Two days before the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R., issued a memorandum that allowed WWE to be considered essential to state business despite a stay-at-home order amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the board of commissioners in Orange County, Florida — where the WWE’s training center is located, and where it has started to tape shows without live audiences — received a written complaint.

“My employer, World Wrestling Entertainment a.k.a. WWE, is forcing me to work the TV tapings for its weekly shows despite ‘stay at home’ orders for coronavirus,” the man, who identified himself as John, stated in his note dated April 7, which was read April 21, at the commissioners’ biweekly meeting. “I am unable to speak out as I need this job and I know I will be fired if I approach my higher-ups. Despite sanitary precautions, we cannot maintain social distancing and have to touch other people. I request the government to shut down these tapings and enforce the ‘stay at home’ orders so my colleagues and I may follow social distancing rules without fear, or repercussion of losing our jobs.”

The pro wrestling league denied the accusation.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings referred questions about the grievance to the governor’s office.

The governor’s office directed me to a memo underscoring that the governor’s ruling on essential businesses didn’t specifically name WWE.

The governor’s office did not, however, answer whether the state was investigating the charge, even amid reporting by local media that other red flags flapped over WWE’s facility concerning its work protocols during the pandemic. A WWE employee tested positive for the coronavirus in March after a Florida event.

But WWE is kayfabe, as the industry calls it, scripted competitions, outcomes and rivalries. It’s fake sport. So we don’t take it seriously. Not when it was struck in the first decade of the 2000s with a rash of suicides and drug overdoses. Not when it suffered the same charges and evidence of steroid abuse that was proving as damaging to its athletes as those in baseball and football. And not now, when it should be taken seriously, like every other pro league that is sidelined during the virus’s spread.

So the only continuously running American sports event in our pandemic economy played again on TV last week. Just sans fans in the stands.

It was reported that WWE CEO Vince McMahon couldn’t afford to have broadcast partners Fox and NBC Universal cancel the WWE contracts if WWE couldn’t deliver programming. After all, in mid-March, his latest experimental pro football league, the rebooted XFL, suspended its inaugural season as the coronavirus rapidly toppled sporting events and cost McMahon millions.

But on April 9, his wife, Linda, who last year stepped down as administrator for President Trump’s Small Business Administration to chair a political action committee called America First Action, announced an $18.5 million advertising campaign in Orlando and Tampa for pro-Trump campaigning from Labor Day through the election. At the same time, DeSantis, a Trump loyalist, issued a memo from his office that made additions to businesses considered essential services. It included, “employees at a professional sports and media production with a national audience — including any athletes, entertainers, production team, executive team, media team and any others necessary to facilitate including services supporting such production — only if the location is closed to the general public.” Or, WWE. McMahon wouldn’t have to shutter his wrestling enterprise. He later shut down the XFL for good instead.

And the next week, McMahon tightened WWE’s belt by tearing up the contracts of some performers and furloughing a bunch of workers just as he was getting hit by a lawsuit from former XFL commissioner Oliver Luck demanding his multimillion-dollar pay.

It was a bouillabaisse of sports and politics that those on the right who turn up their noses at such a recipe have yet to spit out. The McMahons have long had connections with Trump. They provided the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which was dissolved under allegations of misuse for personal and political benefit, with millions between 2007 and 2009. And they purchased the most expensive condo in a Trump-owned Stamford, Conn., property. Years ago, Vince McMahon even inducted Trump, who often played the perfect heel in wrestling events, into the WWE Hall of Fame. Their relationship was sealed in the “Battle of the Billionaires,” in which Trump celebrated victory by shaving McMahon’s head.

So against that backdrop, it was no surprise that the WWE continued to pump out programming, pandemic be damned. It was as if DeSantis was returning a favor to McMahon on Trump’s behalf. Quid pro quo, I’ve heard such an action called.

The wrestlers didn’t have a say in the work order. They never do. They don’t have a union like other pro athletes.

Jesse Ventura, who starred as The Body in wrestling in the ’70s and ’80s before being elected governor of Minnesota, lamented unsuccessful efforts to organize his fellow grapplers on Steve Austin’s podcast a few years ago.

“Vince is lucky I didn’t go for the Senate,” Ventura told Austin, “because had I’d gone into the Senate I would have started a senatorial investigation as to why pro wrestlers are called ‘independent contractors’ when they’re not. You work for one company. They order you around, control your whole life.”

The continued failures meant wrestlers’ health, well-being and livelihood is up to them. One star, Roman Reigns, sidelined himself from WrestleMania, which is sort of like WWE’s Super Bowl, because he is immunocompromised.

It has worked out well for McMahon, of course. Last week he revealed to investors that the first quarter for the publicly traded company produced boffo profits and maintained a record-revenue pace over a year ago.

“As far as test is concerned, we do everything imaginable,” McMahon assured Thursday on an earnings conference call. “You can’t even come on the premises, and in fact, (if) you have a fever . . . we have this whole form you have to fill out and you have to do it every week in terms of whether or not you’ve been exposed.

“So we’re doing everything we can for safety and making sure the environment is as good as it possibly can be. Not only monitoring our talent, but our employees as well. We’re very careful as to how many people are in and out (of the training facility at) one time. We’re performing in small groups.

“We have changed the turnbuckles and ropes and all that kind of stuff between matches. We sort of have a pandemic cleaning initiative, cleaning I would say on a very frequent basis.”

His company even touted a disinfectant that claims to kill viruses on surfaces, not in people, for up to 90 days.

So the show that mustn’t, goes on.

Kevin Blackistone is an ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.


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