The Optics Of WWE

Sometimes you have to wonder about the optics.

Yesterday, it was announced that WWE Hall of Famer, Hulk Hogan will be the host of Wrestlemania 37 next month in Tampa, Florida for a show that will have social distancing restrictions, despite the state’s lift of any mandated precautions for events. Considering that NXT just had another outbreak of COVID cases among its roster, resulting in a very small crew to work this past week’s episode of TV, it’s probably a wise decision for management to install those precautionary measures for the live audience.

Reportedly, because of the limited capacity for attendance, ticket prices are much more expensive, even for a Wrestlemania stadium show, and obviously, WWE brass wants as full of a house, as well as big of a gate, as possible for the return of a live crowd. Sports Entertainment kingpin Vince McMahon wants the presentation of his signature event to look like the spectacular it’s known for, especially for the initial exclusive offering on Peacock, a five-year deal that NBC inked for the distribution rights worth an estimated $1 billion.

The optics of a mostly full stadium let’s the entertainment business, and more importantly, the stockholders know that WWE emerged from the pandemic era as strong as before, or at least that’s the message that’s intended. The debate on the safety or lack thereof for a full-scale public event will continue until the pandemic is completely done, but it’s irrelevant because its within the guidelines of the state of Florida that public events can be held there.

On the surface it makes sense for the office to put Hulk Hogan on the show because despite his critics, he was the biggest star of the 80s and one of the top draws in the history of the business. Hulk Hogan remains one of the most recognizable figures in entertainment, particularly to the casual fans, a demographic that management might look to draw toward the Peacock app as a key accomplishment for the next conference call for shareholders.

That said, the fact that Titus O’Neil, known as one of the real-life good guys on the roster and for his work within the community, is hosting alongside Hogan just isn’t a good look. Don’t get me wrong, Titus is a great representative for the company, he has good mic skills and is a credit to the organization so if WWE had him host as a former member of the University of Florida football team and the event being held in his hometown, it completely makes sense. The hometown football star that is known for his charity work as the host of the biggest event of the year is definitely good PR.

Instead, Titus is being used in the role to suggest it’s “okay” for Hulk Hogan to host the show after he was booted from the organization in 2015 for the infamous sex tape scandal where Hogan was heard using several racial slurs while being secretly recorded. Hogan had an encounter with his friend, Bubba The Love Sponge’s wife and eventually sued Gawker, the website that leaked the footage, winning a massive settlement that bankrupted the gossip website. On the recording, Hogan admits he’s a racist and uses vulgar language toward African Americans throughout the clip.

As I wrote at the time, Terry Bollea’s actions shattered much of the image of Hulk Hogan. Of course, in the aftermath of the leaked footage, Bollea went on the press tour to tearfully apologize on television shows for his comments. Is it possible that Hogan was actually remorseful for what he said? Sure, but I doubt his sincerity because aside from his career-long track record to manipulate his way into a better spot in sports entertainment, it was in his personal interest to apologize. The WWE contract that was terminated and the merchandising is big cash for Hogan so obviously, he will do what he thinks will give him the most access to the money on the table.

If Hogan turned his life around and is truly remorseful for his comments then it’s some form of redemption for him, but I just don’t believe that someone that spewed that type of venom, especially when they didn’t know they were being recorded, suddenly has a realization how wrong it is after there were financial consequences for his actions.

Not surprisingly, when the dust settled, Hulk Hogan was brought back into the WWE orbit in 2018, with an entire new line of merchandise to go with it. Since that time, he made semi-regular appearances on WWE programming, including in Saudi Arabia for big paydays. Some within the WWE, including The New Day, expressed their lack of enthusiasm with Hogan’s involvement in the company again. He made a cameo at the start of Wrestlemania 35, and Paul Heyman breezed by him without any acknowledgement on the ramp before he introduced Brock Lesnar for a title defense.

The bottom line is, there’s no place for racism and hate in the world. People that are racist are narrow-minded and generally irrelevant. Some of Hogan’s longtime friends have said that he’s not a racist, but only he knows his true thoughts or if he was truly remorseful for the terrible comments. Anything on the outside of that is just speculation. I don’t buy Hogan’s excuse or his apology, but that’s just my opinion on the subject.

The point being, it’s blatantly obvious that Titus is being paired with Hogan to try to present the image that Hulk is a changed person. He can’t be racist if he’s hosting with an African American wrestler, right? Again, there’s money in it for Hogan, and in that scenario the only color he cares about is green. The pairing and the message it attempts to send is so blatant that it’s almost insulting to the audience. Titus deserves better than this, and it’s extremely disappointing that he’s being used as a PR pawn.

Sure, using Hulk Hogan for such a public event as the return to the live crowd might be a good business decision, but does that make it the right personal decision? Make no mistake about it, Titus isn’t a bigger star than Hulk, but he’s definitely a better person, and outside of the realm of sports entertainment that counts for something. But, business is business and sadly, pro wrestling using less-than-ethical tactics to sell tickets isn’t anything new in the industry. Titus hosting a the hometown football star would be a nice moment, but shoehorning Hogan in for a propaganda stunt doesn’t work for me, brother.

Sometimes, you have to wonder about the optics.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta