WWE Bullying: ESPN should end coverage of pro wrestling

Credit: Ethan Miller

Credit: Ethan Miller

The reason ESPN should never been in business with World Wrestling Entertainment was made abundantly clear when the company decided to finally acknowledge the scandal involving the disappearance of WWE lead announcer Mauro Ranallo from TV on its website Thursday – a month late.

Instead of a story on its WWE section on its website or a mention on SportsCenter, they let a vitriolic podcaster who is also a paid WWE employee target the company’s critics on ESPN’s own website with no rebuttal or response, and worse, no actual reporting.

Pete Rosenberg hosts ESPN’s Cheap Heat podcast on its WWE page, and hosts a show on WWE’s streaming service with frequent guest John Layfield, the central figure in the Ranallo controversy. It was Rosenberg’s show where Layfield tore into Ranallo for acknowledging a Wrestling Observer award he won, among the many times he ripped Ranallo. So to this point of the scandal, ESPN’s only serious acknowledgment of the incident is by someone with no credibility and plenty of conflict of interest because he works for the company they allegedly cover.

It was difficult to imagine a worse response than the one given by ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jonathan Coachman, who tried to kill the story as rumor on Twitter last week before he was put in a figure-four leg lock by angry wrestling fans.

The only other ESPN acknowledgement was mentioned during a Q and A with former ring announcer Justin Roberts, whose new book “Best Seat in the House” brought to light bullying allegations against Layfield in 2003. When Roberts mentioned the Ranallo situation in the Q and A, the ESPN interviewer asked one follow-up question on the matter and went to a different topic.

Roberts was later targeted on ESPN’s podcast by Rosenberg for having an agenda and trying to sell books, while reporter Dave Meltzer – who brought the story to light on his website WrestlingObserver.com – was said to be upset over a bruise to his ego and on a witch hunt, which couldn’t be more ridiculous for anyone that has followed Meltzer’s reporting.

So after a week of scandal where one of its anchors became a trending item for all the wrong reasons, ESPN’s best response wasn’t actual reporting but to have a WWE employee accuse the reporter who has covered the company for 40 years of being on a witch hunt, and for an author who worked there over a decade of having an agenda.

If Roberts was trying to make noise to sell his book by making accusations toward Layfield, he's late to the game. Stories about Layfield and management's use of him as a locker room enforcer go back 20 years. Brandon Howard of Fightful.com did excellent work digging up quotes from 16 different WWE employees who had similar experiences – including Layfield, who admits to hazing wrestlers and enjoying it. The quotes came from articles, interviews, autobiographies and some books published by WWE itself.

If this is the best ESPN can do, it shouldn’t cover pro wrestling. Let Meltzer, who started covering wrestling when it was one of the most secretive industries in the world in the early 1970s, do the reporting or Mike Johnson and his colleagues  at PWInsider, or Jason Powell of Prowrestling.net. Their opinions on the subject may vary, but they have sources and they treat it like a job.

For someone who began his journalism career covering the sport, the ESPN reaction is a punch to the gut. Wrestlers died by the dozens through the 1990s and into the 2000s with little to no press coverage until the Chris Benoit double-murder and suicide finally brought light from mainstream media. The McMahons made some changes to its company “wellness” policies, some of which wrestlers criticized as selective depending on who you are on the company pecking order among other issues. Others felt the wellness policies, which monitors for concussions and includes drug tests, was window dressing while others felt it was a big step in the right direction.

Credit: Alex Goodlett

Credit: Alex Goodlett

ESPN is trying to tap into a base of fans where there is little mainstream coverage and get clicks on the cheap. WWE and ESPN have some sort of deal in place as well, so rocking the boat with them isn’t something ESPN wants to do as it loses cable subscribers by the millions every year.

It may report injuries, get interviews or update on contracts, but ESPN today isn’t just making no difference, it’s hurting the situation with its own involvement while having no skeptical reporting. By not acknowledging the story but attacking those who have, it’s a pox on a company that has revolutionized sports coverage and journalism on television, and in many cases, is the one sports outlet that matters when it comes to news.

The Worldwide Leader should take a walk, and leave reporting to pros, like the reporters mentioned above. If you want real commentary, and not Rosenberg’s screeching YouTube-ish “leave JBL and WWE alone” rant, try Bruce Mitchell at PWTorch.com, who brings education, insight and wit - and not a pay stub.

In the big picture, how ESPN covers WWE means almost nothing. Wrestling was always in the carnival corner of the sports world, and while its fans are more intense and involved than ever, the sport has fewer fans than ever.

At the same time, ESPN’s mistakes take the light off a business that only recently came out of the shadows. If this is the best the network can do, it should shut down its WWE section and do nothing.

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