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The New Brand Battle in Pro Wrestling Isn’t Just About Entertainment — It’s About Inclusion

The WWE is attempting to whitewash its past by shoving diversity measures down fans’ throats. Meanwhile, its new competition, AEW, is simply letting its incredibly diverse roster do the talking. But can there be a winner in a sport whose history is mired in sexism, racism and homophobia?

On the Saturday afternoon of 2015’s WrestleMania weekend, Stephanie McMahon, the chief brand officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, tweeted the following quote, attributing it to Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter: “Philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands r going 2 win.”

Stone was being interviewed at WWE’s annual business partner summit, when he dropped that line, and when McMahon tweeted it, the reaction was less than positive, to say the least. “Wow,” replied Pro Wrestling Torch editor Wade Keller. “That is really not something to say outside of a small private conversation of corporate types.” The tweet was especially conspicuous because the summit was just hours before the annual WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony. There, the WWE planned to give out the inaugural Warrior Award — a posthumous, cynical whitewashing of noted bigot the Ultimate Warrior — to the family of Connor Michalek, a young, cancer-stricken fan who died the same month as Warrior. And so, Stephanie McMahon’s message, in the context of that day, was widely read as an admission that WWE’s charity partnerships, which would also include the “Connor’s Cure” fundraising drive that started a couple months later, were just marketing for the company and nothing more.

Ever since, too, that tweet has echoed in the background of everything that WWE does in the philanthropic realm. Before, if WWE was hammering home their charity work on TV, it was usually damage control while there was a scandal going on. Now, every charity partner gets blasted across WWE programming in self-congratulatory fashion, from Susan G. Komen for the Cure throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month to the Special Olympics and everything in between. Any attempt at wokeness feels similarly performative, most commonly the references to female talent breaking through the glass ceiling that the WWE happily kept in place for decades. Everything is too in-your-face to ever feel genuine, with some things coming off as vaguely sinister, like noted homophobe the Ultimate Warrior being repositioned as a gay pride mascot.

Going in a different direction, though, is WWE’s new competitor, All Elite Wrestling. There are areas where AEW is more diverse than WWE, particularly in terms of LGBTQ+ representation. Main-eventer and executive vice president Kenny Omega (real name Tyson Smith) is openly bisexual; his fellow roster member Sonny Kiss is openly gay but also self-describes by saying, “I call myself a male, but I identify as gender-neutral to the public,” and is okay with both male and female pronouns; while Nyla Rose, pushed as one of the top contenders in the women’s division, is the first out trans wrestler in a major promotion. 

Unlike WWE’s heavy-handed approach, which has included trying to manufacture a coming out story for wrestling legend Pat Patterson decades after he had been out both in the business and to the public, AEW has left it up to the wrestlers to decide how they want to disclose their gender identity and sexuality. Case in point: Rose’s gender identity has never been referenced on AEW shows, but she was happy to answer questions about being a trans role model at the media scrum after AEW’s first event during Memorial Day weekend. Omega has alluded to his sexuality in some storylines in Japan, but not yet in AEW. And while Kiss’ in-ring persona — complete with him dancing with the Jacksonville Roar, the Jaguars’ cheerleaders, at Saturday’s AEW show — does play off of his sexuality and gender presentation, he’s entirely being himself, is a beloved babyface/good guy for it and nobody acts like he’s “different” in any way.

The topic of diversity in the context of AEW came up at the aforementioned media scrum, when WWE talent scout and Hall of Famer Mark Henry of all people — there in his capacity as co-host of SiriusXM’s Busted Open — asked a question of Cody Rhodes, another AEW Executive Vice President and the company’s face. “I saw a lot of diversity in the show,” Henry began. “Is that something that’s intentional, or is it just that you’re opening the door for people of different genders, people of different colors, people of different races and ethnicities? How did you go about making that decision to have it be so diverse?” Rhodes responded by invoking how his marriage changed his way of looking at things. “I’m in an interracial marriage, and I’ve learned a lot that I would’ve never known,” he explained. “I told [my wife and fellow AEW executive] Brandi one time that I don’t see color, and she said, ‘Well, then you don’t see my experience.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, you’re right, I can’t just say that.’ You need to be able to see that experience, or at least understand it.” 

He continued by noting how promoters often instituted racial quotas in wrestling’s regional days: “The old territory system of ‘just one,’ that’s out. The best wrestlers are gonna field the game, and that’s a very diverse profile. I’m really proud of it. We’re gonna promote them as wrestlers. We’re not gonna make it a PR element for us.”

The clip went viral when Andreas Hale of the Sporting News tweeted it and got quote-tweeted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “This exchange is a promising peek into what growth looks like in our national discourse on race,” the freshman congresswoman wrote. “Thanks for sharing your experience in this powerful moment, @CodyRhodes.” 

All of that happened organically, without AEW pushing for it. Hell, it came from a question asked by someone who, technically, works for their biggest competitor, even if he wasn’t there in that capacity. In other words, none of this feels like a publicity stunt. Sports Illustrated’s website did do a feature about Rose, where she was interviewed and spoke in depth about her gender identity and transition, but that’s it. There was no big media push for the first openly trans wrestler in a major company. The only bit of inclusiveness that AEW has pushed heavily at all was an instance where getting the message out was necessary: that their debut event, Double or Nothing, would be what was billed as the first-ever sensory-inclusive pro wrestling show.

What this means is that, via a partnership with the nonprofit Kulture City, various accommodations were made for fans with sensory disorders, including but not limited to those on the autism spectrum. For such fans, sensory-inclusive bags were provided for free, complete with noise-canceling earmuffs, fidget toys, cue cards for those who are non-verbal and a lanyard identifying the wearer as having a sensory issue. If the arena experience still proved to be too much, there was a viewing room equipped with lower lighting, lower noise levels and bean bag chairs. Plus, arena staff received training in identifying and interacting with fans who have sensory disorders. On top of that, the pyrotechnic displays — something that had been hyped in advance, thanks in part to WWE largely ditching them in recent years — were free of the typical ear-splitting bangs. 

On the charity side of the ledger, AEW’s show this past Saturday, their third, was titled Fight for the Fallen, as it was specifically envisioned as a benefit for victims of gun violence in Jacksonville, the company’s home base. Aside from the name, though, there wasn’t that much hype about the charity aspect of the show, and you could have watched most of the show without even realizing that it was supposed to be different from the norm. That isn’t to say it was perfect: The show ended up running long, resulting in timing issues, namely the check presentation interrupting a Young Bucks’ promo after the main event; Kenny Omega also seemingly had to be reminded not to do his traditional “Goodbye, [kiss], and GOOD! NIGHT! BANG!” catchphrase to close the show. 

Further, Twitter was filled with criticism that Rhodes shouldn’t have itemized the donation ($150,000) down to who was responsible for how much of it. Some of the more vocal critics also voiced frustration with AEW’s share ($110,000, the gate for the show after expenses) coming off as low for a company funded by billionaire Jaguars owner Shad Khan, who was in the ring for the check presentation.

All of which is to say that AEW doesn’t have things they couldn’t learn from, that they could never mess this kind of thing up or that WWE could never do genuine good. After all, WWE has worked closely with the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Special Olympics for decades with relatively little in the way of PR value extracted from those relationships. But in 2019, the two companies clearly have different strategies when it comes to philanthropy and diversity. If nothing else, it still feels like WWE is trying to “win” a game while AEW sees it not as a competition, but a way of life.