Content Warning: This article contains allegations of sexual assault, sexual coercion, and sexual harassment.
Is Vince McMahon returning to WWE?
On their website, WWE shows off their anti-bullying program „Be a Star“ (Show Tolerance and Respect), developed in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, claiming the program has been supported by WWE Chief Executive Officer Stephanie McMahon, who „makes available 4,300 clubs and provides access to tools and educational materials that help create a safe and inclusive out-of-school environment for more than 4 million children.“
Preventing bullying is undoubtedly an important concern, especially as the world of high-speed internet and unmoderated social media has led to a completely new level of harassment and personal distress for kids. But while WWE may have wanted the best for their under-18 audience, it is becoming increasingly clear that the same level of concern did not apply to WWE employees, particularly the women who worked for former WWE co-founder and former chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon.
Last week, McMahon resigned from his position at WWE for the second time in the last two years, following allegations of sexual harassment and assault. While McMahon has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime, recent reports claim federal law enforcement authorities are investigating allegations related to sex trafficking against former WWE legal assistant Janel Grant, who has filed a lawsuit against McMahon.
Grant’s allegations of assault by McMahon and former WWE manager John Laurinaitis (the stepfather of Nikki and Brie Garcia, also known as „The Bella Twins“) and „sexual misconduct“ in close proximity. McMahon was also ousted from the company in 2022 after a Wall Street Journal report alleged that he had paid NDAs totaling $12 million to four women, including Grant, over 16 years. The WSJ also claimed McMahon paid $7.5 million to a former wrestler, who said McMahon forced her to perform oral sex and then demoted her when she rejected further advances. Another woman, a WWE contractor, came forward with unsolicited nude photos, which she claimed McMahon sent her while sexually harassing her at work. When McMahon initially resigned following the WSJ report, his daughter, Stephanie McMahon, thanked the crowd, „Thank you, Vince.“
For her part, Stephanie McMahon has always been a strange combination of „women power“ while seemingly covering up men’s terrible behavior. She is credited with the women’s revolution in 2020 at WWE, which launched the careers of female wrestlers like Becky Lynch, Mercedes Mone (then Sasha Banks), and Charlotte Flair. At the same time, she enthusiastically praised the appointment of former Barstool CEO Erika Ayers Badan (then Erika Nardini) to the company’s board, despite her experience at Barstool seemingly turning a blind eye to long-standing harassment of women. Does this actually show tolerance and respect? On the other hand, Stephanie once had to reject Vince’s pitch for a storyline in which he was the father of her unborn child.
What seems to be becoming clearer day by day is that Vince McMahon’s behavior was nothing new. Former wrestler Dutch Mantell spoke on his podcast about rumors of how hard Vince was on „The Divas,“ as WWE female wrestlers used to be called, saying, „I heard stories that Vince was near the Divas, sometimes he had them in a manic state. Sometimes they would come out of the room trembling with him, then they’d be sitting in the corner not talking to anyone. You could see something between them that was upsetting.“ Mantell also said he believes „a lot more stories will come out.“ Ahead of Grant’s stormy lawsuit in 2024, former WWE writer Vince Russo, who is never late to the party when it comes to WWE, said he would not consider working for McMahon again for „moral and ethical reasons.“
Meanwhile, WWE’s response to the allegations against McMahon has not been particularly impressive. If the folks at TKO (WWE’s parent company formed in 2023 through a merger with UFC) thought that Cody Rhodes winning the Royal Rumble twice in a row and bringing The Rock back for Wrestlemania was enough to distract from the allegations against Vince McMahon, they need to go back to the drawing board. Last week, my colleague Sam Fels rightly criticized WWE for dropping the ball in its response to Grant’s lawsuit. Particularly frustrating was seeing Paul „Triple H“ Levesque, WWE’s Chief Creative Officer, admit that he hadn’t even read the lawsuit. Levesque’s inability to adequately respond to the allegations against Vince McMahon should have been obvious, considering his previous penchant for entertaining Floyd Mayweather and his failure to properly address past allegations of grooming against former WWE wrestler Velveteen Dream. I guess nothing says „we take sexual assault seriously“ more than sending the „Cerebral Assassin“ out to not address it. At least he wasn’t sitting on a bike while Lemmy screamed somewhere above him.
I have criticized WWE’s „Attitude Era,“ an era that many male fans longed for a return to, especially due to the exploitation and mistreatment of women, both in the ring and behind the scenes and out of the public eye. And despite the clear call to end bullying with „Be a Star,“ the demand to treat others with tolerance and respect does not seem to extend to the adults at WWE, especially not to the women. While ending bullying is certainly an ambitious goal, it is equally important to show young girls (and make no mistake, there are many of them watching WWE) that boundaries are important, especially when it comes to addressing sexual assault and harassment. According to the CDC, „more than four out of five female rape survivors reported being first raped before the age of 25, and nearly half were first raped before age 18. Almost 8 out of 10 male rape survivors reported being forced to penetrate someone before age 25, and about 4 out of 10 were first forced as minors (typically before age 18).“
So, what if we include resisting unwanted sexual advances and coercion as part of being a star? And what if WWE were to spread the message of respect and tolerance behind the scenes, even in the executive suite? And while they’re at it, perhaps they can have someone qualified speak about sexual misconduct and sex trafficking, to talk to children and young adults about the warning signs? And maybe send someone from the C-suite who has actually read and taken seriously Grant’s lawsuit to inform the fans about what WWE is doing to ensure that Vince McMahon’s behavior doesn’t happen to their employees again.
I can’t think of a better way to spend Wrestlemania.