think about how the truth shapes the fiction, and how the fantasy bleeds into the reality. But to say that the insular, ambiguous aspects of professional wrestling have a dark side is an insult to dark sides. It is no coincidence that the hit documentary series Dark Side of the Ring is heading towards Season 5. There was Grizzly Smith, for example — a Savilesque paedophile whose predilections were overlooked because he was a vital authority at his promotion. There were the Von Erichs — a family of boys whose drug use and mental problems were covered up time and again for the sake of their clean cut public image. Four of the five sons died prematurely, three by their own hand.

The history of World Wrestling Entertainment, née the World Wrestling Federation, is full of shadiness. Did star wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka kill his girlfriend Nancy Argentino, and what was known about it? To what extent was the sexual abuse of rings boys — young men who assisted with manual work at live events — quietly overlooked within the company? It is on a lower level of seriousness, of course, but steroid use was an open secret in the days of “eat your vitamins and say your prayers”.

Of course, none of this determines whether Vince McMahon is guilty — or, if he is guilty, the nature of his guilt. But there is a point to be made here, I think, about the nature of pretence. It is one thing to put on a performance in your public-facing professional life. It is quite another to reduce your life to a performance.

“Live not by lies” was Solzhenitsyn’s famous phrase. Granted, we all have secrets (and, in case it has to be said, we have all done things we regret — or should regret). But building your life around secrets is something else. It bakes dishonesty into your bones.

Once you allow lies to creep towards the centre of your existence, individually or institutionally, where do you stop?

Those secrets do not have to amount to rape. (My advice to rapists is less “live not by lies” than “live not by abusing women”.) But powerful rapists — from Harvey Weinstein, to Jimmy Savile, to Cardinal McCarrick et cetera ad nauseum — inhabit a culture of lies that enables them. Once you allow lies to creep towards the centre of your existence, individually or institutionally, where do you stop? (This can end up punishing more honest people as well as enabling less honest people because it becomes more difficult to separate the two.)

Wrestling has a term “kayfabe”, which describes keeping up your act for the sake of realism. Two wrestlers not being seen in public together while they are feuding onscreen, for example, are keeping kayfabe. In one famous story, wrestlers who were supposed to be opponents were seen in a hotel by a group of tourists and immediately began pretending to fight. 

This is also called “protecting the business”, for obvious reasons. Wrestlers used to take it almost as seriously as a priest’s religious vows. That is all well and good but — and this extends way beyond the wrestling world — the truth can be more important than business, relationships, and a good story.

Vince McMahon’s willingness to do anything to make his company succeed has long made him an immensely compelling figure for millions of fans. From an impoverished and abusive home, he fought his way to being the billionaire emperor of the professional wrestling world — working insane hours, taking on politicians and business, and being blasted in the head with steel chairs and forced to wet his pants on live television. Yet, again, willingness to do anything to get your way can have a dark side that makes black holes look bright.

World Wrestling Entertainment has left broken wrestlers and bullied employees in its wake for years. The truth of the most recent allegations has yet to be determined. Still, true, false or somewhere in between, it will remain the case that sometimes the real story is not the story you want to tell.

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