On Carny-Corporate Wellness and Our Seedy Love of Wrestling

Image Credit: wwe.com

Haters gonna hate, as the old adage goes. But I think it’s naive and kind of patronizing to get all shocked and judgmental when it’s revealed that a wrestler, even a supposedly upstanding one like Roman Reigns, violated WWE’s wellness policy, which is a euphemism for “probably took drugs.” Now, this wellness policy is apparently overly stringent when it comes to procedural compliance (which is well articulated here in an op-ed on turnheel.com) so it’s certainly possible that Reigns somehow ran afoul of the red tape rather than actually taking a drug he wasn’t approved to take. But even if his drug violation caught him stepping down a bad path, I have nothing but compassion for a wrestler who gets into hot water with a wellness policy that would reduce his wellness to rule compliance and penalties like this.

To be fair, WWE’s webpage about the Talent Wellness Policy paints a rosy picture of what the company does to help the wrestlers manage their lives. In addition to thorough medical monitoring and treatment there’s a sports psychiatrist, and a range of education and support for things like life skills, finance, media training, and life after WWE. And wrestlers indeed would appear to be living healthier and more sensible lives than they used to. But even if all this corporate risk abatement is as helpful as they make it out to be, the business and culture of professional wrestling have an inherently adverse effect on real wellness, and there’s no way around it. Wellness is about sensible exercise, a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and rest, peace of mind, safe and nurturing relationships, and the ability to make wise choices for yourself. It’s also about feeling like you’re appreciated for your contribution to your community (which Roman Reigns is not so much).

Our wrestlers have chosen a tumultuous life. They have a grueling international touring schedule, inconsistent job security, an unstable and often toxic working environment, intense scrutiny from millions of people, lengthy separations from their families, and a tremendous facade to maintain on a daily basis. And furthermore: falling from heights, smashing through tables, and getting kicked in the face will always have an adverse effect on a person’s wellness. We know how difficult, painful, and scary this life can be under the best of circumstances, and how bad things can get. There are times in a life like that when the only choices are to crash and burn or self-medicate, physically, emotionally, or professionally.

A lot of people seem sad when the dark underbelly of professional wrestling is revealed in these moments, when the kayfabe and corporate reassurances come apart and the dysfunction shows itself. In times like these I see people feeling guilty for supporting such an unhealthy industry, self-righteous demands that said industry clean up its act, and shaming of the bad apples that emerge. And look, WWE certainly needs to be called out on its nonsense, hypocrisy, and abusive tendencies. But the dark underbelly will always be there, no matter how thorough the wellness policy, and it is the authentic truth of what we’re watching: wrestling is a bizarre, self-destructive, violent, and delusional sport-art. And we love it. We should really own this rather than hide from it, condemn it, try to rationalize it away and only love our romantic fantasies about it.

The people who choose professional wrestling as a life path are a different breed. Their work requires that they endure pain and cause it on a regular basis. They fervently pursue a goal that amounts to destroying their bodies for their audience’s emotional catharsis. They are required to humiliate themselves and their colleagues in a way that makes us believe they mean it. They come to crave that feeling of enduring pain to evoke the crowd’s pop. They exist in a realm where reality and delusion are intentionally muddled, and they eagerly take part in the muddling. Their bombastic, larger-than-life characters sometimes overtake their authentic selves, and they lose track of who they really are at times. And yet even as they portray seething, unhinged, vengeful versions of themselves, they risk seriously injuring and even killing each other if they don’t maintain focus, professionalism, and peak physical awareness in the ring. It’s a wild existence. This is the life they have chosen, and most of the ones that rise to the top would appear to be born for it.

Wrestling is morally ambiguous, and it can’t not be. It is a lifestyle out of balance, inherently unhealthy, and it hides much in its shadows. We wouldn’t like a lot of what goes on behind the veil of kayfabe. But we love wrestling anyway. This is not a bad or shameful thing; this is something to examine. You can try to avoid the fact that your love of professional wrestling is inherently seedy, or you can own it and learn from it. It does not have to be a bad thing.

Ultimately, in your heart, you know there’s something beautiful about professional wrestling. That beauty cannot be there without the darker elements that bother you. Beauty dwells in authentic truth, not corporate gloss. Let yourself love something for the ways in which it is not so pretty; there’s wisdom in it.

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