Nicole Bass makes her WWE debut at WrestleMania XV (Screenshot/WWE Network)

On Friday, former WWE, WCW, and Impact wrestling writer Vince Russo, pro wrestling’s favorite pariah, relayed a story on his podcast that piqued a lot of interest. “I never talk about this, because this is a touchy one, I can tell you one of the female wrestlers came up to me [and] told me that she was raped by another wrestler on the roster,” he said. It reminded me of a similar story that was forgotten with rather shocking speed: an existing sexual assault allegation in the public record from the time when Russo was at his most prolific in WWE. If Russo is telling the truth about this at all, though, the woman who confided in him is not the one who went public with her story nearly two decades ago. That woman, the bodybuilder turned wrestler Nicole Bass, died in February.

Bass was best known for her appearances as part of Howard Stern’s cast of characters when WWE contacted her in early 1999, but she had been flirting with the sport for some time before then. She showed up as a surprise at that year’s WrestleMania and helped Sable, the biggest female star in the company, retain her women’s title. That bodyguard gimmick quickly ended when Sable left the company and filed a sexual harassment lawsuit seeking damages of $100 million. Most of the attention devoted to that lawsuit went to a passage that mentioned men “accidentally” walking into the women’s locker room, a peephole being cut into a wall on at least one occasion, tales of “big nipple contests,” and other assorted harassment.

That suit ended uneventfully a couple months later, with the dismissal coming less than a week after Bass had received her own release from her contract. The self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Female Bodybuilder” then filed her own $120 million sexual harassment lawsuit a couple months after that. Of the allegations outlined in her complaint, the one that sticks out the most is where Bass says that she was groped by the wrestler turned longtime backstage producer “Brooklyn Brawler” Steve Lombardi. “After Ms. Bass firmly rejected each of Defendant Lombardi’s overtures, he physically assaulted Ms. Bass by grabbing and groping her breasts with both hands while pushing her up against a wall of the plane and pushing his body into hers,” wrote Bass’s counsel. “While Plaintiff struggled to get him off her, Lombardi kept coming at her. Upon information and belief, [WWE] was well aware of Defendant Lombardi’s long-standing reputation for sexually harassing and abusive conduct.”

With all of this in mind and a free afternoon, I went to the court holding the records from the case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, because the case is largely seen as a historical footnote. I remembered that WWE won the eventual trial, with their lawyer and the jury foreman later shredding Bass’s credibility in The New York Post; “I think this kind of stuff belittles all those valid arguments by women,” the foreman told the tabloid. Coverage in general leaned towards the skeptical, and the Post’s Linda Stasi even wrote a piece making fun of the idea that the groping incident could happen without Bass “suplex[ing] that suit flat in no time.” But there wasn’t much more information available without taking the subway to High Street. I was wondering what extra details might stand out in the #MeToo era. Given that I was 14 when Bass filed her suit, I also wondered what an adult eye might catch that I missed at the time.

Advertisement

The (incomplete) file didn’t offer much more insight into what Bass said happened to her during her brief WWE stint. But there was plenty to be learned about how WWE defended itself against the lawsuit. While not surprising, that defense generally reeks of slut shaming and other abuse. It might be defensible from a “lawyers zealously defending their clients” perspective, but that doesn’t really make it come off much better on the page, or make it any easier to read.

WWE’s attorneys seemed particularly interested in admitting Bass’s past in sex work to the record. Her work included both “private wrestling” sessions for a fee and bondage videos for the shock porn studio Extreme Associates, the latter of which also owned wrestling promotion XPW. “We have no objection to the WWF’s seeking information related to any monies the plaintiff earned after leaving the WWF with respect to her duty to mitigate her damages,” Bass lawyer A. Kathleen Tomlinson wrote in a July 30, 2001 letter to the judge. She did take issue, though, with WWE’s “hopes to introduce these videotapes” and “characterize these videos as ‘pornographic’ [...] to paint a portrait of my client as ‘unsavory.’” Noting that Bass’s segments were free of “sex or nudity,” she also accused Extreme Associates owner Rob Black of misleading Bass, saying he told her the videos would just feature her when they were actually compiled with other porn.

Three days later, WWE attorney Mark Rush sent his own letter attempting to compel discovery on the videos. It was attached to a sealed envelope containing color copies of every side of the box art for all the Bass bondage videotapes in question. The defense was requesting that the judge deny a request to invoke Federal Rule of Evidence 412, the federal rape shield law, to keep out the videos. “This case is a harangue of a lawsuit,” wrote Rush. “Bass filed this Title VII lawsuit seeking $120 million dollars. She is claiming, inter alia, that [WWE] created a hostile work environment, which caused her embarrassment, humiliation, depression, etc. Yet within months after departing the WWF, Bass entered another ‘workplace’ and participated in and created for commercial distribution extremely graphic S&M and bondage videos for Extreme Associates, Inc. To somehow claim a hostile work environment at the WWF, while the Plaintiff is creating the scenes described below, is an affront to Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act], to this Court, and to the Defendants.”

Advertisement

The pleading then summarizes the Bass-centric content of each video, including warning the judge and any other readers in a superfluous footnote that “Due to Bass’s conduct the descriptions are graphic.” Well, yeah. The summaries include lines like:

  • “Bass calls [Gina] a ‘f—king c—t,’ and spits in her face and spits in her eye.”
  • “Bass instructs a woman to cover her nipples with duck [sic] tape.”
  • “Bass pours barbeque sauce on a man in a diaper and breaks eggs on his head.”
  • “Bass demands that [former ECW wrestler] Kronus cut himself with a razor blade (real, not gimmicked).”

Advertisement

It’s hard to imagine that WWE was too scandalized by the last bit, given that self-mutilation has been the standard way to get blood in wrestling since the 1930s. Several months before the letter was sent, at WrestleMania, Steve Austin bled in the main event. Whatever the case, the intent to smear could not be clearer.

It’s less clear that it amounted to anything. From both the files and the case’s docket there does not appear to be an official ruling on this discovery dispute. At least going by the contemporary coverage, it seems as if it didn’t work. As this discovery dispute over the videos was going on, WWE got some pushback on that topic from Bass’s former accountant, Ron Noreman. In deposition excerpts outlining bodybuilders’ role in the fetish world, one particular exchange stands out.

“What does one issue have to do with another?” Noreman asked Rush. “If someone goes to a topless bar and the person happens to be a topless dancer, does that give the patrons in that place the right to rape her or grab her after work? One has nothing to do with the other. It is irrelevant.” The WWE lawyer started to reply that this “your example, that is not a sexual harassment lawsuit but a criminal…” only for Noreman to interrupt and point out that “If the owner of that topless bar grabbed that dancer, then it is a sexual harassment suit and doesn’t change anything.”

In a discovery hearing that week, Tomlinson acknowledged withdrawing her motion for the time being while reserving the right to address the issue at a later time if it came up again; the docket hints that it did in a sealed filing, but there’s nothing definitive. In that same hearing, though, something else came up that sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of who the plaintiff is. “I’m interested in other names she’s used, that’s why I asked for the birth certificate,” Rush says. “And I am also interested in determining her sex.” The judge said that this was a matter for Bass’s deposition. In her complaint, Bass had cited a TV segment where Shawn Michaels called her “mister,” but the idea that she “was a man” was a recurring joke throughout her Howard Stern appearances. That wince-inducing bit came to a head in 1998 with a DNA test confirmed that Bass was biologically female, so she already had recent proof regardless. Of course, it shouldn’t have mattered at all.

Advertisement

The file box at the courthouse contained a couple trial transcript excerpts, the most interesting being that of WWE owner/chairman/head writer/etc. Vince McMahon. This bit focuses on when he talked about sexual harassment training and policy in WWE, and especially how it differs between talent and office staff. It contains one particularly strange passage. “They don’t have a written policy,” he said of the talent. “I dare say, up until today, which is the first time that we have been smeared with a sexual harassment suit in our history, I’ll dare say that up until today, the written policy that applies basically to everyone, the written policy in the handbook [that] is handed out to employees hasn’t worked nearly as well as the unwritten policy that applies to our wrestling talent.”

The first time, huh? That’s a convenient memory lapse, isn’t it?

David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are eavailable. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.