The local television behemoth Sinclair Broadcast Group is infamous for its extreme right-wing politics and dedication to seeding those beliefs into its local news broadcasts. Ring of Honor, the wrestling promotion that Sinclair owns, has somehow avoided being stained by its parent company’s broader creepiness. The party line is that ROH is allowed to run autonomously—“It’s the reason we exist and the way we exist, but we are a totally separate operation unit from any of the stations,” ROH COO Joe Koff told Deadspin last year—but what probably helps the most is that, unlike with WWE, politics generally don’t seep into Ring of Honor’s storylines.
This isn’t just a storytelling choice, either. Ring of Honor does not appreciate being linked to its parent company’s propaganda efforts, or even being asked about them, really. Most notably, there was when Koff told Nick Hausman that last year’s controversy over the company’s “must-run” segments was “overblown, overplayed media…fodder” about programming “immaterial to the amount of content that we produce.” This week, though, Sinclair’s actions dragged that relationship into the spotlight.
ROH uses a mix of wrestlers on exclusive contracts and more traditional freelancers, but even the promotion’s “exclusive” talent are permitted to book themselves internationally if ROH isn’t running a show that weekend. On April 21, the promotion’s world heavyweight champion, Jay Lethal, is booked for the first ever ROH Heavyweight Title defense in Israel, where a local promotion is headlining with him against the non-ROH wrestler David Starr. As you can probably guess from the play on words in his name, Starr—his real name Max Barsky—is Jewish. He’s also one of the top indie wrestlers in the world, though his heritage provides an obvious hook for an ROH title match in Israel. Starr is also notably vocal about his leftist politics on Twitter, and uses “The Bernie Sanders of Professional Wrestling” as one of his many nicknames. Those political tweets include criticizing the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, something he did again on Tuesday while also shading Sinclair in a promo video for the upcoming Israel bout.
“Ring of Honor Wrestling used to represent pure, independent professional wrestling,” Starr says heatedly, “instead of representing a far-right wing, extremist, corporate propaganda machine.” From there, Starr proceeds to turn the aforementioned, implied storyline hook of his match with Lethal on its head.
“Did you think it was some kind of cute publicity stunt to let the little Jew boy get a flight to Israel to wrestle for your championship?” he asks. “Is that what you thought? Did you think that? No, I’m not wrestling for your championship because I’m a Jewish kid in Israel, I’m wrestling for your championship because I’m one of the best independent professional wrestlers on the fucking planet!” Starr then alludes to how Israel is “supposed to be the homeland for everybody...that doesn’t deprive its citizens of basic civil rights.” And then it’s time to take the promo home. “You will have to wake up to your worst nightmare,” Starr says to Sinclair, laughing incredulously. “You will have to wake up to the fact that your championship is now represented by a progressive Jew named David Starr.” And then we fade to black, and a graphic plugging the title match.
On Wednesday morning, Starr’s video was deleted. He tweeted a statement saying that “the powers that be”—Sinclair, seemingly—had asked him to take the video down, which he did out of respect to the IPWA, the promotion running the show. “My complying with this request is not an admission of wrongdoing or a retraction,” Starr added. “I stand by my entire statement and do not regret any of my actions regarding this subject.” This is wrestling, and so it was tempting to think that this was a creative storyline, despite the fact that Sinclair never plays that way. But it soon became very clear that all of this—Starr’s disdain for ROH’s corporate parent, and that corporate parent’s displeased response—was legit.
Pro Wrestling Sheet’s Ryan Satin, citing sources, reported a few hours later that the reality of the situation was, essentially, what Starr’s statement suggested. “ROH management” was unhappy with the criticism of Sinclair politics, Satin wrote, and word was sent that “implied” Lethal would be removed from the show if the video stayed up. Per Satin, the rest was exactly as Starr said, up to and including his decision to go along with it because of the IPWA’s investment in the booking. (An ROH source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Koff was “livid” about the promo.)
Given the parties involved, that outrage doesn’t seem all that surprising. But, at least on Sinclair’s part, it also misses the bigger picture. On Wednesday night, just before midnight, Pro Wrestling Sheet’s upload of the video on Twitter had over 57,500 views. Starr is a popular independent wrestler who makes his full-time living at this, but the video would not have blown up to the degree that it has, let alone left the indie-wrestling orbit, had Sinclair and ROH management not tried to banish it from the internet. Since Satin had already written about the promo’s existence—and, based on his past work, was likely to have saved the seemingly controversial clip—the “powers that be” should have known it was inevitable that he would repost it if it disappeared. And that’s exactly what happened.
The Streisand Effect is very real, and the extent to which ROH’s move backfired is proof. But this was also such a predictable chain of events that it’s reasonable to wonder if there isn’t some deeper work involved. Starr, who has made no further comment past his statement, is no dummy, and there’s no reason to assume that he chose to make his life this much more complicated on a lark. It’s become clear that ROH brass—and Koff in particular—don’t like Sinclair’s politics being linked to the promotion. If Starr had wanted to parlay a promo into a viral clip, a video like this would be the one most likely to do it.
If that’s the case, then I, for one, welcome our new Jewish Batman.
UPDATE (March 21, 5:49 p.m.): IPWA promoter Gery Roif confirmed to The Jerusalem Post “that he was forced to [ask Starr to delete the video] due to Sinclair censorship.”
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.