I spent 2019 conducting ethnographic fieldwork in and around professional wrestling as part of my project into concussion in contact sport. Wrestling is an unusual beast that sits somewhere in between sport and theatre – the impacts and toll on the body are very real, but the performances are choreographed and the outcomes predetermined – and was of particular interest to me because it is almost entirely unregulated: there are no qualifications needed to become a wrestler, a coach, or a promoter and very few requirements – in terms of medical cover, for example – need to be met by organizations before they start training wrestlers or putting on shows. Despite knowing very little about wrestling when I began fieldwork I, more or less inevitably, grew to like this community: From my experience it was filled with nice people, brought together by their love of this slightly odd, generally disdained, physical activity. The head coach at my fieldwork site closely policed the occasional moments of sexism or racism and I generally agreed with one participant’s description of wrestling as being ‘weirdly inclusive’.
All of which makes what has happened in the last few days so heart-breaking. Last week (w/c 15th of June 2020) the hashtag #SpeakingOut began to trend on Twitter. Much like the larger #MeToo movement, #SpeakingOut consisted of (overwhelmingly) female wrestlers revealing the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse they had suffered at the hands of men (overwhelmingly) in the wrestling community. Discussion centred on the British wrestling scene (often referred to as ‘BritWres’) although individuals based in rest of Europe and North American were also named. Similarly, those accused traversed the heights of the wrestling ladder: from those with administrative positions at the top of large organizations; to wrestlers signed to the upper ranks of the WWE; to performers who would not have been known outside of small, local scenes. Probably the most frequent story was the experienced coach taking advantage of the new trainee. In response coaches and promoters around the world have been sacked, while named wrestlers are being told they won’t work again. One of the few British wrestlers to have a job in the WWE, the biggest wrestling company in the world, has lost their job following allegations of sexual assault. Another working at AEW (the second biggest US company) has ‘gone to rehab’ after allegations of physical assault.
The spaces where I undertook my fieldwork are a long way from the centre of this story. Nonetheless, #ComingOut is close: at least two women I interviewed as part of my project have come forward publicly as victims of abuse; at least one man that I interviewed has been publicly accused of abuse while a further, what, ten (?) who I’ve seen wrestle locally have likewise been named; an attendee at the school where I undertook my fieldwork has accused a second attendee of abusing them (not, I should add, at the school); one interviewee, who had a really great job in the industry, seems to have quit after learning of the behaviour of life-long friends and the frankly unacceptable response of various organizations.
The story has left me shaken, probably for much the same reason as that interviewee who quit their job: How could I not see that? How could I buy that story of ‘weird inclusivity’ when this was going on all the while? It will take a bit of processing and thinking about but, at first blush, there are two things about #ComingOut which are at the front of my mind:
First, one of the wrestlers accused of assault (which they have denied, whilst accepting that they have behaved appallingly) was at the fore of an attempt to unionize wrestling. That effort at unionization is complicated, and many don’t take it at face value, but, for present purposes, I want to assume that this was a legitimate attempt to improve the employment conditions of wrestlers. That effort to unionize has been completely undermined by the inability to think — or at least act — intersectionally. Without a public face, I find it hard to see any future for that unionization effort and attempts to improve labour relations in pro wrestling will need to begin all over. It is a clear demonstration – as if another were needed – that traditional ‘class politics’ and new left ‘identity politics’ resolutely do not stand in opposition to one another. In this instance the possibility of working-class emancipation has been killed stone dead by straightforward misogyny. Former CIGS member Dr Rosey Hill has introduced me to the work of Dr Julia Downes on this matter, and I would recommend reading their excellent work.
Second, one of the most common stories on the #SpeakingOut page comes from older wrestlers who are not (currently) implicated in the story. That story goes something like this: ‘When I started wrestling I was a stupid kid and I did stupid things but now I’ve grown as a person and I have a stable relationship and 2.4 children and a labradoodle and I support #SpeakingOut’. Very little has made me angrier in the past few days than this narrative. If your growth and arrival as a fully functioning adult is facilitated by – indeed, predicated upon – the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of whatever kind in your teens and early twenties then, frankly, you can keep your growth. It is an unacceptable path to take in order to reach your destination.
Even as an outsider, the past few days have been harrowing. I would hope that BritWres uses this as an opportunity to sort itself out. We’ll see if that possibility is realised.