Kids Grapple with Wrestling Violence
by Ted Rueter

The shootings at schools in Colorado, Georgia, and Oklahoma have reenergized the debate over juvenile crime. Pundits and politicians have pointed to guns, R-rated movies, violent video games, Marilyn Manson concerts, and family breakdown as causes of America's culture of violence.

I have another pernicious force to suggest: professional wrestling. The epitome of violence, sadomasochism, and sleaze, professional wrestling is trash TV for ugly Americans.

Wrestling is big business. Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) is on TBS and TNT. Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (WWF) is on the USA Network. The WCW reaches an average of 300,000 viewers for its pay-per-view events. The WWF is building a 1,000-room casino hotel in Las Vegas. Both groups sell action figures, neckties, and greeting cards. Two WWF wrestlers--"Mankind" and "The Rock"--currently have best-selling autobiographies. Vince McMahon just announced the formation of a professional football league, the XFL, which will debut in 2001.

Last August, Jesse Ventura, the Governor of Minnesota, stepped back into the ring as a "guest referee" for the WWF's Summerslam." He made $1 to $2 million on video sales and the use of his name.

And now yet-another professional wrestler is entering the political ring. WCW star Rik Flair has announced that he's running for governor of North Carolina.

Wrestlers pumped up on steroids use all sorts of great moves--eye gouges, smashing chairs, low blows, choke holds, body slams, crude gestures, and crass banter--to the background of fireworks and dazzling lights. In a recent broadcast, a wrestler was hung on a cross. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin--the top attraction of the WWF--is best known for extending his middle finger during matches and interviews.

Walter Gantz, a professor of telecommunication studies at Indiana University, analyzed 50 episodes of "WWF Raw" between January 12, 1998 and February 1, 1999. He found hundreds of instances of crude remarks, vulgar gestures, Satanic activity, and simulated drug use and sexual activity.

Wrestling is overtly misogynist. Between matches, scantily-clad women parade around the ring. Women grapplers are subject to "after-hours wrestling" (a version of the Hollywood casting couch). Sable, wrestling's biggest female star, recently settled a lawsuit against the WWF, in which she alleged that the business "had become so obscene and so vulgar" that she no longer wishes to be a part of it.

Another obscenity is the danger faced by wrestlers. At least 20 professional wrestlers have died in the last five years from wrestling injuries. On May 23, 1999, Owen Hart fell 90 feet to his death from a rafter in a Kansas City arena, before 16,000 screaming fans. After Hart's body was moved from the ring, the promoter decided that the show must go on!

Martha Hart, Owen's widow, has initiated a 46-count lawsuit against the WWF, contending that "professional wrestling has become a showy display of graphic violence, sexual themes, and dangerous stunts."

Unfortunately, many adolescent boys are imitating these behaviors. Nationwide, teens are staging wrestling matches in their back yards, complete with the pile drivers and sexual innuendo they see on television. There are backyard wrestling groups in 30 states. The Backyard Wrestling Federation broadcast teen matches through its web site until it was closed down in July because of liability concerns.

The behavior of teen wrestling fans is not surprising. There have been 1,000 published reports on the impact of TV violence. The National Institute of Mental Health says there is overwhelming evidence that violent entertainment causes violent behavior. For example, homicide rates doubled within 15 years after television was introduced into specific areas of the United States and Canada.

Professional wrestling is a destructive influence on adolescent boys--who already face trouble. Harvard Medical School professor William Pollack, author of REAL BOYS, argues that today's young males are prone to depression, isolation, despair, and aggression. According to Pollack, today's young males suffer increasing rates of attention-deficit disorder, school absenteeism, psychiatric disorders, and suicide.

Corporate America is in bed with professional wrestling. Burger King, Western Union, Gatorade, and Universal Studios all advertise on the Monday night WWF show. There were sex-saturated ads for wrestling during last year's Super Bowl. Little Caesar's latest ads have a wrestling theme. Ted Turner--the man who gave a billion dollars to the United Nations and shows "Andy Griffith" re-runs--has sold his soul for wrestling cash. Commendably, Coca-Cola recently severed its relationship with the WWF.

As a child growing up in Minnesota, I waw a big fan of the local wrestling show. Every Saturday night at 6:30, I watched WTCN's matches from the Calhoun Beach Club. I remember Verne Gagne, the Crusher, The Bruiser, and Dr. X competing for the "world championship" of the metropolitan mosquito control district. The studio was the size of a garage. There were no crazed crowds. There were no wild stunts. There were no nearly-naked women.

I recently saw another wrestling old-timer, Mad Dog Vachon, at a fair. The veteran of 13,000 matches, Mad Dog was charming and amusing. He also commented that contemporary wrestling is a "complete disgrace."

A few months ago, the "V-chip" was introduced into all new television sets in America, designed to block out violent programming. What we need now is the "W-chip."

Published in USA Today, March 30, 2000

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