It really shouldn’t need to be said, but it’s not impossible to be successful in football without being an awful, racist person. And still, chances are that you, like me, were not that surprised when the Miami Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin left the team recently to seek mental health treatment after fellow lineman (and possible long lost O’Doyle) Richie Incognito bullied and tormented him for what appears to be months and months.
It’s not that weird to envision some thick-necked, tribal-tattooed white offensive lineman screaming a bunch of psychotic threats and racial epithets into a phone at an African-American teammate. Just like it was probably not that shocking to you when the Eagles’ stringy-haired receiver Riley Cooper drunkenly challenged “every n*****” in attendance at a Kenny Chesney concert to come at him, bro.
This is because the football community tries so hard to convince us that the world of football is engulfed by this magical bubble where a whole new set of rules apply, simply because of the aggressive nature of the work involved. We have implicitly been told countless times that this bubble allows you to be just a tiny bit racist with a dab of misogyny and a hearty smudge of off-the-field violence – it’s all part of the game.
Ninety percent of “Bullying-Gate” coverage on SportsCenter is an assorted, ever-changing ragtag group of talking heads babbling on about the countless nuances that we pleeeebians will just never comprehend… after all, we are – to take a phrase from 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney – just a bunch of non-specials.
We get it, guys – corner routes are different than corner offices, defensive backs are different than defense attorneys, yuk yuk yuk. We have all heard the spiels about how the NFL workplace is just as magical as a unicorn, where testosterone rivers flow through the terrain and players bond and communicate through an unwritten language of chest-bumping.
You know what? All jobs are different. Construction workers get to use jackhammers. Bartenders and elementary school teachers have to clean up urine from time to time. And in football, you get to slam your body into other people with the strength of a freight train and scream at your coworkers.
But hey, you know what’s never okay in any of those professions? Leaving a coworker a psychotic threatening voicemail where you call them the N-word and tell them that that you’re going to sh** in their mouth! Doesn’t matter what weird hazing rituals Martin may or may not have participated in, doesn’t matter how many players say it’s usually okay for white dudes to use the N-word in the locker room. It’s just simply not up for debate. It’s not okay to be awful, mean and racist. Anywhere, anytime.
And there are case studies, I assure you. There have absolutely been non-awful people who managed to excel at football.
Even amongst numerous questionable promotion letdowns, the ever polite and composed Tony Dungy won two Super Bowls – both as a player and the first African-American coach to do so. Hines Ward has been involved in anti-bullying charity work for years, and retired as one of the most consistent, hard-working receivers of his time. Even the Lions’ defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, pegged as one of the most physical and dirty players in the league, is known for his respectful demeanor towards fans and the press and is one of the most charitable players in the NFL. Jeff Saturday. Kurt Warner. I swear, I could go on.
Yes, football is a violent game and success requires toughness. But toughness is not a product of violence – nor is it personal insults and racial attacks; that is how violence is born.
And until we stop treating the NFL like this code that no one can crack, the Riley Coopers and Richie Incognitos of the league will continue to rear their nasty heads.
There’s a reason why, although I love this game dearly, I know that a good majority of people who play football are people who I would never want to be around in real life. There’s a reason why Incognito, when a Miami TV crew caught up to him, said flippantly, “I’m just trying to weather the storm…this’ll pass.”
Because just like it did with Riley Cooper, the football community will create an unnecessary debate out of racist tangent from what appears to be another insecure backwoods bully, and in a few weeks, we’ll all forget about it. Well, until the next time when we’re asking ourselves, “Why does this seem so familiar?”
And like always, it’ll be because the phrase “locker room culture” is now synonymous with “complete lack of culture.”
AEW and the Way Forward for Pro Wrestling
With their first PPV success in the books, a new TV deal signed, we crystal ball what is in store for AEW, as well as predict the future for WWE.
In the second part of our AEW special feature, we continue the discussion of fledgling professional wrestling promotion All Elite Wrestling. In our first part, we covered their new television deal with WarnerMedia channel TNT- once home to WWE’s chief competitor and losing pugilist in wrestling’s Monday Night Wars that took place in the late 90s.
We now turn our focus on AEW’s future in the ring and talk about the current and future stars of the promotion and ask the question, who will be their rising star and first champion? We also spotlight the year ahead for AEW and what fans can, and should, expect from the company before wrapping up the feature with our look at the next 5 years of professional wrestling. We crystal ball what is in store for AEW and the mountain of sports entertainment, WWE.
Who Will Be the Rising Star of AEW?
It is perhaps a bit strange to nominate Kenny Omega as a rising star, considering he’s been widely regarded as the best wrestler in the world for several years now and was subject to a huge cash offer to join WWE, but the reality is that Omega isn’t really known to people outside the Internet Wrestling Community. With the might of the TNT corporate muscle behind him, it’s time for the Best Bout Machine to be delivered to the masses.
Beyond Kenny Omega, the most obvious pick to be a breakout star is Pentagon Jr. From his days on the much loved Lucha Underground where he transformed from evil villain into badass anti-hero, Pentagon Jr has already developed a cult following that seems ripe for expansion. With the best catchphrase in wrestling (Cero Miedo) and an incredible moveset, it won’t take long for Pentagon Jr to get over with the crowd despite the language barrier.
Managing Fan Expectations
So far AEW hasn’t put a foot wrong; it’s constructed an exciting roster of talent, signed a big TV deal and its first show was a runaway success. Since Double or Nothing, social media has been awash with praise, rave reviews and think pieces about AEW’s golden future. Yet all the positivity and good vibes need to be taken with a grain of salt. While Double or Nothing was a terrific show, it was made to feel all the better against the drivel that WWE is force feeding its audience. Anything looks brilliant when compared with the current state of affairs in Stamford and it’s not surprising that fans are flocking to AEW and its promises of a better, more intelligent wrestling product.
But it’s worth remembering that the highest point is reached just before the fall. Fans will need to prevent their emotions from running too far ahead. AEW will have missteps along the way. Some storylines won’t go exactly to plan. Some angles will not work out and some feuds will be disappointing. It will be important for fans to expect some bumps in the road and to keep a fair perspective on the product before rushing to snap judgments in the heat of a social media moment.
Who should be the inaugural AEW Champion?
In the aftermath of Double or Nothing, it was announced that Chris Jericho will face off against Hangman Adam Page for the honor of being the first wrestler to raise the championship belt that Bret Hart debuted to a shocked Las Vegas crowd. The match will take place at their next major show, All Out, in Chicago at the end of August.
This booking is smart. Jericho is the legend whose presence automatically brings legitimacy not just to AEW but to whoever he’s in the ring with, while Page is immediately been pegged as one of the young studs that AEW is hoping to build around.
Diehard fans will want to see Page be crowned champion, but pro wrestling is all about, long term storytelling, gradual builds, and delayed gratification. Page is undoubtedly championship material and AEW is wise to hitch their wagon to his star, but he’s still a relative unknown. What better way to build him up by having him lose to Jericho in their first match, most likely through nefarious means, then tell the story of the rookie chasing down the veteran over several months.
Jericho winning now will give prestige to the belt and make Page’s eventual victory all the more meaningful and satisfying for the crowd. As wrestlers since time immemorial have always said: “the money is in the chase.”
Predictions for the next 12 months
Last week Jon Moxley gave a tell-all interview on Chris Jericho’s podcast Talk Is Jericho. Over 90 minutes Moxley pulled back WWE’s curtain to reveal a stifling and idiotic creative process that has seemingly led to several unhappy performers biding their time until they can escape WWE for pastures new. Fans were shocked by what they heard, yet they weren’t surprised by what Moxley said, rather they were shocked by how much Moxley’s revelations corroborated the rumors and innuendo that have been haunting WWE’s creative process for over a decade.
Naturally, upon hearing Moxley’s account, fans immediately began fantasy booking all the wasted WWE talent that will be gracing an AEW ring in the near future. Yet while we can’t stop rampant speculation over who might jump ship, we shouldn’t expect more than a handful of WWE stars to switch to AEW. There also won’t be any main event or upper card talent leave WWE. What we can expect is to see some overlooked and wasted lower-card performers move over. Tag teams such as The Revival and The Club seem tailor-made for AEW and now that they have a viable alternative to languishing in the WWE doldrums, there’s a good chance that some of them will head to TNT’s new show.
The great unknown is Sasha Banks. The victim of misuse and bad booking, Banks is allegedly unhappy with her status in the company and wants out. In the past, WWE might have granted her wish, comfortable in the knowledge that there wasn’t anywhere she could go, but now that AEW is on the scene, there is no way WWE will fathom allowing someone like Sasha Banks and her potential for megastardom to join their competition. If WWE was unwilling to release the unused and forgotten Luke Harper from his contract despite not having anywhere near the star power of The Boss, there’s zero possibility of WWE setting Sasha Banks free.
TLDR: One or two ex-WWE talents will join AEW at some point in the next twelve months but don’t expect a stampede. Instead, AEW will need to rely on its creative booking and match quality to build their roster of unknowns into stars.
What will wrestling look like in five years?
The last few years really have been the best of times and the worst of times for pro wrestling. The standard of in-ring action has never been higher with breathtaking athleticism almost taken for granted in every match, the WWE roster has never been this loaded top to bottom with incredible performers and thanks to the power of the internet, indie wrestlers have been able to build huge fanbases by themselves that would have been impossible even a decade ago. Wrestling has also gained a level of mainstream recognition that it hasn’t had for twenty years and in October WWE’s second show, Smackdown, will debut on Fox Sports in a huge multi-million dollar that will flood Vince McMahon’s wallet with even more cash.
Yet for all that, there is an undeniable smell about the WWE product. Repetitive booking, various members of the McMahon clan putting themselves over at the expense of the actual wrestlers, a never-ending series of pointless and meandering promos that always end up with a three-man tag match that already happened the previous week and that’s just the first hour. Then when you factor in the prevalence of juvenile and childish angles at a time when the wrestling audience is skewing towards older men who want more logical and sophisticated storytelling that doesn’t make them feel stupid for spending their time watching men and women fake punch their enemies, it’s unsurprising that there’s considerable dissatisfaction with WWE.
It’s in this context that the arrival of AEW has been so eagerly anticipated among wrestling fans. Given the state of WWE, AEW has a golden opportunity to carve a market share for itself.
While it’s nigh impossible that AEW will ever supersede WWE as the biggest and most well-known wrestling company in the world, the very presence of AEW on a major television network will force WWE to look more closely at what it’s presenting to audiences on a weekly basis. For the first time in nearly twenty years, WWE is facing external competition. If AEW can garner any kind of critical acclaim and further momentum behind it, logic suggests that WWE will be shaken from its creative stupor and begin rejuvenating its storylines to keep pace with the upstart company from Jacksonville and keep the attention of a fanbase that will suddenly have a viable alternative to WWE.
What could this rejuvenation look like? Believe it or not the best wrestling brand on the market right now, isn’t AEW and it certainly isn’t Raw or Smackdown but rather it’s WWE’s third brand, NXT.
While NXT is still nominally WWE’s development brand where young prospects hone their craft and characters before being promoted to the bright lights of Raw or Smackdown, NXT has grown into something far more than that. Its incredible matches and long-form storytelling that add layers to the characters and culminate in the quarterly Takeover specials have become the modern pinnacle of the artform. NXT by itself is enough to justify a subscription to the WWE Network.
So far NXT has existed mostly in its own little universe and none of its unique flavors has found its way to Raw despite its obvious success. The emergence of AEW could force the WWE to integrate more elements of the NXT style into the rest of its products and finally put aside the stale and frustrating crutches that have plagued Raw and Smackdown for years.
Long term it’s hard to project where AEW will be in five years. There are so many variables. Its best wrestlers could get godfather offers from McMahon, the ratings may not be there or TNT might decide to pull the plug. Regardless, wrestling fans can’t lose. More wrestling shows means competition and competition will compel WWE to stop resting on its laurels and lift its game. Even if you’re the biggest WWE mark this side of a McMahon family dinner, you should be cheering for the success and good fortune of Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega and AEW because their already considerable achievement of building a wrestling promotion from nothing will go a long way to determining the quality of the wrestling we will be watching into the future.