Vince McMahon producing a show with son-in-law and lieutenant Paul “Triple H” Levesque.
Photo: WWE.com

From a pro wrestling point of view—well, also from many others—the most left field story of the week arrived on the internet last Thursday evening, when The Huffington Post’s Luke O’Brien published an investigative piece about the identity of the woman behind a luridly anti-Muslim and distressingly well-followed Twitter account @AmyMek. What this has to do with WWE, of all institutions, was hinted at in the headline but not explained until late in the 3,300-word article. O’Brien discovered that @AmyMek is indeed a real person and that her husband, Sal Siino, was hired as the wrestling company’s Senior Vice President, Global Content Distribution & Business Development 15 months ago. O’Brien reached out to WWE, asking if they knew that Siino, whose job included negotiating a TV deal in the United Arab Emirates, had any connection to @AmyMek. The journalist was initially told that it was the first time that they were made aware of the connection, albeit without any elaboration. When he reached out a second time, though, O’Brien got a much more substantive response. “No,” said an unnamed WWE spokesperson. “Now that it has come to our attention, Sal Siino is no longer an employee.”

WWE is becoming more and more of a mainstream entertainment company than it has ever been before, and has a record high stock price, billion-dollar TV deal, and bigger, more upscale sponsorships to show for it. In short, it is no longer the sort of entity that can afford to ignore a story like this, or do anything but nip it in the bud. It wasn’t always this way. WWE’s record with handling controversy and scandal is not the best, and firing Siino clearly indicates a changing company’s recognition of the need to change its approach. Whether this was the result of WWE wanting to avoid alienating Muslim fans (or just looking to avoid issues with the company’s friends in Saudi Arabia) or just recognizing that his association with @AmyMek made Siino’s particular role dangerously untenable is hard to say. But it’s clear that this is a company more responsive to outside pressure than it has ever been before.

You have read about WWE’s more hostile and characteristic public relations moments in this space. There was the time that they tried to distance steroids from the Chris Benoit murder-suicide by stressing that “steroids were not, and could not, be related to the cause of death (asphyxiation).” And there was the time when a WWE executive basically accused Dave Meltzer, who had covered a storyline exploiting the Gulf War for The National Sports Daily, of defaming the company and not reaching out to his company-approved contact for comment, when neither was the case.

It’s a balance that WWE has seemingly been trying to manage for several years, now. They’ve sometimes been too quick on the trigger. One particularly strange incident saw Tenille “Emma” Dashwood fired in 2014 after being charged with, of all things, shoplifting an iPad case at a Walmart. Since she paid for everything else, was using the self-checkout lane—and therefore could have forgotten to scan it or just done so improperly—and had the charges dropped almost immediately in exchange for community service, there was an immediate outcry both online and among her peers. It also didn’t help that wrestlers who had been arrested on drunk driving charges were not fired, with at least two getting “promoted” to roles on the Total Divas reality show. WWE quickly reversed course two hours later and reinstated her. Still, there’s plenty of reason to doubt the instincts of the people calling the shots in Stamford.

More recently, there was the Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal, which was slated for WrestleMania. The fan backlash that followed was swift and devastating—the wrestlers that Moolah had trained alleged that she would pressure to have sex with promoters/business associates and accused her of wage theft, both of which were fairly widely known, and all but one of the replies to the initial Twitter announcement were negative. Fans and media reaching out to Snickers, WrestleMania’s title sponsor, led to WWE dropping the name. Moolah’s daughter, armed by a friend who has gotten some Moolah students who claim that they witnessed nothing untoward in their time with her, is working on an effort to try to get the Mars candy corporation to apologize, seemingly with the expectation that this would influence WWE to reverse course. The movement doesn’t appear to have picked up any kind of steam, and interviews with the Moolah supporters have not refuted any of the specific allegations, only saying they never saw anything.

As WWE increasingly comes to resemble other large corporate entities, they have also become notably more malleable. The WWE was never more publicly combative than in its response to the Benoit tragedy now, but that approach would be much less effective in the era of social media and with wider daily news coverage of pro wrestling. Vince McMahon is still Vince McMahon and still running the company, of course, but the people in his inner circle—including his daughter, son-in-law, and non-wrestling executives—are both more influential and more enlightened than those who were around him in the past. McMahon’s will may still set the company’s creative direction, but his own ultra-aggressive personality is no longer quite so legible in the promotion’s broader public behavior. This is as it should be: there are more checks and balances on the corporate side than ever before, in large part because the stakes are higher now that the promotion is so much bigger.

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It’s worth noting that there was a lot of room for improvement, here. The obvious posture that WWE should have taken with the Benoit case was that it was a terrible tragedy and that they wanted to provide their talent with the help that they needed, emotional and otherwise, to make sure it never happened again. If that scenario was transplanted into 2018 WWE, that sort of rational response seems far more likely than the old instinct to instantly hop on the warpath.

It also might have worked better. Even the media narrative about “roid rage,” buoyed by evidence of Benoit taking excessive doses of his testosterone replacement therapy, could have been explained away as a bad actor finding a loophole that WWE intended to close. That still seems like a bridge too far for the WWE, though, mostly because it still admits a degree of fault.

As always with attempts at analyzing why the WWE does what it does, this is guesswork at some level. And while even incremental change isn’t easy, none of these decisions were really all that complicated. The Moolah change was driven by pressure from a longtime major sponsor; Sal Siino was very specifically someone negotiating deals in the Middle East while being married to a famously virulent anti-Muslim Twitter personality. These were direct threats to the promotion’s bottom line in a way that a great many smaller issues aren’t, and it makes sense that they’re the ones that forced some of the swiftest recent change. Still, for a notoriously defensive company, even a small step forward seems like a change for the better, if only because it’s something other than the old aggressive lunge.

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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 available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.