By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – October 10, 2018)
Four days ago, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) sent out a press release regarding its upcoming November 2 event in Saudi Arabia. That official statement included a change in venue from the 68,000-seat King Fahd International Stadium to the far smaller 25,000-seat King Saud University Stadium.
Today I’m calling upon the WWE to release a different statement, including a change in venue from Saudi Arabia to another country that doesn’t have antiquated, repugnant human rights policies. I had planned to write this piece weeks ago, and in fact considered writing something similar back in April when Vince McMahon took Saudi money (by some estimates, though it won’t be known until early 2019, between 40-50 million dollars) to use his own biggest event of the year, WrestleMania, as a set-up for the Greatest Royal Rumble, which took place in Jeddah.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with providing an entertainment experience in other parts of the world, and WWE has always been willing to go to the UK, to Canada, to other European or Asian countries, to Africa, to South America, as well as just this past weekend a WWE Network event in Melbourne, Australia. It’s intelligent to position the promotion as a global enterprise, one that’s inclusive and more than willing to bring its brand to the rest of the planet.
However, it’s not just gross, it’s not just problematic, but now entirely unacceptable to include Saudi Arabia on that list. The April event was essentially a propaganda piece for the current Saudi regime, one that still restricts rights to many groups, including and most notably everyone born a female. That’s an issue even without the reality that Vince McMahon employs many women, not to mention makes money off them, the latest being Ronda Rousey, an internationally known star athlete.
One week prior to WWE Crown Jewel on November 2, the company will run WWE Evolution in Uniondale, New York. On paper, that seemed like a no-brainer from a perspective standpoint. It’s an all-women’s event, featuring only females in each match. It’s unprecedented for WWE, allowing the promotion to make history, which it enjoys more than virtually anything else. There’s no coincidence in the timing of Evolution and Crown Jewel, as the all-women’s show hopefully gets good press and helps mitigate the fact that one week later, the company MUST deliver an all-men’s event due to the demands of the host country.
While religious tenets and customs must always be taken into account, so must basic human decency. Women couldn’t travel to Saudi Arabia to take part in the Greatest Royal Rumble event, and even Vince’s own daughter, a prime executive for the company, Stephanie McMahon, reportedly couldn’t attend the swanky dinner meeting with Saudi officials that weekend. An advertisement aired during the broadcast that featured women singing along with their male counterparts. The Saudi General Sport Authority issued what can only be described as an embarrassing apology for the indecency.
This time around, WWE Crown Jewel is featuring the in-ring return of the till-now retired Shawn Michaels, one of the company’s biggest stars of all time. He’s taking what most believe is seven figures to break his word and return to the ring, and he’s doing it in Saudi Arabia. Why? Well, the Saudis want the nostalgia acts they remember from the boom period of the professional wrestling business. Also appearing on the show, in addition to a highly anticipated pair of Championship matches and a one-night World Cup tournament, are John Cena, Triple H, The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar, and the newly-elected mayor of Knox County, Tennessee, Glenn “Kane” Jacobs. That last name has its own set of added problems. He needs to bail even faster than WWE.
The money is outrageous and exorbitant, and whenever anyone asks a question about how WWE can sleep at night, the response is always simply that they can’t cancel it because of the money involved. I say that’s bull. I say when you’re WWE in 2018, you’re in pretty good shape. While I believe the company’s business will not be riding quite so high three or four years from today, the current stock price has skyrocketed and the new television deal with Fox has set the stage for Vince and everyone within the promotion to make shrink-wrapped pallets full of cash.
If you have that much in the bank, how much more do you really need? It’s easy for me to say, sure, but I’m saying it anyway. Is the extra profit worth the potential loss of the soul?
Today though, this story has become even more untenable than before, and as of tonight’s revelation from United States intelligence that veteran Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor, Jamal Khashoggi, wasn’t just killed inside the Turkish consulate, he was lured back to the country in order to try and detain him. Behind the plan? From Wednesday evening’s update in the Washington Post:
The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered an operation to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan.
The intelligence, described by U.S. officials familiar with it, is another piece of evidence implicating the Saudi regime in Khashoggi’s disappearance last week after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials say that a Saudi security team lay in wait for the journalist and killed him.
Khashoggi was a prominent critic of the Saudi government and Mohammed in particular. Several of Khashoggi’s friends said that over the past four months, senior Saudi officials close to the crown prince had called Khashoggi to offer him protection, and even a high-level job working for the government, if he returned to his home country.
Khashoggi, however, was skeptical of the offers. He told one friend that the Saudi government would never make good on its promises not to harm him.
The Khashoggi story came to light last week, which is why this piece opened with the press release revealing the change of venue. It was four days ago. The original story had already come to light, and as of yet, WWE has had no comment. Again, this is 40+ million dollars by most estimates, PER SHOW, and it’s part of a ten year arrangement with huge cash for each event. Yes, that’s an absurd amount of money, but WWE needs to cancel this event immediately.
It was already disgusting, but it’s now stomach turning and nearly despicable, particularly in the wake of U.S. intelligence information implicating the crown prince and the working theories that include an attempt to capture Jamal that went wrong. This isn’t the first time the Saudi government has gone way past whatever line you think is appropriate in modern society. Just last year, dozens of journalists, clerics, and even social media personalities were arrested and detained. Their crime? The phrase that surfaces most frequently is “mild criticism” of the regime.
There is precisely zero excuse for WWE to continue as planned and offer themselves even as a “mild” tacit endorsement of a country whose officials would do ANY of the things the Saudis have either been alleged or proven to do. This has nothing to do with politics or partisanship, and there are plenty of good Saudis, but these shows are sham operations used to prop up an authoritarian government. Virtually every good seat in April went to VIPs of the kingdom, many of whom seemed uninterested in the actual show itself, while single men could purchase cheap seats, and women and children faced further hurdles.
Cultures and religions aren’t monolithic across the world. We have sects and denominations and ethnic groups and every other classification imaginable. It’s part of what makes life such a rich learning experience. WWE doesn’t even need to finish middle school to recognize that the optics alone in attempting a show in Saudi Arabia are atrocious. My Sunday show, Squared Circle Radio, has collectively decided we will not cover, will not discuss, and will not watch Crown Jewel. It isn’t a drop in the bucket to WWE, but it’s a statement we have chosen to make.
My hope is WWE chooses to make a new statement as well, one that respectfully bows out of being any part of a country whose government structure and restrictions extend to this degree. It’s no longer okay to do this show. In fact, it never was. I worked in the industry for ten years and have been a fan for over three decades, but I’m more than concerned, I’m ticked off.
If WWE goes through with November 2, I may reevaluate whether I can support the promotion in any respect going forward. I don’t believe in calling for politically-motivated boycotts of companies. I believe in an individual’s right to determine for himself or herself who or what he or she wishes to support.
However, I’m calling on WWE to do the right thing. I’m calling on us all to demand better from Vince McMahon and his promotion. It’s a lot of money. But is it truly worth it?
The costs appear astronomical from where I sit.