Professional wrestling may be hot, but its critics are steaming too. The fake falls are the least concern.
Around me is a sellout crowd of 19,000 roaring, screaming fans in Boston's Fleet Center. In the ring is wrestling's current megastar, a 252-pound nihilist bruiser known as Stone Cold Steve Austin. He is body slamming The Rock, a 275-pound muscled fireplug who wants us to believe he is groggy from the punishment.
He isn't, but in the flip-flop reality of wrestling, fans love the exaggerated show of clashing bodies. It's as if a comic strip or Saturday-morning cartoon has come to life. They are believers in the crunching reality of wrestling's make-believe.
The crowd noise reaches maximum volume as Stone Cold continues to treat The Rock like a rag doll. But beneath the noise in the arena, and the skyrocketing popularity of wrestling across the United States, questions about wrestling's atmosphere and social impact won't go away.
For instance, in Row J, just behind me, a man wearing a T-shirt proclaiming the virtues of a sand-blasting company is on his feet bellowing obscenities at Stone Cold. His one digit gesture joins a forest of one-digit gestures all around us.
Seated next to him is an eight- or nine-year-old boy, eyes wide, his left thumb in his mouth. His right hand has pulled the long sleeve of his shirt over his left hand and thumb in an attempt to hide his thumb-sucking.
Here in the midst of the World Wrestling Federation's (WWF) scripted, multimillion-dollar, body-slamming entertainment event, a small boy and his thumb suggest the runaway popularity of wrestling is not for him.
A new emphasis on hostility, obscenity, and sex
Many child experts would agree: Much of today's wrestling presented by the WWF and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) has a newfound emphasis on hostility, obscenities, and sexual explicitness.
They say it is unsuitable for young children and even 13- and 14-year-olds. While most adults know the matches are scripted, children, with less experience and judgment, see the conflicts and concocted violence differently. The wrestlers consider themselves skillful athlete-entertainers, not involved in "fakery" because injuries do occur.
Still, the majority of the audience in the Fleet Center is young men in their early 20s, teens, and preteens (many in groups and brought in by adults). The taunting hostility flows among the wrestlers, and back and forth from wrestlers to fans, some of it done with laughter.
But all this has changed the previous good guy vs. bad guy roles that prevailed in wrestling from the 1940s to the late 1980s.
Mike Shadow, who paid $30 each for himself and his 12-year-old son for seats at the Fleet, is asked if this is a good atmosphere for his son. "Not really," he says, "if we're talking about a moral standpoint. Wrestling has changed since I was a kid, the language and the themes. But listen, there is a lot worse sexual stuff on TV, and he hears a lot worse than this at school. For me, it's how you interpret all this to him."
Some child experts see wrestling's values reflecting some of society's distorted values. "Our culture has become one of confrontation and disrespect," says Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist at the Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Washington. "And wrestling fits [with] what has happened in our culture. It's entertainment today. It's the Jerry Springer Show with physical action."
Hulk Hogan, now known as Hollywood Hulk Hogan, was wrestling's fair-haired boy in the 1980s when he was the megastar "good guy" wrestler. But in a shift of character roles, just before his alleged retirement from wrestling a few weeks ago, he became mean and taunting in his matches. "Everybody in wrestling today is really a bad guy," explains David Lenker, editor-in-chief of The Wrestler magazine. "The issue is which bad guys are popular and which bad guys are hated. And it has a lot to do with the fact that everybody has an attitude, and it's the tough-talking guys with a lot of personality that appeal to a lot of people."
What has fed the character change is the rivalry between the WCW and WWF, the two leading promoters of wrestling in the US. Each organization has a stable of wrestlers pretending to be constantly and publicly at war with each other and their bosses, Vince McMahon, the president of WWF, and Eric Bischoff, the president of WCW.
At stake is millions of dollars. "These two companies are at war for TV ratings, merchandising, everything," Mr. Lenker says. "Just about everybody believes that WCW has the stronger talent roster from top to bottom such as Goldberg [285 pounds], Kevin Nash [367 pounds], Scott Hall, and Ric Flair." But the WWF has Stone Cold, Undertaker (328 pounds), Kane (326 pounds), and a female wrestler named Sable, all of whom are well-known in households that follow wrestling.
Every Monday night on cable television, the two organizations square off in prime time. WWF's "Raw Is War" starts at 9 p.m. on the USA Network, and WCW's "Monday Nitro" airs at 8 p.m. on TNT. Both shows, before huge crowds in different cities each week, feature rock music, fireworks, dancing girls, and soap-opera-like chapters in well-crafted, loud-mouthed rivalries among the wrestlers. Often, the huge bodies tumble out of the ring and carry on their pseudobattles three feet from the clamoring crowd.
Both shows usually sit atop the cable ratings for Monday night, attracting a combined audience of 10 million viewers. TV Guide says the wrestling audience is 36 percent larger than last year. WCW reports that 25 percent of its audience are kids and teens ranging from age 2 to 17, and 50 percent are men 18 and over. It was this latter demographic, as voters, that last month helped elect former wrestler Jesse Ventura governor of Minnesota.
The wrestling shows are heavy with commercials, many promoting violent video games along with Wendy's, Chevrolet, or movies from Warner Bros, Sony, or Miramax. On a recent Monday night, the "Nitro" show carried 103 commercials in two hours.
'I'm wondering how many parents are offended?'
"WWF has been allowed by USA Network to make its program more adult-oriented with [strong] language and sexually oriented themes," Lenker says, "and TNT, through Time Warner and Ted Turner, has tried to make Nitro more family-oriented." But both shows are long rumbles of hostility, devoid of humor, unless one regards them as a kind of unintentional satire on male bravado.
Les Thatcher, who was a popular wrestler in the US from 1960 to 1979 and now operates the Main Event Pro Wrestling Camp in Cincinnati, has mixed emotions about wrestling's new attitude, and suggests that if it escalates it might eventually trigger a decline.
"I'm not personally offended by some of the sexual stuff," he says, "but I'm looking at the 17,000 people in the building, and the kids under 10, and I'm wondering how many mothers and fathers are offended? These are ticket buyers, and is this some cheap shot to them? I've been in wrestling 39 years, and now the business is so good we think we can't make any mistakes.
"I think we're about two years away from making big mistakes if we continually play, 'Can you top this?' with the sex and language stuff."
For now, the fans are still lining up. At one of the merchandising counters at the Fleet Center, they were 10 deep buying T-shirts, big foam hands forming an obscene gesture, plastic championship belts, hats, plastic figures of wrestlers, videos, CDs, and more.
"I find wrestling tremendously entertaining," says Chuck Green, an accountant with Ben and Jerry's, the ice creammakers, while buying a hot dog at the Fleet Center. "It's the best theatrics I've ever seen. I have a master's degree in business, and all my associates think I'm crazy, but to me it's great."