Type’s Fingertip Feelings: It’s time to check another social box and make these men matter
The powers that be in the WWE are more PR-cognizant than they have ever been in their history. Cultural context demands they be that way and certainly the company has obliged. With the #MeToo movement and women’s rights being near the forefront of societal prominence, along with anti-bullying and LGBT issues, the company has shown an obvious deliberate approach to look good after being mired in scandals and controversies ranging from steroids, attitude era misogyny, and (most notably) the Chris Benoit double murder/suicide.
The company has seemingly checked all the boxes in addressing and rectifying situations past. No, they’re not perfect and sometimes they have downright offensive and sad storylines like what you saw with Sami Zayn and Lashley, but the women’s revolution has been an obvious, intentional movement that is doing everything to put women on equal footing with men as opposed to other sports where the women fall behind. Long gone are the days of bikini matches and the objectifying of women that was socially accepted back in the 90’s as edgy, irreverent television that sometimes went more for shock value than compelling athletic competition. While the women setting precedents like Hell in a hell and Royal Rumble are obviously on their own merits, it certainly helps to compete within the framework of a time in history that is putting emphasis on women having a voice and speaking up amidst the emergence of sexual assault cases in Hollywood.
We saw another story flesh out over Wrestlemania season en route to the show of shows, one that would allow the WWE to check off another box in shining a positive light on another relevant social issue with Nia Jax. Bullying has become an epidemic all over the world- most notably in schools- and the fans were able to rally behind Nia Jax as she took elements of real life hardships in being body shamed and brought them into storyline with Alexa Bliss. The 6’0”, 240 lb Jax got emotional after her title victory and it was clear the WWE was trying to push that women of all shapes and sizes cannot only have success in the WWE, but be role models and heroes who stand up against bullying. The build and eventual title win was a pleasant surprise that seemed to do more for the movement than the inconsistencies of their B.A. Star attempts in years past.
Even Finn Balor, who brought members of the LGBT on stage with him at Wrestlemania, is pushing the idea that the Balor Club is an all inclusive stable regardless of race, sex, or religion. Sonya Deville is the first openly lesbian wrestler in the company’s history, preceded by Darren Young, who came out 5 years prior.
The WWE has checked a lot of boxes to put its questionable past behind them and look good for sponsors as well as prospective fans for a particular target market.
Back in 2015, the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance began trending as a way to bring support to women’s wrestling and expose their lack of television time that ended up being the #1 trend on twitter for a short period. Three years later, the women’s revolution has allowed for plentiful opportunities on both weekly television and pay-per-views, putting the ladies in prominent spots to showcase their talent. Perhaps on that night 3 years ago, a hash tag wasn’t the sole reason that a revolution sparked, but there’s no denying it definitely set the table for what was to come.
There is another group, however, that should be given a chance. There’s another box that’s gone unchecked in the WWE for too long and the cultural narrative is only confirming the need for them to emerge.
It’s time to push African American men further in the WWE.
As a 34-year old white male who grew up in a small white town and went to an all white school, I can only attempt to position myself in a place of empathy for how a black man would feel to be discriminated against based on the color of his skin. I am not going to be the apathetic, narrow minded non-black man who tells you that “All lives matter” as a way to essentially spit in the face of a movement that only wants to educate and feel validated.
Just this past week, a police report came out about an incident that happened in late January with Milwaukee Bucks rookie Sterling Brown, an African American shooting guard for the team. After being approached by the police for having his vehicle across two handicapped parking spaces, he was tased, tackled to the ground, and arrested. When that report came out a few months after the incident, the video showed that Brown did not resist law enforcement as originally reported and the cops were later reprimanded for their actions.
We have a race problem in this country. That’s a fact. We also have a wrestling company who, when they are at their best, use their specific platform to imitate life in a way that can turn a negative into a positive.
I have to admit that this is such a sensitive topic, one that I tread lightly with. If you are looking for the “tell it like it is” columnist to “not care what you think” and just spit his opinions, I am the wrong columnist for you. Truth is, I care a lot about what both white and black people have to say on this and I don’t think either party with an open mind should be invalidated. If I were to tell you being white carries with it splendor, immunity, and a lack of questioning by authority- I’d probably find those who have had their share of hardships and judgments. If I were to tell you that every black male in a hoodie is always under the constant threat of removal and unjustified suspicion, many white brethren may accuse me of playing the race card as though that is a statistical outlier rather than the norm.
Right now, the WWE has the golden opportunity within their soap opera prism to showcase and feature African American men at the top, giving the same hope to that target market as they have tried to give to all those who felt discriminated and bullied.
But this unfortunately is no revolution, no movement, no all inclusive club with its own T-shirt and no hero to stand up to the bully.
The WWE is failing to provide compelling television for its African American male stars in a time where they should be beaming with pride to break through the glass ceiling. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes people create or destroy their own opportunities and that is not a race thing. Do I think the WWE is racist against Blacks? Absolutely not. I have no doubt that they would put the best person, regardless of race, in the best position to succeed for the betterment of their company.
I, do, however find it perplexing that, for example, a group of talented black men known as the The New Day have been stuck in neutral for essentially 3 years. They have been a great staple of the tag team division, an entertaining act that has exceeded even the best of expectations, and will all likely be in the Hall one day as a unit. Eventually, you have to evolve and for some reason the WWE does not take them serious individually.
It baffles me that the New Day isn’t afforded the same opportunities the Shield had to evolve. The WWE has slipped into a complacency coma with a group who’s content to throw flapjacks and gyrate around aimlessly. While I do think Kingston and Woods have mid card ceilings (not a bad thing), it is absurd from a kayfabe standpoint as to why Big E is content, as a 5’11”, 285 lb muscle man with decent speed and agility for his size, to prance around with no direction in sight.
A huge reason we watch the WWE is to form that connection with the superstar. I connected with Shawn Michaels boyhood dream in 1996 because it was easy to be a dreamer and insert myself into his position, adopting him quickly as an idol. It was easy to get behind Daniel Bryan’s “Yes!” movement as the lovable underdog who takes down the powers that be who wanted to put a ceiling on him. It was easy for 20 somethings to live vicariously through Stone Cold Steve Austin in the 90’s, seeing a dream fleshed out where you make your boss’s life a living hell.
Big E is a well spoken, intelligent, athletic, and charismatic black man oozing with personality. The opportunity for him to be a strong black champion is ripe for the picking if he was allowed to evolve and connect with us, the fans. Instead, he’s relegated to being the guy at the party who’s only good for giving someone a laugh. It’s as though the WWE has him in the friend zone with no end in sight to the silly antics and dancing. If he is a puppet in the machine- only good for selling merchandise, sticking out his tongue, and doing the signature move with his hips- then the WWE is failing us.
Speaking of fail, is this the best we can do with Bobby Lashley? The former MMA and TNA star was a huge re-signing for the WWE. Despite an era where wrestling is down and script writing for WWE is very poor, even I am giving the finger of shame to creative. Here’s another strong black man who could have been built around having this huge opportunity with the company a decade after he left it. This could have been about redemption, what a second chance in WWE means to him, what being a black world champion would mean, how men of color are treated in the business, etc. etc. But instead? It was about sisters doing weird things to him while Renee Young drowns in a pool of her own sweaty awkwardness. I understand, regardless of race, that the man isn’t exactly oozing with charisma but you still had an opportunity there to make him engaging and yet again failed another black man by actually making him less interesting than he was the decade prior with the company.
Everywhere you turn, you see black men not meeting the expectations that they should right now and while I won’t go as far as calling that a race issue, it is a criminal misuse in a time where #BlackLivesMatter and this kind of thing SHOULD be talked about in the WWE.
Read every article you can on Titus O’Neill and you’ll find he’s one of the genuine good guys in the WWE. He’s raised over a million dollars for the homeless, he’s won a Humanitarian of the year award, does work with the military, the special Olympics, and is an incredible Father to his kids. But what is he in the WWE? The leader of a loosely defined brand that claims to be worldwide, but has 2 members, one of whom is a bookkeeper (I guess) for these fictitious profits they are bringing in. A strong high character black man in a world where black men are fighting to have their lives matter? Why doesn’t he? Why doesn’t his partner, Apollo Crews?
I have said to anyone willing to listen that I feel Apollo Crews is a winning lottery ticket. He’s got the look, the bulky size, and the incredible athleticism to be a strong player in the WWE and is one gimmick away from mattering. 6’1” 240 lbs men with muscles like he has don’t just fly around like he does and do back flips. After being on the roster for quite some time, we barely know who he is other than the guy who wears a cut off t-shirt and joins a conga line with No Way Jose.
Am I creating a false narrative? Is this just an issue of guys that aren’t stepping up to the plate and it’s easy for me to use the race crutch? I don’t think I am.
Go back to the WWE over 20 years ago and you’ll see two pretty bland guys that looked like they were heading for mid card status at best, forgettable at worst. In 1996, Ron Simmons was given one of the worst gimmicks of all time as Farooq Asaad, a modern day Gladiator who was managed by Sunny. It didn’t work. Sunny as his manager didn’t work. He looked like another guy who’s WCW success wasn’t going to translate to the WWE. Then you also had Rocky Maivia who was just a smiling, third generation superstar babyface who got boo’d at a time when being boo’d held different connotations than it does today. Unlike a guy like Roman Reigns who’s boo’d for his special treatment and roster position, the Rock was mostly boo’d for the very simple fact that fans just flat out didn’t like his gimmick.
And just like that, the Nation of Domination was born. The Rock was able to become the heel the fans forced him to be (take notes, Roman) and go onto have arguably the greatest career in WWE history while Faarooq went from modern day gladiator to leader of a group that tackled racism head on. Hell, he was so hot in ’97 he was the #1 contender for the WWE championship against the Undertaker. Why? He was able to use his fiery passion and channel into a promo on Vince McMahon, calling out the boss himself for racism existing in the WWE. My gosh, at one point he told Vince that “an apology wasn’t enough for 400 years of oppression.”
It may have been wildly inappropriate and controversial, but even in 1997 racism existed and the WWE played off of real life culture to turn Ron Simmons into a star. We’re talking about a guy who fired Ahmed Johnson from the Nation for “not being black enough” and told him “he wouldn’t be white if they sandblasted his a** 20 times”
I don’t think the WWE powers that be are racist, but I do think they have little to no idea how to best utilize their African American male talent. Cedric Alexander is champion, but the Cruiserweight division is not exactly at the top of the priority list. Nia Jax had her story, Balor has a T-shirt, the women are proving to be as engaging as the men, Darren Young and Sonya Deville have possibly opened more doors for superstars to come out, but now it’s time for the WWE to somehow, someway tackle the issue of race in a way that can elevate some of these stars. I would love nothing more than for Apollo Crews to find that perfect gimmick that gets him over, the New Day to all have singles success in the manner the Shield have, Titus to translate all that positive PR work into something that matters inside the WWE ring, Velveteen Dream to get called up and break through as something fresh and different.
Black lives are trying to matter and the WWE has the perfect set up to ensure they not only matter, but are valued and breakthrough.
Time is now, WWE.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: How close are we to an African American world champion?