WWE

Bigoted Wrestling Fans Are Getting Loud And Promotions Need To Set Boundaries

All Elite Wrestling’s All Out, the promotion’s fourth event and the last before their weekly TV show launches on TNT on October 2, ran on Saturday night in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates. One of the key storytelling aspects of the show was setting up the match to determine the first AEW Women’s Champion for that first TNT show; by night’s end, it was clear that it will come down to Nyla Rose, who won a 21-woman battle royal on the free pre-show, against Riho, who got past Hikaru Shida on the pay-per-view portion of the card. Nyla Rose is trans, and while AEW has not pushed that element of her persona at all on its shows, the fact of it still elicited a dumb, bigoted backlash out of the worst kind of fans.

That kind of resentment had followed Rose at a lower level in the past. AEW top star and vice president Cody Rhodes, when pressed on Twitter, seemed hesitant to call out that particular bullshit when Rose was announced as part of the roster in February; he felt that it amounted to “signal boost[ing] hatred.” But the negative element got noticeably louder this week thanks to the “inaugural women’s title match” part. A good deal of this, at least online, trafficked in exactly the generic transphobic insults you’d expect, but there has also been an extra layer of bad-faith idiocy—tweets bemoaning Nyla Rose’s inclusion because of fairness and safety. Pro wrestling is, in 2019 and for many years before, pretty explicitly a performance, which did not keep various online idiots from treating Rose’s title shot as if it were a reprise of the brief career of trans MMA fighter Fallon Fox. Even by the very low standards that apply online when attempting to disguise bigotry as concern trolling, this was extremely transparent.

In the August 12 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer reported that there had been “complaints from some fans, which has gotten to NXT management” about bigoted chants at some of WWE’s NXT developmental circuit events, particularly the smaller shows in Florida that the newest recruits start out on. Recent incidents have included a fan giving a Nazi salute to German wrestler Marcel Barthel—he stopped performing to ask that the fan stop—and multiple fans starting some variation of a “build that wall” chant at Mexican wrestler Humberto Carrillo. There was consternation over the offending fans not being kicked out in that case, even after a “KICK HIM OUT!” chant from other attendees. One NXT wrestler, Australia’s Daniel Vidot, a former rugby league player of Irish and Samoan descent, tweeted his frustrations with the harassing fans on August 4, tagging the official NXT account in the process, though he saved his ire for the offenders themselves and did not address the inaction on WWE’s part.

One regular in the crowd at the Florida shows told Deadspin that “the security team also has no interest in dealing with fans like that, since their job is to protect the wrestlers and not the fans.” As a result, this fan has observed security treating any complaints of verbal abuse by fans as “he said/she said” unless a wrestler gets involved, at which point it becomes a bigger issue. That said, the same fan did say that while the offending members of the audience have not been kicked out, security will talk to them, “tell them to cool it,” and try to get them to stop.

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So far, the only tangible result of all this ugliness is a more robust conversation about how exactly a promotion should handle this kind of behavior from fans. It shouldn’t be that difficult to police at independent shows and the Florida NXT card. Buildings and crowds are smaller than at arena shows, which makes it easier to find the offender, make an example of them, and kick them out.

That was exactly what happened at a Battle Club Pro show I went to in July. That one was scaled fairly small even by indie show standards, with the ring set up in the courtyard area at the back entrance of a public school. After the six wrestlers in the main event had entered the ring, one guy in the crowd keyed in on Darius Carter’s monogrammed boots and yelled out “the D.C. stands for dick chaser!”

This would be awful under any circumstances, but it was especially shocking at a show featuring a bunch of out performers both inside and outside of the ring; the dumb guy started yelling shortly after Anthony Bowens had just walked to the ring in a rainbow “LOVE WINS” shirt. The entire crowd turned in the guy’s direction, muttering and/or yelling about whatever the hell was wrong with him, at which point promoter Joakim Morales grabbed the microphone to ask what he said. When he found out, Morales kicked the guy out as the crowd cheered.

That was it! It was simple, done for a legitimate reason, and despite Battle Club being a small promotion that needs paying fans it was done with no hesitation. It would be best, of course, if there was no need for it to happen in the first place, but if it’s going to happen—and, because wrestling matches are attended by human beings, it is probably going to happen—being proactive about it seems the only solution that’s likely to work. This undoubtedly does get more difficult, just as a practical matter, on an arena or stadium scale, but it’s not as if there aren’t precedents out there about addressing bigotry and harassment in the stands.

In wrestling, the UK independent turned WWE affiliate promotion PROGRESS has a pretty clear message with their “everyone is welcome” tagline and “don’t be a dick” as their “one rule.” That rule is far from perfect and awfully vague, but it has generally served them pretty well, at least on the scale of a larger indie group. Various mainstream sports teams and leagues have fan codes of conduct, although not all are enforced equally well.

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I reached out to both WWE and AEW for comment on this topic, specifically asking if either had looked into instituting official fan conduct policies or if they preferred to deal with incidents on a case-by-case basis. AEW—which did, after numerous complaints, publicly ban a fan who shouted abuse at Rose and bragged about it on Twitter—responded with this formal statement:

AEW is built to create moments of a lifetime—memorable, inspiring and spectacular—by providing our fans with the best wrestling matches and entertainment anywhere. We believe providing a safe, inclusive and respectful environment for all AEW events is central to that mission. AEW fully supports and celebrates our athletes and fans, regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, religion, or ethnicity—and we expect our fans and athletes to do the same. We want fans attending our wrestling events to enjoy the experience in a responsible manner, while also being who you are and coming as you are. Please treat all athletes and fans with respect and courtesy.

AEW works closely with event venues around the world to adhere to their existing policies/fan code of conduct, while promoting our core beliefs of creating a safe, inclusive and respectful environment. Anyone who conducts themselves in a manner that is offensively disruptive or disrespectful to the wrestlers or their fellow fans will be subject to removal at the discretion of the AEW security team. Together, as one AEW community, we can foster an unparalleled wrestling and entertainment experience that challenges the status quo.

(Right as this article was being to put to bed, AEW also issued an apologetic statement to OutSports on behalf of Cody Rhodes, who had helped cheerlead a chant of the homophobic slur “puto” at recent event in Mexico. He’s insistent that he didn’t know what the chant meant.)

WWE, for its part, provided this shorter statement:

Crowd reaction is an important element of our shows, however, inappropriate fan conduct is not tolerated and is addressed by WWE immediately on site.

Formally codifying everything addressed in those statements in some form, perhaps through a standard message from the ring announcer—a trusted voice who’s kind of in charge, mostly not, but the closest thing to a voice of authority in the room—would probably be a good step. In a perfect world, all of this would be obvious. It should be obvious that a promotion with Kenny Omega as a top star and executive and Nyla Rose as a pushed star finds LGBTQ-phobic bigotry unacceptable among its fanbase. The same can certainly be said for an indie promotion featuring a wrestler who just walked past you in a rainbow “LOVE WINS” shirt. Hell, even WWE, for their myriad of faults and mixed messages in this area, is still, on the surface, a live event company that did a massive LGBTQ Pride Month campaign on social media while also partnering with GLAAD on anti-bullying campaigns. It should be obvious that it’s unacceptable there, too!

And yet obvious, in matters like this, is never quite obvious enough. Not being a bigoted asshole makes for a decent first principle in general, and every promotion needs to make it clear—so clear that even the dumbest people in the room will know it—what’s not allowed at their events.

David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix. 

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