Wrestling makes fools of those who watch it

Theatrics: What was once a fairly tame subculture of American sport has become a mainstream cesspool of violence and sexuality.

July 04, 1999|By Ken Garfield

SOME OF MY sweetest childhood memories come from the nights my grandfather pulled his rocking chair close to the TV to watch professional wrestling.

A mild-mannered furrier who never really enjoyed his job, he found in the wrestlers' exotic nicknames and goofy showboating a certain drama that his working life lacked. I can see him now, leaning forward in his chair, laughing and cheering over the harmless silliness that lighted up our small den 40 years ago. About the naughtiest thing we saw was a poke in the eye.

My grandfather wouldn't be laughing if he was still with us. And he surely wouldn't have let me sit there and get a gander at where his great escape has gone.

He would have shooed me out of the den before I could see Stone Cold Steve Austin parading around in his "Austin 3:16" T-shirt, guzzling beer and giving the finger left and right. Or Badd Ass Billy Gunn pulling down his shorts and mooning the crowd. My grandfather would have cringed at the sight of half-naked women parading around the ring, including the group that accompanies the Godfather to his matches. He's supposed to be a pimp; they're supposed to be his prostitutes.

He would have winced at the Undertaker, a Gothic character dressed in black who once "crucified" the populist Austin on a cross of wood. Austin's supposed to be a beloved Everyman because he curses his boss.

He would have shaken his head at all this as he wondered: Could the bar of decency be lowered any further?

The answer is yes.

On a recent night of matches in Kansas City, Mo., a wrestler fell 70 feet to his death. Owen Hart, in the role of the Blue Blazer, was supposed to swoop down into the ring on a cable. But he fell, broke his neck and died in front of thousands who were waiting for the show to start.

At first, the crowd thought the Blue Blazer's death was a hoax, a clever part of the theatrics that they've come to expect. Then, when it became clear that yes, this 34-year-old father of two young children had died right before their eyes, the fans stayed in their seats, because the World Wrestling Federation decided that the show had to go on.

As soon as Hart was taken from the ring on a stretcher, the matches began, and the people went back to cheering the heroes and booing the villains.

I'm not saying that wrestling signals the end of civilization, or that wrestlers who curse and pull down their shorts are a threat to the national safety. Drugs, alcohol and guns are a lot more deadly than Stone Cold Steve Austin smashing a beer can against his bald skull.

But it's not just Austin and the profane theatrics of his peers that worry me. It's the fact that 35 million people watch this stuff each week on TV or in person.

What used to be a subculture hidden away in small-town gyms and on late-night local TV stations is part of today's entertainment mainstream.

Check out the wrestling action figures in your local toy store; count the number of magazine covers on which Stone Cold has appeared.

Some 20 million people follow the World Wrestling Federation, the Connecticut-based company that brings us the Undertaker, the Godfather and the rest of a troupe cut from the same seamy cloth.

WWF spokesman Jay Andronaco says those who attend WWF shows get a well-deserved night off from the grim truth of life.

"It's a way for people to escape reality for a little bit," Andronaco said. "It's just a show."

Anyway, Andronaco added, what's the big worry?

Only 30 percent of the WWF audience is under age 17, the company puts warning labels for language and violence on the most risque shows, and it's not the WWF's job to monitor what your kids watch on TV.

It's your job, Andronaco said.

Others worry that professional wrestling is far more than just an innocent escape.

Focus on the Family wrote in its Christian magazine for teens and parents that professional wrestling is the equivalent of a moral shot of Novocain. It numbs us to real-life violence and smut.

"Years from now," the ministry wrote, "when a man degrades a woman or bystanders turn a blind and desensitized eye to public brutality, no one will point a finger at the Undertaker ... or Stone Cold Steve Austin. But maybe they should."

The Rev. Lee Davis, who works with youths at Stough Memorial Baptist Church in Pineville, N.C., sees the kids who buy "Austin 3:16" T-shirts and fork over $30 for a pay-per-view wrestling show. He calls it blasphemy that can lure an impressionable youth down a road that leads away from home and church.

"The appeal of it is that it's different, it's radical, it's on the edge," Davis said.

"The danger of it is that it becomes part of their hearts, their minds, eventually their way of living," Davis added.

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