If only WWE’s “Be A Star” anti-bullying campaign had applied to adults

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(Content Warning: This article contains allegations of sexual assault, sexual coercion, and sexual harassment)

Is Vince McMahon returning to WWE?

On the “Impact” section of its website, WWE touts its “Be A Star” (Show Tolerance and Respect) anti-bullying program as being developed alongside the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and claims the bullying prevention program, which was championed by former WWE exec Stephanie McMahon, “is available to 4,300 clubs and provides more than 4 million children access to tools and education materials that help create a safe and inclusive afterschool environment.”

Preventing bullying is, undeniably, an important cause, particularly as the worlds of high-speed internet access and unmoderated social media have combined to take harassment and personal torment for kids to a whole new level. But while WWE might have wanted the best for their under-18 audience, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the same level of concern did not extend to WWE employees, particularly to the women who worked for former WWE co-founder and former Chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon.

Last week, McMahon resigned from his position at WWE, the second time he’s done so in the last two years, due to allegations of sexual harassment and assault. McMahon has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime, but recent reports have claimed that federal law enforcement agencies are investigating the allegations related to sex trafficking in former WWE paralegal Janel Grant’s federal lawsuit against McMahon.

Grant’s allegations of assault at the hands of McMahon and former WWE exec John Laurinaitis (the step-father of both Nikki and Brie Garcia — aka “The Bella Twins” — Laurinaitis has denied any wrongdoing and claims he is also a “victim” of McMahon) are hair-raising and upsetting, to say the least, but have somewhat obscured the institutional memory that this is not the first time we’ve heard “Vince McMahon” and “sexual misconduct” in close proximity. McMahon was also forced out of the company in 2022, after a Wall Street Journal report that he had paid $12 million in NDAs to four women over 16 years, one of whom was Grant. The WSJ claims that McMahon also paid $7.5 million to a former wrestler who says McMahon coerced her into giving him oral sex, and then demoted her when she refused his later advances. Still another woman, a WWE contractor, came forward with unsolicited nude photos she claimed McMahon sent her while sexually harassing her at work. When McMahon initially stepped down in the wake of the WSJ report, his daughter, Stephanie, led the crowd in a “Thank you, Vince” chant.

For her part, Stephanie McMahon has always been a weird combination of “girl power!” while also seemingly covering for the terrible behavior of men. She deserves credit for 2020 women’s revolution at WWE, which launched the careers of wrestlers like Becky Lynch, Mercedes Mone (then Sasha Banks), and Charlotte Flair. At the same time, she gleefully cheered the election of former Barstool CEO Erika Ayers Badan (then Erika Nardini) to the company’s board of directors, despite her history of seemingly not caring about Barstool’s long standing harassment of women, which Ayers Badan has been accused of using to her advantage. Show tolerance and respect, indeed. Then again, Stephanie once had to quash Vince’s pitch for a storyline where he was the father or her unborn child, so I guess everything is relative. Ayers Badan has since left both WWE and Barstool Sports.

One thing that seems to become clearer by the day, though, is that Vince McMahon’s behavior was news to no one. Former wrestler Dutch Mantell spoke on his podcast about rumors of how hard Vince was on “the Divas,” the name formerly used for WWE’s women wrestlers, saying, “I did hear how Vince was around the Divas, he would have them sometimes in a manic state. They would come out of the room sometimes with him, shaking, then they would sit in the corner and not talk to anyone. You could tell something between them that upset them.” Mantell also said he believes that “a lot more stories will come out now.” Prior to Grant’s 2024 lawsuit bombshell, former WWE writer Vince Russo, who is never late to comment when WWE is involved, said he wouldn’t consider working for McMahon again because of “morals and ethics.”

Meanwhile, WWE hasn’t exactly impressed with its response to the allegations against McMahon. If the powers that be at TKO (WWE’s parent company, formed when they merged with UFC in 2023) thought having Cody Rhodes win the Royal Rumble twice straight and bringing The Rock back for Wrestlemania was enough to distract from the allegations against Vince McMahon, they need to go back to the drawing board. Last week, my colleague, Sam Fels, rightfully lit up WWE for dropping the ball on responding to Grant’s lawsuit. Particularly galling was watching WWE’s Chief Creative Office Paul “Triple H” Levesque admit that he hadn’t even read the lawsuit. The inability of Levesque to respond appropriately to the allegations against Vince McMahon should have been obvious, given his past penchant for hanging out with Floyd Mayweather and his inability to properly address past allegations of grooming against former WWE wrestler Velveteen Dream. I guess nothing says “we take sexual assault seriously” like running the Cerebral Assasin out there to not address it. At least he wasn’t on a bike with Lemmy screaming somewhere overhead.

I’ve been critical of the “Attitude Era” of WWE, an era many male fans long for a return to, mainly because of its exploitation and treatment of women, both in the ring and backstage and out of the public eye. And despite its clarion call to end bullying via “Be A Star,” it seems the demand to treat others with tolerance and respect doesn’t extend to the adults at WWE, particularly the women. While ending bullying is certainly a valiant goal, demonstrating to young girls (and don’t kid yourself, there are lots of them watching WWE) that boundaries matter, especially when it comes to talking about sexual assault and harassment, is equally as imporant. According to the CDC, “More than 4 in 5 female rape survivors reported that they were first raped before age 25 and almost half were first raped as a minor (i.e., before age 18). Nearly 8 in 10 male rape survivors reported that they were made to penetrate someone before age 25 and about 4 in 10 were first made to penetrate as a minor.”

So how about if we include standing up to unwanted sexual advances and coercion as part of being a star? And what if WWE extended the message about respect and tolerance backstage, as well, including its executive suite. And, while they’re at it, maybe get someone qualified to talk about sexual misconduct and sex trafficking to talk to kids and young adults about the warning signs? And maybe send out someone from the C-Suite who actually read Grant’s lawsuit and took it seriously to address fans about what WWE is doing to make sure that Vince McMahon doesn’t happen to their employees again.

I can’t think of a better way to spend Wrestlemania.

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