The Cost of Doing Business

The flames thrown at Linda McMahon's failed campaign came from a lot of places, including fans of the sport she helped build
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There are times when a mere inflection is enough to make you curl in shame. Rachel Maddow, election night, in the process of gleefully detailing an absolutely brutal series of Republican losses, brought her best "I am amazed and delighted at how stupid this is" delivery to the phrase "professional wrestling." She was talking about Linda McMahon, the longtime WWE executive and wife of malevolent company figurehead Vince. After spending about $100 million of her family's fortune, McMahon had just suffered her second straight crushing loss in a Connecticut Senate race. And in describing her as a "former professional wrestling magnate," Maddow brought all the quizzical giddiness you'd imagine, half-smiling and adding a questioning uptick to the end of the sentence. As in: "Can this teleprompter be right? Did these fucking guys really run the wrestling lady as a legitimate senatorial candidate again?" I laughed, of course, but the wrestling fan in me was dying of embarrassment at the same time.

Election night was rich in schadenfreude, of course -- about a hundred different flavors of the stuff. But one particularly rich taste of it came during McMahon's concession speech when, right at the outset, she trotted out her entire extended family, all of them entering to U2's "Beautiful Day" for some reason, all looming awkwardly behind her. There was Vince, momentarily shelving his cartoonish psycho-CEO strut, his rubbery ochre visage somehow fading into the mass of humanity behind her. Daughter and frequent campaign surrogate Stephanie, flashing the steely gaze familiar from way too many episodes of Monday Night Raw. Son Shane, off TV for way too long, doughy as ever but prematurely grayed, possibly from all the nightmares that Kurt Angle would attempt to suplex him through glass again. Best of all: Son-in-law Paul Levesque, known to you and me as Triple H, his sinewy bulk awkwardly shoehorned into a conservative business suit, his blonde ponytail gleaming, looking for all the world like the Teutonic henchman with the machine gun from Die Hard.

There they were: This family of world-famous media-conquerors, humbled and defeated, doing their best to look noble and resolute in the face of a costly and humilating loss -- but trying even harder to look like conservative-establishment business bulwarks ("job creators," in their parlance) rather than the family of appallingly rich carny hucksters they really are. Time to play the game, as they say.

The moment wasn't exactly a proud one for wrestling fans. But then, wrestling fans know better than most that Linda McMahon is not exactly the person you want making decisions about the fiscal cliff. During the election, McMahon went to great pains to depict herself as a socially moderate Republican, but she was all in on the Romneyan back-to-nature economic autocracy stuff. But then there's the matter of her complete lack of charisma. During the campaign, as in her WWE-personality past, McMahon always brandished a concrete-faced countenance that made Romney himself look like Ernest P. Worrell.

Those of us who love wrestling found things to like about all the other McMahons. Vince, of course, moved the spectacle past its smoky-armory beginnings forever, and his ego-mad boss character is among the most iconic that his company has produced. Shane, all loudmouth fratboy nervous energy, was willing to throw his body from buildings (literally) to keep his family's audience happy. Even Stephanie, usually a noxious presence, got to be a part of the ridiculously fun Kurt Angle/Triple H love triangle storyline of summer 2000. But other than the split second where she was kicking her husband in the dick at Wrestlemania X-7, Linda has emitted waves of boredom every time she's appeared on WWE TV. It's confounding that this family, so adept at recognizing charisma in their employees, would look at Linda and see a potential national-stage leader.

But then there's the matter of that $100 million. Linda McMahon threw away the entire budget of Terminator 2 on two Senate races that, if she's the tiniest bit realistic (and I don't know if she is), she had to know were going to fail. She had that money to spend. I would never begrudge the WWE the Scrooge McDuck money-banks it's earned; I've gotten too much enjoyment out of the company for that. But we're still talking about a publicly-traded company whose founders became unspeakably rich, largely because of the gigantic steroidal men who theatrically beat each other into infirmity and who aren't necessarily seeing any money for their troubles now.

The WWE classifies its wrestlers as independent contractors, which means they don't have to pay retirement, Social Security, unemployment insurance. Those wrestlers have to pay state taxes in every state where they wrestle, dealing with the paperwork nightmares that come of it. The company has left behind a long trail of broken or dead bodies. The company has a scary history with steroids, and another one with concussions. Christopher Nowinski, the leading crusader for sports-concussion awareness, is a former WWE wrestler whose character was "Harvard snob." Owen Hart fell to his death from a cable suspended above a WWE ring. Chris Benoit killed his wife and son and then himself, possibly after making too many diving headbutts into WWE rings. McMahon's company has some shady, shady moments in its history -- moments that don't exactly scream that the people in charge should run for high office.

The wrestlers are, of course, complicit in their economic fates, and lately the company has made some serious strides toward taking care of its fake-combat veterans. Lately, they've been helping former employees like Scott Hall out with rehab, when they need it. And if color commentator Jerry Lawler hadn't been at a WWE show, with a crack paramedic staff on hand, he might've died after suffering a heart attack during Raw in September. But those recent moments of basic human decency don't erase decades of mercenary profit-motivated decision-making in the McMahon family's past. And even if I winced internally, McMahon still deserves all the bemused ire in Rachel Maddow's voice.


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