Six days ago, WWE was in an uncomfortable position regarding its upcoming Crown Jewel event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the second card in a 10-year contract with the kingdom believed to be worth $20–$50 million per show. Saudi Arabia’s brutal war of attrition in Yemen and, more recently, Turkey’s insistence that the Saudis killed and dismembered the dissident journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi in their Istanbul consulate, have made that deal look either ethically dubious or completely unconscionable, depending on how charitable you’re feeling. It was never anything but that, but recent events have only made things look worse for WWE.
The Saudis are pushing an “interrogation gone wrong” cover story on Khashoggi’s death, but the Turkish government claims to have a recording proving otherwise. There’s still a great deal that’s unknown about the case, but what’s known is bad enough that a growing number of companies are cutting ties with Saudi Arabia; lawmakers are pushing legislation for the U.S. government to do the same. Even Endeavor, the Hollywood talent agency-cum-content factory that owns the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has backed out of a deal to sell a minority stake to the Saudi government. This came after Endeavor issued a near identical statement to the one that WWE issued about “monitoring” the situation.
With the Khashoggi story still festering and WWE still, uh, monitoring things, numerous major media outlets have covered both WWE’s conduct and the increasing backlash the promotion has received. HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver built its feature story around Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations and “liberal” facade on Sunday, and bookended it with some withering bits about the WWE deal, including a wince-inducing highlight reel of the more blatant propaganda at April’s Greatest Royal Rumble event in Jeddah. According to the Nielsen ratings, the initial broadcast of this week’s episode drew 919,000 viewers, with another 3.7 million viewing the official YouTube upload of the Saudi segment; even the WWE-centric excerpts that I tweeted got 76,000 views. Those figures don’t include HBO replay viewers, whether on the linear channels or via one of their three on demand services, or views for unofficial YouTube uploads.
While the Last Week Tonight segment was doubtless the first many viewers had heard of the deal, the harder-core fanbase seems to have gained a new understanding of the Saudi issue from the coverage by Oliver and others. When The Undertaker mentioned “Crown Jewel” on last night’s 1,000th episode special edition of SmackDown, he was loudly booed. A surprise Vince McMahon appearance, by contrast, drew a massive ovation.
WWE has to hope that cognitive dissonance holds, because in spite of mounting public pressure, the promotion has not really changed course at all. Watch their weekly TV shows and you’ll notice that, starting on Monday, plugs for Crown Jewel no longer mention Saudi Arabia. You’ll also notice that that’s about it. WWE has been quietly confirming that the show will go on, while telling every news outlet that asks that “we are currently monitoring the situation.”
WWE has been doing a lot of monitoring in the last few months, as it happens. Recently, WWE had claimed to be “investigating” their ringside doctor admitting under oath that he had a sexual relationship with at least one wrestler patient and looking into resurfaced allegations that Randy Orton exposed himself to writers. Nothing has come out about either case in public since then, and WWE did not return a request for comment about the status of those “investigations.” It seems safe to assume that their “monitoring” of the Khashoggi “situation” means about as much as their “investigations.” Which is to say: not much.
While WWE as a company has stuck with its “monitoring” boilerplate, its surrogates have laid out the promotion’s argument in favor of sticking with the kingdom. TMZ waylaid Orton at an airport on Wednesday morning, where, in lieu of unveiling his penis, he defended the promotion’s decision to go on with Crown Jewel. “I think we should go,” he began. “I think the only way to help with change over there is to go and not to cancel the trip. Our girls performed in Abu Dhabi not too long ago, and I think we’ll be there, eventually, with Saudi, [at] the Crown Jewel. That’s the goal, is to make things better everywhere and I think us not going doesn’t help. Going helps.”
Incoherent as this may have been, there’s no reason to believe it was spontaneous. WWE has a set of talking points on its Saudi deal, and being a change agent has been central part of the narrative; deflecting from the country’s persistent and flagrant human rights violations at home and abroad to focus on the absence of women wrestlers from the Saudi shows is also a part of that story. As per usual, it’s hard to know how sincere anyone involved is being, or allowed to be—Orton also liked a vaguely worded but seemingly pro-union and anti-Saudi deal tweet from Cody Rhodes on Monday, for instance. (The normally talkative Rhodes has not responded to a request for clarification.) Beyond the long history of obviously staged WWE/TMZ interactions, there was another reason why Orton’s statement sounded stagey and unconvincing, which is that it was virtually note-for-note with another WWE surrogate’s argument in Fox Business Channel hit from Tuesday.
That surrogate was John “Bradshaw” Layfield, a retired wrestler/announcer turned investor who doesn’t even work for WWE anymore. In less than a minute of airtime, Layfield unleashed a dizzying amount of pro-WWE propaganda in stumping for the Saudi deal, virtually all of which rhymed with Orton’s case to TMZ. In brief, Layfield said that:
- WWE should to Saudi Arabia because he feels that the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba didn’t work, thus proving that only engagement works.
- That WWE “had the first women’s match that had ever happened in the Middle East,” which is not remotely true: female wrestlers performed on mid-’80s WWE tours in the region’s more liberal countries.
- That the crowd chanted “this is change” during the Alexa Bliss-Sasha Banks match in Abu Dhabi, which was wrong both because the chant was “this is hope,” and because WWE has exaggerated what was clearly just a few fans chanting.
- That “these senators who come out and bash the WWE on this”—three Democrats and Republican Lindsay Graham, all speaking to IJR—are just “hid[ing] behind their patriotism and show flag waving to try to improve their abysmal approval ratings,” a point he nailed down by... noting that WWE has run shows for troops and ran the first arena-size event after 9/11. Layfield also noted that he visited Ground Zero.
“WWE has been at the forefront of change,” he concluded, “and [if] you want to change Saudi Arabia, you send something like WWE.”
While media coverage of the situation has been wide and largely negative, there have been exceptions, all among WWE-friendly publications. A Google site search shows that Rolling Stone, which has become a regular outlet for WWE announcements, has not covered the WWE/Saudi controversy at all. Their 600-plus word summary of the Last Week Tonight segment omits the WWE parts completely, even though many outlets led with them. ESPN appears to have pulled back on WWE content of late, so while it’s concerning that they ran borderline propaganda in May, it likely means little that they waited until Tuesday evening to publish a solid WWE/Saudi piece by editor Tim Fiorvanti that ran atop the network’s WWE page.
Perhaps most troubling, though, was an article on the Sports Illustrated website by Justin Barasso, which was published on Monday. SI has covered the Saudi issue just fine, and their piece on the Last Weeek Tonight segment quoted Oliver’s observation that Greatest Royal Rumble was “wall to wall propaganda,” but Barasso’s piece stands out in a bad way. The story leads with WWE talent expressing “discomfort with the idea of performing in Saudi Arabia, especially given the nation’s poor record with human rights” and Barasso agreeing that the show shouldn’t happen. (WWE: “As always, we maintain an open line of communication with our performers as we continue to monitor the situation.”) In the version of the article currently on the site, that part, updated after publication to add WWE’s statement, runs 203 words—169 without the statement.
The remaining 399 words are uncut and strikingly naive WWE apologia. “Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sold them on a vision of a progressive nation” and “appeared earnest in his pursuit of Western entertainment,” Barasso writes, and WWE earnestly believed him. He implies that there were no signs of human rights issues to worry WWE until the Khashoggi murder, which is not true. He also writes that the deal can be justified in light of other western businesses dealing with the Kingdom, which leaves out the salient point that WWE served as propagandists for the kingdom as part of the deal. WWE now has the opportunity to “make a statement about human rights and equality” by pulling out, he concludes. That’s debatable, and such a statement would be hard to credit at this point. Of course, WWE is not pulling out of Saudi Arabia, at least not yet. Which means that right now the statement they’re making is one about what the promotion really values, and how much.
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.