KELLER: WWE playing with fire on Raw last night with one needlessly controversial scripted comment after another

By Wade Keller, PWTorch editor

Stephanie and Vince McMahon (photo credit Wade Keller © PWTorch)


First, let me state I’m not personally offended by Dean Ambrose bringing up Roman Reigns’s cancer in his scripted promos. But also, it doesn’t matter what I’m personally offended by, at least not in the context of my criticism that’s about to follow. (So basically, if you’re one of those people who are offended by criticism of choices WWE makes on its TV show, you are the “snowflake” and you ought to stop reading now and go troll someone on Twitter instead. If not, read on…)

Wade Keller, editorI also don’t care that Roman Reigns may have given his approval of (or at least not objected to) this being incorporated into the storyline. I’d care a lot if he was against it and they went ahead and did it. That’d be unforgivable. But Reigns approving it doesn’t make it the right decision – either morally or business-wise.

A lot of gay people and non-caucasian people and female people and disabled people and especially short people and especially overweight people and odd-looking people have agreed to be exploited or portrayed in demeaning stereotypical ways in the entertainment world, including pro wrestling, over the decades (heck, centuries), and their complaisance didn’t make it okay. Often those people don’t want to risk losing their jobs or just don’t feel comfortable “seeming difficult” or “rocking the boat” so they go along with such things when asked. (Or they think “pancakes are just funny and delicious” and disregard or don’t want to acknowledge the historical oppression and dehumanization associated with that imagery and the damage it does to “play along and cash merchandise checks.”)

That all said, I think it’s bad business for WWE to go this cancer route with Dean’s character, and I think it’s completely unnecessary.

Keep in mind, by the way, that WWE really really wants you like them and think they’re great corporate citizens who do wonderful charity work (and not just because “philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands r going 2 win“). But they also want to do whatever the hell they want. As Dean Ambrose was scripted to say in last night’s “angry and defiant” edition of Monday Night Raw, with Vince McMahon leading the way and approving everything, why does everyone have to be so sensitive these days?

WWE last night on Raw – held in Los Angeles, California – was tone deaf enough to make more references to Seth Rollins’s usually innocuous “Burn It Down” catch phrase in one episode than they usually make in a month. They had Dean pushing a handkerchief up to his mouth as he implied that Los Angeles air smelled. All of this on the same show that they encouraged donations to the Red Cross and firefighters in California battling massive destructive and deadly still-out-of-control fires just miles away.

The Dean-Seth storyline, though, simply doesn’t need Dean saying Roman’s cancer is “karma for all of the off-camera stuff they did when together as The Shield” for the feud to work. Fans love Seth. Fans are willing to despise Dean, minus cancer references. Dean could easily approach the line without crossing it, perhaps saying he’s happier without Roman around every week or that he won’t visit him in the hospital since Roman never visited him when he was in the hospital. They’d be heelish comments, but a step short of where Dean went last night.

Or, better yet, Dean could just focus on Seth and feud with Seth and leave Roman out of it, other than references to his resentment of how he was treated in The Shield. It would work really well.

It’s clear fans are going to cheer Seth and not “be difficult” or “rebellious” pro-heel fans and cheer Dean. Dean is talented enough to not have to “go there” with Reigns. It just feel like an act of defiance, and it’s counter-productive because more is lost (or at least risked) than is gained. Arguably nothing is gained in terms of heel heat that couldn’t be achieved in a more sensible, lower-risk way given Dean’s and Seth’s talent on the mic and their backstory.

Also, if WWE is going to lose out on the Saudi Arabia deal (which looks more and more likely by the week – more on that in a bit), then they ought to be concerned about protecting their deals with Fox and NBC Universal. I have no idea how far WWE or its top executives would have to go to cause Fox or NBC Universal to be able to legally cancel their contract, but certainly there’s a line that, if crossed, would void the contracts (like “Vince going on a murder spree” or “WWE laundering money for a criminal enterprise”).

I have no idea at what point Fox would attempt to legally extricate themselves from next fall’s new Smackdown contract, and a string of tasteless and insensitive tone-deaf scripted comments on TV certainly isn’t enough, but why mess around to the point that they end up landing on the radar of their TV and corporate partners with needless bad headlines arising from head-scratching comments and angles on their TV show that serve no prudent purpose?

Do advertisers and TV executives and licensee partners and, heck, charities want to be associated with a “controversial company”? Of course they’d prefer not to. Which is why WWE was so careful in what they said about the difficult Saudi Arabia/Crown Jewel mess last month. They said so little because saying the wrong thing could make a bad situation a lot worse.

Which brings us to Stephanie McMahon’s comment on Raw last night that is the most, shall we say, puzzling of them all.

WWE last night on Raw featured Stephanie quipping playfully that Braun Strowman couldn’t get every stipulation he wanted in his match against Baron Corbin because “dismemberment” is a “corporate liability.”

Of course, WWE was needlessly pulled into having to deal with real world politics last month because of the strangulation and dismemberment of a U.S.-based Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi who was outspoken against the Saudi Arabian regime, which is led by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi was, in particular, especially critical of the Saudi regime’s oppressive policies regarding freedom of the press. Just the mere mention of the country “Saudi Arabia” became a corporate liability for WWE, which is why WWE stopped saying “Saudi Arabia” for two weeks on TV leading into the event and hasn’t said it since. (Fans booing every mention of Saudi Arabia and “Crown Jewel,” when spoken or written on a graphic on the big screens in arenas, either prompted or validated the policy decision last month.)

The CIA has concluded, according to reports just this past weekend, that MBS (as the cool kids call Mohammed bin Salman) was responsible for ordering Khashoggi’s death. This puts in even greater jeopardy any chance WWE has to continue to do business in Saudi Arabia as long as MBS is in control and not brought to justice.

This all might have put Vince in a bad mood, although we don’t know because WWE won’t say anything substantive about what happened other than it was a “difficult decision” to run Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia last month in the midst of this controversy and that they are not commenting on future shows, but their economic forecasts and guidance to stockholders are as of yet unchanged.

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, a high-profile defender of President Trump on many matters, made it pretty clear that this latest finding by the CIA is a deal-breaker for business as usual with Saudi Arabia. Excerpt of NBC News article on Graham’s interview on “Meet the Press” on Sunday:

“The fact that he didn’t know about it is impossible for me to believe,” Graham said on Sunday’s “Meet The Press.” The South Carolina senator said he hasn’t been given an official briefing on the matter, but maintained that the conclusion that the crown prince had a role in Khashoggi’s murder should be clear to anyone with knowledge about the country.

“If he is going to be the face of Saudi Arabia going forward, I think the kingdom will have a hard time on the world stage,” Graham added. “They are an important ally, but when it comes to the crown prince, he is irrational, he is unhinged, and I think he has done a lot of damage to the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and I have no intention of working with him ever again.”

With that statement from a senior senator who is a Trump ally, can U.S. businesses expect to fly under the radar as they continue to do business with the regime? Can WWE expect no consequences for continuing to stage these live events Saudi Arabia is paying massively over market value for (#HazardPay), which now is transparently part of a propaganda effort to soften the image of the controversial country known for its ongoing starvation of thousands of Yemens and grossly backwards policies on women and gay people and free speech?

The Daily Telegraph’s headline dated Nov. 18 (this Sunday):

Could Stephanie have said “dismemberment” and “corporate liability” in the same sentence and have it not cross her mind what this would conjure up in many people’s minds? I find that hard to believe.

Per the New York Times in an Oct. 17 article:

“Saudi agents were waiting when Jamal Khashoggi walked into their country’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago. Mr. Khashoggi was dead within minutes, beheaded, dismembered, his fingers severed, and within two hours the killers were gone, according to details from audio recordings described by a senior Turkish official on Wednesday.”

Were Stephanie’s comments scripted? By whom, and with whose approval? And what did they stand to gain from trying to slip this into the show’s dialogue? Or what does it say about WWE that nobody who noticed felt comfortable speaking up?

This is a company which, under Vince McMahon’s leadership, has for decades seemed to use on-air storylines to vent about real-world issues that frustrated their corporate goals for profitability and, well, the freedom do whatever they damn well please. (Remember the whole Right to Censor (“RTC”) faction, a push-back against the Parent’s Television Council’s (“PTC”) criticism of their on-air content?) Sometimes we’re left guessing why they would do or say something on TV that seemed to make no sense only to later connect dots that indicate it might be related to or inspired by real-life frustrations on the business side or personal side of Vince McMahon’s life.

So while President Trump is being accused of trying to cover for the Saudi Crown Prince in the media (“Trump can’t ditch MbS because of personal stakes: report“), it has to be sinking in with Vince McMahon that his billion dollar deal, give or take a few hundred million, with Saudi Arabia to run 20 shows over the next ten years is not viable at this point to continue. If you keep score in life with stock prices and how much of a billionaire you are, this stings to the core.

Monday’s episode of Raw felt like a Billion Dollar Temper Tantrum, and it came at the expense of the fans and the wrestlers and the sponsors who were participants or associated with the product. (Even Ronda Rousey was scripted to belittle Becky Lynch for not defending her title on Sunday despite having a “broken face” and severe concussion and not being medically cleared; damn those doctors with the best interests of WWE Superstars in mind.)

There are a few things that would easily fit on an index card that everyone involved in writing Raw right now should adhere to:

  • Don’t make references to burning things down when staging the show in California
  • Don’t make any references that could be construed as making light of the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi
  • Don’t use a real life cancer diagnosis of your top star to try to get fans more into a fictional storyline feud
  • Don’t build a bad-ass tag team’s push around their manager peeing his pants (because that’d be just stupid)
  • No puns (that’s just a rule for all of life)

WWE needlessly, flagrantly, and brazenly violated each and every one of those obviously sensible rules last night. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if Vince McMahon followed the example set by his contemporary pal-in-business (and his wife’s boss) and just Tweeted his frustrations every morning to get them out of his system instead of manifesting them on his TV shows, thus getting in the way of fans enjoying WWE shows as an escape from all of this real-world stuff?

(Wade Keller has published the Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly Newsletter since 1987. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2015 for excellence in pro wrestling reporting. He can be heard on the Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Post-shows & Podcasts four times per week along with many VIP-exclusive podcasts. He has been a guest analyst on the Steve Austin Show, Jim Ross Report, Sam Roberts Wrestling Podcast, among other podcasts, and has been quoted in dozens of national newspapers over the decades and interviewed on many radio and TV stations including the BBC, Fox News, and NPR on controversial topics in professional wrestling. He has interviewed many of pro wrestling’s biggest names in their longest insider interviews including Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Vince McMahon, Paul Heyman, Mick Foley, Kevin Nash, Eric Bischoff, Scott Hall, Steve Austin, Lou Thesz, Jerry Jarrett, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @thewadekeller.)

19 Comments on KELLER: WWE playing with fire on Raw last night with one needlessly controversial scripted comment after another

  1. I cancelled my network subscription and stopped watching after crown jewel. I stumbled across this article on my google feed and Looks like I made the right call.

  2. All great points…and why is t anyone pointing out another obvious bit of bad business? Survivor Series left Smackdown as a damaged brand…and FOX is supposed to be thrilled at getting it in their lineup? THAT made as little sense as everything else they’re screwing up. Vince has lost his mind.

    • I’d argue in the right context and character, it can work rather well. Having an earnest type person who can work them in logically would be great. Right now, only Paul Heyman could do that mostly because he is golden on the mic.

  3. I thought it was just me making the dismemberment comment connection and thought maybe it was a stretch.

    I really couldn’t believe they actually wrote “Burn it down” especially what is going on in California, the state they were in.

  4. Seems like a case of over analyzing. If indeed the comments were meant as you said I’m sure they went unnoticed by the average viewer such as myself. It’s editorials like this that fan the flames and draw attention to things nobody really pays attention to.

  5. I think you are getting a bit carried away with this Wade. It would be one thing if “burn it down” was newly introduced in California, but he has been doing it for years.

    As far as the Roman thing, would you be ok with it if the whole angle were Roman’s idea? do you know its not?

    I really think that In no way shape or form was the dismemberment comment related to Khashoggi. Comments like this have been made in Wrestling for years. God go back a few years ago to WrestleMania where the Rock told Stephanie that Rhonda Rousey was going to “rip out and play jump rope with her fallopian tubes”.

    Seriously people, this is pro wrestling, its something fun that people watch for entertainment, its not to be taken seriously, its not Walter Cronkite, its not even a modern web news feed. Its the same thing that brought you Doink, the Gobbeldy Gooker, and the Repo Man. Lighten up and Don’t take it as anything more

    • If it were Roman Reigns’s idea or just something he agreed to doesn’t change much. My main concern is the end product that fans see. But I think it’s fair to say someone could disagree with using cancer as a storyline tool to add heat to a feud (that doesn’t need it, but that’s hardly the point) in pro wrestling, even if the person with cancer suggested it. Using cancer to enhance a fictional storyline by playing on a real life cancer diagnosis can be highly off-putting to a lot of people regardless of the genesis of the storyline.

      • Actually I did read it the first time and it didn’t address my statements. You can’t just circumvent the opinion of anyone who disagrees with you by preemptively calling them “snowflake” and telling them to “stop reading now and go troll someone on Twitter instead.” It is kind of the journalistic equivalent of “I know you are but what am I”. You are far too good for that and should be able to carry on a better debate. My point was that just because they are in LA does not mean that they should change what they are doing.

        Regarding my other points I asked what if it was Roman’s idea NOT what if he approves of it. In my opinion it is a substantial difference. if it was Vince’s idea and Roman was just “going along with it” vs if it was Roman’s idea for his friends to “run with it”. Again i was just asking the question

      • So I can see your point, and I don’t even necessarily disagree. My only argument here is that if this were done on any other TV show, nobody would mention it. I guess it really comes down to how you look at Pro Wrestling. It’s either a TV show, or its a “something more meaningful”.

        If you look at it as a TV show. The antagonist is mocking the hero (or the hero’s friend) for having cancer, and the the hero (or the hero’s friend) will eventually get his/her revenge in the end.

        If you look at it as something else (something more meaningful) i can see how you might be affected. But again, Nobody would question this if it were Negan mocking Rick Grimes for his son and wife dying. People would simply say “it furthers the story line” I also understand that there is “real life” attached to this, but the best stories have some element of truth to them.

        Again just this one guys opinion

  6. Cm punk dumping out Paul ashes
    Triple h with Katie Vick
    Orton telling mysterio Eddie’s in hell
    Orton rko and kissing stephanie
    Bossman killing and feeding al snow his dog
    Bossman dragging big show father casket with his truck
    Vince and trish love affair with a vegetable linda McMahon
    Eddie telling Rey son, that he was the sperm donor and he’s Dominique real dad

    I mean the list continues, so you either too young to remember those or maybe stop watching.

  7. Anyone who has followed wrestling for any length of time knows exactly what type of people the McMahons are. Surely nobody is surprised when these scumbags do scummy things anymore?

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