It is incredibly rare for WWE talent to be vocal about their treatment at the hands of the company, and doubly rare when that mistreatment pertains to issues that are broader and more sensitive than things like booking. This is a big part of what makes the ongoing and very public dust-up between WWE and Albert Hardie Jr.—known as “Jordan Myles” in the promotion’s NXT brand and “ACH” everywhere else in wrestling—so noteworthy. The rest of what makes it noteworthy is... obvious.
On Saturday night, Hardie, who is black, tweeted about his frustration with a t-shirt design that WWE was selling for him; the shirt was available for just a day or two last month, and bore an unmistakable resemblance to blackface:
For the distressingly large number of people who didn’t understand he was getting at, Hardie retweeted this on Sunday:
Based on Tweets at the time of release, the shirt was made available on WWE Custom Tees, the company’s print-on-demand website, on September 17 and gone by September 19, at which point it was replaced by a knockoff of the Space Jam logo with the same color scheme. It was part of a larger batch of new NXT shirt designs released in time for the debut of the brand’s weekly TV series on USA Network after several years as a streaming-only show. “I knew the shirt existed and my soul hasn’t been able to rest properly since I’ve laid eyes on it,” Hardie said on Twitter after being asked by this reporter about his decision to go public a month later, adding that he “used it...as fuel.” A few minutes earlier, he explained that he had been told that the design was supposed to evoke the Rolling Stones’ “tongue” logo. That was the most substantive information Hardie shared during the first day of the story, and it suggested that he did not approve the shirt and hadn’t gone publicly sooner because he was trying to get answers for over a month.
Later on Sunday, though, just before midnight eastern time, Pro Wrestling Sheet’s Ryan Satin posted a statement from WWE that put the blame on Hardie and caused the story to heat up significantly.
Albert Hardie Jr. (aka Jordan Myles) approved this t-shirt for sale. As always, we work collaboratively with all of our performers to develop logos and merchandise designs and get their input and approval before proceeding. This was the same process with Albert, and we responded swiftly once he later requested that the logo/t-shirt be redesigned. No t-shirts were sold.
Something was clearly off, here. It was hard to believe the statement entirely, even if a lot of people did. But some knowledge of how WWE operates makes it easier to dissect and see how it could be at least partially “true” while still being misleading. That’s setting aside the fact that the statement doesn’t acknowledge the issues with the shirt at all. Barring a policy change, we know that the “always working with talent to approve merchandise designs” part is just not true; Neville (now PAC in AEW) complained about just this kind of high-handedness regarding a shirt design two years ago. But it seems doubtful that there was even such a change, because it was earlier this month that NXT’s Deonna Purrazzo, Chelsea Green, and Santana Garrett joked in a YouTube video about the awfulness of the designs for the new NXT shirts, including Purrazzo and Green’s own shirts, both of which featured the same odd “protractor” artwork. Also, was WWE saying that Hardie approved the logo or the logo appearing on a black shirt? After all, this was being sold on the WWE Custom Tees site, where as a general rule shirts are sold in multiple color options unless it’s something inherent to the design, like making Seth Rollins’ black hair transparent on a black shirt. The replacement Space Jam-style shirt that WWE put up for Hardie is only available in two different but effectively identical shades of black; because there is no cached listing of the original design available to check, it’s hard to know if this was also true of the original.
When Deadspin reached out to WWE late Sunday night with a set of follow-up questions that included asking about the background color of the mock-ups shown to Hardie, as well as if they had any record of the approval and how the “as always” note corresponded to contrary wrestler claims, WWE reiterated its original statement.
But Hardie would go on to elaborate on Monday. First, in a tweet that he subsequently deleted but has been preserved as a screenshot, he said that he gave approval based on seeing the offending artwork on a white background, seeing what he termed “the racist intentions” after it hit the web store on a black shirt. He then tweeted a screenshot of an email he was sent by Baker Landon, WWE’s Creative Services Talent Coordinator for NXT (emphasis ours, spelling/grammar mistakes left intact):
Triple H attended a meeting and had a revision for your logo, but loved it for your character. He wanted to the letter to be more “teethy” and what I have attached is what he liked.
Also have basic t-shirts on there that he approved as well. Road Dogg preferred the gray, but let us know what you think!
Triple H is Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events, and Creative, and the man who runs NXT; Road Dogg is Brian “Road Dogg” James, who’s one of his lieutenants. (Hardie also tweeted that Landon “lied to my face” by saying that Levesque wanted the design, so “my hands were tied.” WWE has not, as of this writing, responded to an email asking about the points raised by Hardie in response to their statement.) While the shirt design can ostensibly be tied to the push of Hardie’s personality—the same one he showed as an indie wrestler—as “Myles smiles,” Levesque asking for a “more ‘teethy’” design and James apparently pushing for a lighter colored shirt doesn’t really help WWE’s case.
That’s doubly so since, according to Bret Hart’s memoir, Levesque’s creative role in the company goes back to at least Summer of 1997, long before he had an official title. He has been personally involved in a number of things that could, at best, be termed racially insensitive since then. He wore blackface to parody The Rock—twice—on Monday Night Raw in 1998, impersonated a gorilla to taunt Mark Henry in the same general time frame, wore yellowface as “Dr. Hung Lo” on a January 2000 episode of Raw, and cut an incredibly racist promo in 2003 about how black people can’t be world champions for which he never got his comeuppance in-storyline. As always with WWE, it’s hard to tell what’s intentionally odious and what’s just the result of an abiding obliviousness.
The more worrying stuff about Levesque has nothing to do with storylines, though. His 2012 hiring of Paul “Terry” Taylor as a coach for NXT, where he teaches the “finishing” class with Shawn Michaels is one of these. Taylor had a trainer role in Turner Broadcasting’s WCW during Levesque’s year there in the mid-’90s, and clearly made an impression on the then-rookie wrestler. Taylor was eventually dubbed “the most racist person in WCW” by Stevie Ray, brother of WWE’s Booker T—the guy Levesque beat to cap off that aforementioned 2003 storyline—in an episode of his podcast two years ago. (The YouTube video—made private within six months of release per the Wayback Machine—and podcast upload of the comments have been disappeared from the internet, though.)
More allegations were made against Taylor in the string of racial discrimination lawsuits against WCW in the early 2000s than anyone else in the company, and often came in the context of his training role. (WWE has, as of this writing, not responded to an email asking if they knew about Taylor’s history when he was hired and/or have addressed it since.) Among the many other racist comments attributed to Taylor, is one that appears in a statement of material facts filed by plaintiff Claude “Thunderbolt” Patterson; in sworn testimony, referee Darren “Johnny Boone” Snakovsky recalled that Taylor told fellow plaintiff Bobby Walker that “you’re a nigger and you have no talent.”
After Walker complained, Snakovsky said that Taylor added that “I don’t know if I’m a racist but I know that…[h]e’s a nigger with no talent.” Snakovsky also added that Taylor used the same combination of slur and generalized insult for karate practitioner and upper management favorite Ernest Miller. The gist of Snakovsky’s testimony about Taylor’s use of racial slurs and overall hostility to black wrestlers was backed up by fellow referee Randy Anderson, production employee Moses Williams, on-screen manager/backstage jack of all trades Jimmy Hart, and human resources manager Timothy Goodly, among others. In a subsequent lawsuit against the previous ownership of what’s now Impact Wrestling, Charles “Konnan” Ashenoff—using the same lawyer as the WCW plaintiffs—would cite that promotion’s hiring of Taylor as a racially hostile move. (All of the above lawsuits were settled.)
Given all that, it’s easy to see why Jordan Myles/Albert Hardie/ACH might have a difficult time trusting upper management. He might well be right to do it, as there’s circumstantial evidence that the shirt has been at the root of an ongoing dispute between him and WWE. Not only has Myles not been used on any NXT shows since the week the original shirt design dropped, but PWInsider.com’s Mike Johnson reported (link may contain malicious ads) that he hasn’t been seen at the WWE Performance Center training facility “in recent weeks.” That is not explained by the last few days of tweets; wrestlers do sometimes disappear from NXT shows at least, but seldom from the facility as a whole. The truth about his relationship with the promotion will come out in time. How intentional this was or wasn’t might never be understood quite so clearly.
Does a company would release that shirt design, and then put out an easily disproven statement like the one they sent reporters, they really deserve the benefit of the doubt? Hell, the statement didn’t even acknowledge that the shirt could be seen as offensive, and that someone in the company should have caught and vetoed it before it hit the website. I’m not necessarily expecting the excellent statement that Gucci put out in a similar situation, but even Prada’s terrible statement in their own blackface controversy at least closed with “Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery.”
WWE didn’t even do that. In refusing to do so, they treated fans, media, and talent alike a bunch of gullible marks; the lie about talent always approving their merchandise is so easily provable that it feels like a taunt. With all this in mind, not to mention the history of some of those in power at WWE and NXT in particular, as well as their repeated push of a virulent homophobe as a pride mascot, is a racist shirt design being intentional really that big of a stretch?
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.