Doctor's Orders: Lack of African American Top Stars in WWE - A Problem or An Observation?
By The Doc
May 13, 2014 - 11:05:38 PM
To order “The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment,” click here
The Snowman is a genius
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Why do you think that WWE has never fully committed to a black wrestler as a top star?
Do you ever think about race anymore?
It was in the wake of the Donald Sterling fiasco that I found myself reevaluating the way that I viewed racial tension in the United States for the first time in quite awhile. For those abroad who may be unfamiliar with the proceedings, Sterling is an older white male who owns the National Basketball Association's Los Angeles Clippers. Two weeks ago, some of his less than flattering views on the world were captured on tape by his mistress. Despite past accolades heaped upon him by civil rights organizations, the tape made it clear that his feelings on race have not become the wiser as he has aged. Subsequently, he has been banned from the NBA for life and will be forced (via a special clause) to sell his franchise.
Like many topics, I do not find the issue of race to be - pardon the pun - a black and white problem. There are numerous shades of gray in all areas of complexity. Undoubtedly, racism still exists. People of all colors and creeds insist on keeping their heads stuck thirty years in the past, counteracting the advancement of modern race relations. Personally, I have reached a point in my life where, by and large, I have simply stopped thinking about ethnic differences. I own and operate a private health clinic where we see just about every ethnicity that there is in the USA. I have patients that were raised in all parts of the world. Though I grew up in the southern US, which has been historically known for racism, I managed to tear away from its ignorant shackles. Same goes for caring about sexual orientation. When your best friend in high school comes out of the closet, it - much like being surrounded by people with various backgrounds - changes your perspective on things. It is a person like Sterling that makes you realize that there are probably a lot of closet bigots. How far reaching is this issue today?
As has often been the case since I began writing subjective columns for LOP, issues in the real world ultimately see me finding wrestling parallels. One of the interviews that I read with Clippers guard, JJ Redick, was what truly prompted this moment of social commentary on LOP. His thoughts on his team owner’s prejudice really stood out to me. He’s a white player in what has become a league 80% dominated by black players. Surrounded by people of different cultures he, much like me, seemed to tuck racial inequality in modern society to the farther reaches of his mind. If you don’t encounter it, it almost makes it feel like it’s not even there anymore. And then something like Sterling’s private-turned-public tirade happens and brings it back to the forefront as a reminder that we’ve still, collectively, got a ways to go. So, I ask you, do you ever wonder, “How in the world does a company like World Wrestling Entertainment with such a global scope manage to find so few black athletes to push to the top?” It sticks out like a sore thumb if you take the time to evaluate the landscape. There have been quite a few African American wrestlers in WWE, but none of them have ever reached a level of consistency in the main-event that has come to be associated with the all-time greatest in sports entertainment.
An exploration of the facts yields eye-opening results. Though numerous black stars occupy spots in the Hall of Fame, how many of them would rank in the top half of the talents from their era? It has been over thirty years since the WWE became what we know it to be – the national turned international wrestling promotion without a rival in the rest of the world much like the NFL for American football or the NBA for basketball. During the WrestleMania Era, can you immediately figure out which of the black stars, when ranked against all of his peers as I did in my book, was the only African American to crack the objectively subjective top 50? It was Booker T; and even his sparkling record of championships and other accolades make him little more than a “case to be made” for inclusion amongst the thirty separated from the pack as “truly elite” in modern pro wrestling lore.
Do not mistake this to be in any way, shape, or form a written microscope clicked to the next highest power to probe the WWE for racism. Vince McMahon has created a culturally diverse sport and entertainment conglomerate. To their credit, the WWE’s version of wrestling is as much a melting pot as any other professional athletic endeavor. The American-based company well represents the USA in that respect. Here in the States, the two biggest minority groups are Latinos and African Americans. Merely a few percentage points separate them in the census data, but there is a striking difference between the groups in WWE. Latinos have come to the USA in record numbers over the last few decades and WWE has adapted to accommodate the growing market that they have provided. Black people have been a steady constant in the American minority percentage for a long time. Yet, fewer efforts have been made to capitalize on the market that they offer.
The three top events in the WWE each year are WrestleMania, Summerslam, and The Royal Rumble. Excluding the likes of Mr. T, Zeus (Tony Lister from No Holds Barred), Lawrence Taylor, and Floyd “Money” Mayweather – all of whom achieved fame outside of wrestling and were brought in to give the WWE mainstream exposure - black wrestlers have a staggeringly poor track record in achieving the highest levels of success possible in the world’s preeminent pro wrestling company. Not a single African American has ever won The Royal Rumble. Other ethnic groups have produced Rumble winners, with two Latinos (Rey Mysterio and Alberto Del Rio) and one Samoan (Yokozuna). The Summerslam main-event has only twice featured a black roster member (King Mabel in 1995 and Booker T in 2001) in its twenty-six year history, but there has been a twelve year drought. If we extend the data at WrestleMania to account for inclusion in any of the top three matches, then black wrestlers (non-celebrities) have been involved in just four headliners in thirty “Showcases of Immortals” (with zero main-events). Ron Simmons (aka Farooq) and Ahmed Johnson were featured in the Chicago Street Fight at WrestleMania 13, D-Von Dudley was 1/6th of the Triangle Ladder match at Mania 2000, Booker T unsuccessfully challenged Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XIX (the highest honor of the group), and Bobby Lashley contributed to the mishmash of personalities in the WrestleMania 23 Battle of the Billionaires. Since WrestleMania XX, just one black wrestler has headlined a WrestleMania as compared to three Latinos (Mysterio, Del Rio, and Eddie Guerrero). What gives? The census data gives no further clues. Surely the 4% difference in employment and income do not make a big enough difference. In fact, the only noticeable trend that would attract WWE to target the Latino rather than African American demographic is lucha libre history in Mexico.
Is there racism in WWE hiding behind the guise of cultural diversity? Could that help explain the lack of success for African Americans? The WWE is a publicly traded company for which I am a stockholder, but the decisions about WWE run through a limited number of individuals. Sterling’s fall from grace has reminded the world that people can act in one way publicly, but privately in another. Since the WWE is a reflection of the views held by a few, is it possible that some of the storylines that the WWE has used over the years depicting minorities in certain ways were a microcosm of secret prejudices? It could be construed that way. They were surely trying to push buttons with moments such as Triple H insinuating that "someone like" Booker T as World Champion was laughable and debuting two black wrestlers as Cryme Tyme, a pair of stereotypical urban street punks that stole from people. Each instance skirted the line of what is socially acceptable for a TV program. "Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve" Napoleon Hill once wrote. How much of these “made for television” moments were rooted in the true feelings of the people booking them is something we just don't know. Numerous reports of racism in WWE have surfaced over the years, most notably Bobby Lashley's problems with Michael Hayes that prompted the promising star's WWE departure in 2008. Very little of it has ever been confirmed, though. Was that a legitimate example of racism or a better example of a young man in unfamiliar territory unable to deal with the rigors of the wrestling lifestyle? Such things are outside the scope of this writer’s reach.
The issue of race in the current social climate mainly comes from two different groups of people: those over the age of 45 (folks that did not go to school with people that did not look like them) and the (not just academically) uneducated. Older people grew up with a much stronger degree of racism than my generation or the ones that have followed it. Uneducated people are more prone to discrimination, according to many a study over the last decade. Putting it bluntly, the older and/or dumber you are, the more likely you are to have a problem with someone else because of their differences. Vince McMahon is 68 years old and his creative decisions often come under fire, but there are not many people on the planet as well traveled and as experienced in business. He is a smart man. Stubborn and egomaniacal, he may be. I do not believe him to be a racist. Personally, that does not make sense to me. It is a stance worth exploring, but the argument doesn’t hold water.
So, what is it then? When 25% of the American WWE fanbase is black, but none of the top stars are black, it makes you wonder what the problem is. Black fans are the #1 minority viewership group, outnumbering Latinos by 15%. Could it be something as simple as the WWE being happy with a consistent stream of African American fans despite never pushing a black star to the top of the card? It’s not as if wrestling suffers from the same problem that Major League Baseball does – a lack of black players equating to a lack of black fans. Perhaps the WWE feels that they do not need to cater to them and instead concentrate on growing the Latino market to increase viewership from that demographic. At the end of the day, it appears to be less of a concern and more just a surprising observation.
African American fans are a big sports market, particularly for leagues in which they are well represented. In addition to the overwhelming majority of pro basketball players being black, two-thirds of NFL players are black. I studied a series of polls conducted by cities throughout the United States to determine the allegiances that their area sports fans felt toward the home teams. Of the African Americans polled, upwards of 70% had a strong rooting interest in the NFL and/or NBA teams in their city. Hockey, soccer, and baseball do not feature nearly as many black players and, subsequently, not nearly as many black fans associate with the city’s teams in those sports. ESPN did a poll a few years ago evaluating the amount of time that sports fans dedicated to watching sports on TV. African Americans were the most diehard viewers of the thousands polled. The results for the same poll suggested that there were more casual fans of the Caucasian ethnicity. So, why not put more effort into attracting an African American market that has collectively proven to be a group that will heavily invest in your product if you give them a reason?
My jaw dropped when I looked back at my book and realized that, of the ninety wrestlers that I ranked as the greatest of the WrestleMania Era, just four of them were African American (Shelton Benjamin, D-Von Dudley, Ron Simmons, and Booker T). So, clearly, they are not well represented in professional wrestling; at least not at the top where the strongest emotional connections are made between wrestlers and fans. There are presently ten African American wrestlers on the WWE roster and the biggest star of the lot is probably Mark Henry, whose main-event presence has been minimal and sporadic. Alberto Del Rio is the top Latino of the last few years and he has accomplished more since his late 2010 debut than Mark Henry has in nearly two decades. The most famous African American guy associated with WWE after WrestleMania XXX was this man...
...And that needs to change.
The two most popular sports in WWE’s home country are basketball and football. Considering the majority of the professionals in those sports are African Americans, it would be safe to assume that black males are the best athletes in the USA. How can Booker T be the most successful black wrestler in the last thirty years? There are 9,000 total college football players. Over half of them are African Americans. Less than 3% of them make it to the NFL. There are roughly 5,000 total college basketball players. Over half of them are African Americans, too. Less than 1% of them make it to the NBA. The time has come for the WWE to spend more time cultivating prospects from the most athletic talent pool in the world.
Join Super Chrisss Wednesday at 5PM on “The Doc and Super Chrisss Show” for the Win/Fail of the Week from Monday Night Raw and a look at Daniel Bryan’s injury and the potential ramifications.
New Wrestling Internet Radio with LordsofPain