It's Well Past Time for WWE to Deal With its Bullying Problem

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It's Well Past Time for WWE to Deal With its Bullying Problem

Mauro Ranallo hasn’t been on WWE television in four weeks. That includes three episodes of its weekly Tuesday night show SmackDown Live, three episodes of its cruiserweight-focused show 205 Live, and the entirety of WrestleMania 33, the company’s biggest event of the year. One of the best announcers in the business, Ranallo adds some much-needed expertise and occasional levity to any broadcast team.

When Ranallo was absent on that first night, March 14, the company blamed the weather: There had just been a massive snow storm in the Northeast, and it was at least believable that travel would be delayed. Then he was gone the next week, and the next.

In reality, Ranallo suffers from bipolar disorder, and was having mental health issues. Normally active on social media, Ranallo went Twitter-silent, leaving fans to speculate that there was something else going on.

There was: According to reporting by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer, Ranallo was the target of perpetual bully John Layfield, known in the wrestling industry as JBL. JBL had allegedly taken umbrage with Ranallo tweeting about his spot in an Observer poll naming him the best announcer in pro wrestling—an honor Ranallo took pride in—and targeted him for harassment. Ranallo’s friend and colleague Bas Rutten seemed to confirm this story on Twitter, and CBS Sports reported this weekend that Ranallo would not be on WWE television for the remainder of his contract.

To label this an absurdity would be an understatement: That a professional broadcaster tweeted “thanks” to fans and readers of a wrestling publication for receiving an award is about as normal as normal can be. Actors do it, athletes do it, even people in other pro wrestling companies do it. But in the strange carny world of WWE, this was apparently a major faux pas, and JBL was the muscle who would keep Mauro Ranallo in check.

“If this was any company in the real world, JBL would be gone, but it’s not,” Meltzer later said on his radio show. “That behavior is not discouraged there.”

This can no longer be the case. In the company’s role as anti-bullying advocate with its “Be A STAR” initiative, and in its role as an employer whose job it is to keep its employees safe, there can only be one response: WWE must fire JBL.

(Neither WWE nor its Be a STAR partners provided a comment for this story.)

This is not to say that the problem starts and stops with JBL: Those attitudes aren’t created in a vacuum, and in his new book Best Seat in the House, former WWE ring announcer Justin Roberts makes clear that this is an institutional problem.

In an interview with Paste Wrestling, Roberts said he thought he was getting his dream job when he first started working for WWE in 2002. But he would eventually come to see it as a toxic work environment, one he had hoped would improve if he just toughed it out long enough. Justin was let go from the company in 2014, and over that span, he said he endured regular harassment.

“It was extremely challenging, mentally,” Roberts told Paste. “I had worked for so long to get into that spot and it was all I wanted. There was nothing enjoyable at the time though, due to the hell I was going through. I could only hope that it would get better over time and didn’t want to lose my chance by giving up.”

In his book, he details one now-infamous incident in which the company was traveling overseas, and his passport was stolen, leaving him unable to travel home. In a Deadspin article, former WWE wrestler John Hennigan—now known as Lucha Underground’s Johnny Mundo—confirmed that JBL asked him and his partner Joey Mercury to steal Roberts’ passport. (The two men declined, though Hennigan said they felt enormous pressure to go along with it.) Later, after a production meeting, McMahon made light of the “rib” on the announcer.

“I learned early on that reporting the behavior would not help,” Roberts told Paste. “Management was well aware of the issues and could have easily taken care of them, as they took care of anything else that they didn’t want. It wasn’t a matter of them not wanting this, they encouraged this type of behavior, which is why it continued to happen.”

There were other instances in which JBL would get drunk and berate Roberts in front of groups of people out in public, on buses—even at the airport. And these types of incidents are apparently not uncommon: Since going public with these claims, Roberts says he’s gotten support from people within the company, as well as some people no longer with WWE, who went through similar situations.

But few people are willing to go public, in part because WWE is the only game in town, Roberts said. If a WWE wrestler speaks up and upset the front office, where does he or she go from there? Even some former talents who want to one day return to the “big leagues” of WWE might not want to speak up, for fear they won’t be asked to return.

Despite his run-ins with JBL, he says he doesn’t want the former wrestler fired. That bullying culture starts above JBL, and firing him would be an easy way out for the company, he said.

“They have a history of letting guys go to take the heat off the company, which makes it look like they’re taking the appropriate action,” Roberts said. “I just wanted to tell my story in the book so people know what I went through and what others went through, or maybe continue to go through. I don’t want anyone to get fired, I want to help make it a better place for the people who are there now and will be there in the future.”

Roberts’ stance is an admirable one. But while JBL may not be the only problem, he certainly seems to be a main offender. It would be bad enough if Ranallo and Roberts were the only reported instances of harassment, but there’s a long track record of alleged abuse, which, after more than a decade, adds up to enough smoke for a five-alarm fire. There was the time JBL beat up the Blue Meanie on live television for some perceived slight, apparently stemming from a deposition in a lawsuit involving former referee Billy Silverman (a man who quit the company because of alleged harassment from JBL and others.) In another incident, a reportedly intoxicated JBL allegedly bullied Joey Styles so viciously on an overseas trip that Styles was forced to fight back. Former WWE wrestler Ivory relayed a story about Layfield hurting a contracted independent talent at a live show, angering some workers backstage. Former WWE wrestler Rene Dupree said in one interview that JBL called him “a French fa**ot” at work every day. And on and on. Googling these stories brings up similar alleged behavior toward Matt Hardy, Edge and Mark Henry. There’s even an interview with JBL making “no apologies whatsoever” for hazing wrestlers, in order to weed out people who were “too soft” for the business. “The hell with them,” he says.

“Soft” is an interesting term. Would he call 6-foot-5-inch Jonathan Martin “too soft?” Probably not to his face. But Martin, a former NFL offensive tackle, faced similar harassment in 2013 from his teammates on the Miami Dolphins, in a string of incidents that brought the problem of bullying in professional sports to light. The NFL suspended Martin’s primary harasser, Richie Incognito, for the remainder of that season. With a clear pattern of harassment going back more than a decade, people like JBL have no place in a WWE locker room. The company has to change its toxic culture of harassment if it’s going to be taken seriously as a bullying advocate. Firing JBL would be a good first step.

Paul DeBenedetto is Paste’s assistant wrestling editor.

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