Opening day for baseball, the playoffs for basketball and hockey, the Masters, the Triple Crown—spring is usually a joyful time for sports fans. Now, though, there are no sports to follow: Covid-19 has left sports talk-radio hosts debating over which was the best Knicks team from the 1990s and whichever 30 for 30 documentary they saw last night.
To fill the vacuum, some fans have turned to professional wrestling. World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., has continued with its weekly programming—Raw on Monday nights and SmackDown on Friday nights—if in modified form. Last weekend, it put on WrestleMania, its marquee live event. Some wrestlers withdrew, there was no live audience, and the event took place mainly in a small training center instead of the 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, the previously planned venue. Some storylines months in development had to be tweaked, but, in the end, WWE leadership resolved that the show must go on.
“Show” it may be, but while WWE may not be “real sports,” it is real entertainment with real athletes. One distinct appeal that the WWE has over MLB and the NFL, NHL, and NBA is its refusal to take itself seriously. There are fewer fulsome professions of patriotism, for example. (Dear NFL: we get that you support the troops—we never really thought you didn’t.) WWE relies heavily on what it describes as “compelling stories about heroic characters,” but that goes on in “real” sports, too: a head coach facing off at the Super Bowl against his former mentor, say, or a superstar basketball player trying to bring a championship back to his hometown. Akin to Aristotle’s remark about poetry being truer than history, WWE is, in a way, more real than the big-league sports because it’s more candid about the degree to which all sports is theater.
In “real” professional sports, playing up the dramatic context of every game—staging it—is often the responsibility of the announcers, who also offer platitudes and note obscure statistics their assistants put in front of them. WWE announcers, by contrast, truly enrich the viewing experience. Any platitudes they dispense are offered ironically. They help the audience keep track of WWE Superstar nicknames and to identify finishing moves when deployed (Lacey Evans, the “Sassy Southern Belle”; finishing move: the “Woman’s Right”). They also inform the audience about the storyline behind the match. Throughout a long WWE career, a superstar may go through multiple feuds, alliances, and “heel turns.” No one could possibly follow all the drama without the services of the announcers, who sometimes even get caught up directly in the action.
The WWE employs creative writers to devise ever wilder plot twists and match setups, such as “Hell in a Cell,” “Tables, Ladders & Chairs,” and “Last Man Standing.” MLB teams, by contrast, employ statisticians, who devote themselves to draining the life out of the game. More strikeouts and walks, fewer spectacular plays in the infield: how did we ever get by without sabermetrics?
Vince McMahon is the WWE’s longtime chief of both business operations and the creative team, and sometimes a performer. He ranks among the greatest showmen in American history. His wife, Linda McMahon, served as head of the Small Business Administration under President Trump and twice ran for U.S. Senate in Connecticut.
Like all great showmen, Vince, as he is known, has a mixed reputation. He believes that the WWE, at least in its modern-day form, is family-friendly entertainment. Many consider wrestling vulgar. True, many female wrestlers essentially wear bikinis in the ring. Standards were particularly low during the 1990s, when the WWE, in a race to the bottom with its Ted Turner-backed rival World Championship Wrestling, featured adult film stars and pimps among its “heroic characters.”
Nowadays, though, viewers of Raw and SmackDown—prior to the recent elimination of live audiences—were struck by how many children were in the always-packed arenas. Is the WWE truly more hostile to family values than the Super Bowl halftime show or the jiggle-joint routines of NBA cheerleaders? Much of what the WWE does would pass the Hays Code. It’s all good guys versus bad guys, and, in the end, the arc of WWE history bends toward justice. The bad guys may prevail on occasion but, in the end, crime does not pay in the WWE.
If you still cling to some David Halberstam-like fantasy of professional athletes as working-class knights errant, just in it for the love of the game, then the WWE might not be for you. But years’ worth of domestic-violence scandals, murder-for-hire plots, and the normalization of linebackers celebrating sacks when their team is down 20 points in the fourth quarter have left “real” sports leagues with diminished moral authority over the WWE.
Though WrestleMania 36 is over, its storylines will press on, through the weekly programming. Wrestling offers several attractions during these anxious times, including madcap diversion and something to enjoy with the kids (well, little boys). It can be appreciated as a critique of professional sports’ lack of a sense of humor and over-reliance on sentimentality and spectacle. The most obvious criticism of the WWE—that it’s fake—is the worst, since approximately 100 percent of the millions of loyal wrestling fans know that, too, and keep watching nonetheless. As they say on Broadway, “no one likes it but the public.”
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