What is missing in wrestling, besides storytelling that makes sense?

Imagine being seen, supported, and heard at your job.

The day I found professional wrestling, I was 9 years old and Brian Pillman and Steve Austin were on my screen that night. Seeing them on TV that day in 1996 changed my life. Like many of you, I fell in love with the sport, the storylines, the athleticism, the outfits, and much more. Something about all of it together just spoke to me.

A dark silhouette of a large figure at the center of the ring, lit from behind by a bright blue-green light and surrounded by fog
Credit: Viceland

Fast forward to me now, a 34-year-old woman, my love of this sport has waxed and waned but has always held strong. Of course, as I’ve aged, created, and grown in my career, and lived my life, I now see sports entertainment in a different light, and some would say a bit clearer (I did have to get glasses recently).

I am a Black, Queer (bisexual), Woman that has worked in the mental health field for 13 years, so before you get up in arms about what I have to say, I know what I’m talking about. (You may still be upset at what is coming, I WELCOME IT).

When I look back on all the overdoses, the depression, the racism, the sexism in wrestling, my stomach turns. As we all watch the Dark Side of the Ring episodes or the interviews that are booked on Fightful where folks get to tell their actual stories, I see it as a gift, because WE as fans have been invited behind the curtain more than ever these days. Years of secrets are being exposed and put on the table.

This leads me to what brought me to your screen today. With all of these secrets being spilled, more questions are arising for some, such as the how and the why? However, there are also the folks that think this was just what the business was back then. We have to think, how has that helped the performances vs how has that harmed them?

Many of the wrestling companies have what is known as a Wellness Policy.

“WWE Talent Wellness Program is administered independently by world-renowned medical professionals and includes cardiovascular testing, ImPACT, testing for brain function, substance abuse and drug testing, annual physicals, and health care referrals.” ¹

Most of these wellness policies are focused around the intake of narcotics or enhancement drugs, while ignoring that alcohol should, and does, also fall into this category — that is, if a Wellness Policy is even in place.

What I believe is truly missing is the fact that we are not looking at folks as whole people. Not only considering whether they are ingesting narcotics/prescription pills or enhancements, but also considering the effects of alcohol because although it is legal, it can be just as harmful, if not more.

But what if we also looked at their mental health?

A lot of folks that struggle with addiction and other things may be struggling because of their mental health. Depression, Anxiety, Trauma, Loneliness, and other things that we are seemingly looking over and looking past. Traveling hundreds of days out of the year takes a toll not only on the body but on relationships with others and self. Although these individuals have chosen this career or were called to it, there is more than what we see on television, so much more.

The fun fact: To those that own and run wrestling companies, if you offered holistic support to these wrestlers that you are making money off of, YOU WOULD PROBABLY MAKE MORE MONEY OFF OF THEM.

Credit: Viceland

Most of the wrestlers that we love and enjoy watching night in and night out are self-employed 1099 contract workers, which I think some fans forget. Yes, they may be making money which seems amazing and heavy on the wallet but they are also paying some heavy taxes, having to get their insurance, and hell, some are taking care of families on top of all that.

When we look at these amazing humans portraying these amazing (or sometimes not so amazing) storylines, we may not be thinking about the ways that they are having to take on these roles and the ways that it may affect them.

I look at safety in two ways: internal and external. Yes, external safety is easy when we look at wrestling. We think about the ways that wrestlers can get injured while training and or in the ring. But, what about the ways that they may be struggling internally? Again, wrestlers push themselves daily, not just physically but also emotionally. Imagine being told day in and day out that you are not good enough, that you need to gain weight, lose weight, show more skin, show less skin, play this role, taking off the road, etc. It can take a toll on your internal safety as well as on the way you see yourself.

While we see these storylines played out on our screens, how often are these individuals in situations they may not want to be in? And are they potentially being exploited because they are a part of a marginalized community? How often are the storylines that are created,created by folks that have NO ACTUAL idea of what it looks like to be in their shoes? I cannot tell you how many times I have cringed, yelled at my television, and like many others taken my anger to Twitter (YES, I KNOW THEY DO NOT CARE). As a member of many marginalized communities, I’m left wondering about the overall impact of being in these situations over and over again.

We all know there is a lot that folks tend to overlook. Or they think “Oh, well they are just being sensitive.” It is beyond upsetting to me when folks say women shouldn’t do this thing. Why is race being brought up? Or it’s fine if he/she is sober now, that storyline is so AUTHENTIC. They should be able to just play this character, this role. Not thinking about what these individuals are taking home with them, and or what is waiting for them outside the squared circle. I think it is worth acknowledging that wrestling fans can be pretty brutal, and often feel as if these athletes owe them everything and more.

Another area of this magical sport that found the light was #speakingout.

June 17, 2020, was the day that wrestling got its hashtag. Similar to the hashtag #metoo, the movement created by Tarana Burke², #SpeakingOut shook not only the world of professional wrestling but the world of entertainment as a whole. If you are unfamiliar with what #SpeakingOut is, it is very similar to #metoo. The purpose was to give folks a platform to share their stories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse as well as sexual harassment that they experienced within the wrestling world. Years of coverups, years of threats, years of coercion, years of things and people being overlooked, and hell, years of trauma.

The text #speakingout displayed over a black and white image of an empty wrestling ring
The text #speakingout displayed over a black and white image of an empty wrestling ring
Credit: CBR.com

Twitter was set ablaze that day. For those that were harmed, it wasn’t just a spicy month or a spicy few months. The harm that was and has been caused has impeded and impacted folks for years and continues to do so. Trauma is something that happens to us and can truly affect our everyday lives.

During the movement, we learned that some of those folks who were accused were serial offenders. And that and the ways that the power dynamics were crossed and overlooked. We learned that gender and age were no barriers to anyone receiving harm. We learned that every company handled it differently and some folks were fired, some folks were suspended, some were even sent to programs, or so we were told.

We learned so much within those first few days. But, the biggest thing we learned is the lack of care and support for those that are harmed in this industry. We learned that often the bottom line is that the show must go on.

Of course, there will always be a new generation of wrestlers coming up in the world. But, what if, WHAT IF, they joined a community that cared about their well-being? A community that had actual policies in play and that had mental health support on staff. A community that had a program that was an actual FULL wellness program, where they felt safe enough to seek support. Where they felt safe enough to say NO, or “I am not doing well and I need help.” A place where they could go and vent instead of going to the bottom of a bottle or swallowing a handful of pills (this is not everyone but there is a history of this).

Imagine working at a place where if you felt unsafe, uncomfortable, or had something traumatic happen to you, you felt safe enough to seek the support you deserved and knew that those who harmed you would be held accountable.

I would like to invite folks that say we support our wrestlers to look at the protocols in play and who’s in charge. Power dynamics play a hell of a role throughout it all, as well as looking at who’s in the writer’s room, and who your doctors are. We, as fans should demand that these humans we say we love and care about are loved and cared for, and not just paid for their time.

Wrestling isn’t just an in-ring job, it is a beloved institution that has been left behind in the mental health conversation, and I want those who kept me company growing up to know that they are never alone, valued, supported, and loved. In such a high-profile and high-stress profession, we need to make sure that we are taking care of those that bring us joy by providing them with the care they deserve.

DEMAND THESE COMPANIES TO TAKE CARE OF THEIR EMPLOYEES.

IN THE SAME WAY, FANS GET UP IN ARMS OVER THE STORYLINES, WE NEED TO TAG AND TWEET AT THESE COMPANIES SHOW UP FOR THEM HERE.

¹ From wwe.com

² The movement #metoo is a social movement against sexual abuse and sexual harassment where people publicize allegations of sex crimes.

A plain, empty wrestling ring surrounded by empty seats, illuminated from behind by a bright light
A plain, empty wrestling ring surrounded by empty seats, illuminated from behind by a bright light
Caption: TWM.news

Jimanekia Eborn is a Comprehensive Sexuality Educator,Sexual Assault & Trauma Expert. She is a fan of professional wrestling and GROWTH in humans.