For many Americans, the COVID-19 crisis truly became real on the evening of March 11, when the NBA declared it was suspending the entire season indefinitely due to a player testing positive. Other professional sports leagues quickly followed, until even the more niche sports such as figure skating and tennis were indefinitely paused. But World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has soldiered on, airing two- and three-hour shows Mondays and Fridays, like clockwork.
Moreover, those shows are now being broadcast live (without an audience), following Florida's announcement that “sports entertainment” is an “essential business.” The decision, which came just as the WWE publicly admitted an employee had tested positive, is shockingly reckless. And it makes a mockery of the idea of “essential businesses.”
The decision, which came just as the WWE publicly admitted an employee had tested positive, is shockingly reckless.
WWE has pushed harder than any other professional sports leagues from the beginning. With the state dragging its feet on implementing social distancing measures, both of WWE’s brands, RAW and Smackdown, pre-taped something on the order of a dozen or so matches ahead of time in its training facility, the WWE Performance Center. Without a cheering, jeering crowd, these matches didn’t exactly crackle with energy. But they were, technically, new content.
The company even managed to stage its yearly “Wrestlemania” event. Usually held over five hours in an outdoor arena, it was reduced to an audience-less two-night format aired over the weekend of April 4. But as the only sports anything to find a loophole amid the national quarantine, it was surprisingly clever. The highlight was ironically the safest segment, when guest star John Cena spent nearly 30 minutes in an almost completely contactless match with opponent Bray Wyatt. Wyatt seemed to prefer mind games to actual physical violence, which also afforded producers the opportunity to use historical footage of Cena’s older matches.
Even though batch tapings were certainly questionable, at least it seemed like the WWE was attempting to take precautions. But then, on April 9, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an order in which “employees at a professional sports and media production with a national audience” would be declared an essential service “if the location was closed to the public.” It was a startlingly specific directive that seemed tailored for the WWE (and its competitor AEW, which also has a training facility in Florida) to go back to live production.
Of all the sports to be declared essential, wrestling would seem to be one of the more dangerous. It is a full-body contact sport, where most fighters wear little more than boots and briefs. Though the United World Wrestling Medical Commission’s information of COVID-19 is mostly the usual standard boilerplate about handwashing and the like, the World Health Organization notes the virus is transmitted via “respiratory droplets.” The chance for transmission, one can then infer, is extremely high, as most wrestling matches are spent with the sweating competitors grappling, bodyslamming, and generally breathing heavily.
Considering that everyone else in America is being asked to stay six feet apart, the idea that it’s totally safe for a pair of fighters to choke each other in the ring is laughable.
Considering that everyone else in America is being asked to stay 6 feet apart and wear a face mask in public, the idea that it’s totally safe for a pair of fighters to choke each other in the ring is laughable — even with the WWE’s promise of deep cleaning the facility between matches. Not that the company has made such a promise publicly. The statement the WWE put out merely makes a vague reference to “additional precautions” before launching into how important their brand is to the fabric of society.
And it's also unclear who can decline to participate, especially given the mass layoffs the company announced this week. Those at the top of the pecking order will probably continue to stay home. Roman Reigns, for instance, one of the faces of the WWE brand, is a recent cancer survivor and has been mostly absent from shows citing his family’s health, as well as his own. Michael “The Miz” Mizanin, who stars alongside his wife and two newborns in the WWE’s reality spin-off sitcom “Miz and Mrs,” only shows up in properly social distanced promos. But others may not have the same kind of leverage. It is notable, for instance, how many women’s division fights there have been in the last month.
Exactly why DeSantis has allowed the WWE to be designated essential is unclear. When asked, DeSantis rambled on about the desperate need for “content.” Though there’s no proof of a correlation, the decision coincidentally came on the same day that former WWE CEO Linda McMahon, a prominent Trump supporter and former member of the administration, pledged $18 million toward Republican 2020 re-election efforts via her PAC.
As for why WWE CEO Vince McMahon would tape individual shows live instead of the at least nominally safer strategy of taping a bunch of shows at once, it is not clear. One could argue it's simply part of the showman’s mindset. (This is, after all, the same company which soldiered on with a pay-per-view event in 1999 after wrestler Owen Hart died in the middle of it on live TV.)
But whatever the reason, the reality is more live wrestling is coming. A press release earlier this week promises AEW’s next pay-per-view will indeed be aired live. And that’s the real problem with DeSantis’ decision to crack open the door with this exemption. Sports leagues everywhere are losing millions of dollars as their players don’t play. EPSN and other sports networks are starved for content. Major League Baseball is already floating strategies for restarting the season. Florida’s lax rules may give them an incentive to try again.
Boxing promoters have also pricked up their ears. The UFC’s latest match was only canceled a week before its April 18 air date, reportedly after pressure from California Gov. Gavin Newsom. If “sports entertainment” wrestling can keep going, why not the real thing?
As the president continues to push states to reopen as quickly as possible, these sorts of decisions will impact how people behave upon returning to public life. With social distancing measures now threatening to last, at least in some form, for many more months, Florida’s decision looks like the first in a headlong rush toward normality. But why? There is nothing “essential” about wrestling, and pretending there is undermines the often heroic efforts of those who have worked so hard to keep the country safe.