Written and Illustrated by Koriander Bullard
On January 15, 2017, ex WWE wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka passed away, just twelve days after a court dismissed murder charges against him, stemming from the 1983 murder of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino. While his family went into appropriate mourning, showing much poise and grace via social media, and the wrestling world handled the loss on an individual basis, one entity was left without a blueprint on how to handle this issue.
The internet is rife with armchair bookers and angry wrestling fans, who weekly chastise the WWE for various reasons. But while everyone wants to talk about “the biz” aspect of the WWE, few really understand a situation like this from a real life business standard.
Let’s look at the big picture for a moment. The WWE is a publicly traded company, peddling several family friendly shows and a product line for ages four and up. The Attitude Era and the Ruthless Aggression Era were the only points in the company’s history where they actively did not try to air shows for families. This period lasted from late 1996 to mid 2007 in an almost eleven year segment of raunchy storylines and an eventual TV14 television rating for flagship program Raw. The rest of the company’s history is filled with mostly clean wrestling shows, save but for Diva segments and the occasional “rock the boat” character. Current televised shows are rated TVPG suggesting parental guidance during viewing, with the exception being TV14 and TVMA programs exclusive to the WWE Network, a subscription based, on demand platform, which reminds viewers about parental controls and an itemized list of reasons to use them before the latter shows air.
With that said, image is everything. Their current line-up again is aimed at families with small children. This creates a myriad of problems during an event like this, as the company now has an ethics issue to juggle.
Raw airs on Monday night, opening with a silent tribute card, showing the life dates of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and a random picture from their archives. Midway through the first hour, the WWE airs a tribute video, showing the highlights of Snuka’s career along with select photos and tweets from his surviving relatives, many of whom are also current employees of the WWE. The McMahon family joins The Rock in honoring Snuka’s career, while the video closes with a tweet showing Tamina holding her father’s hand as he passed and once again, his life dates.
A child in the crowd has a smartphone with him, a common sight these days. If he’s not old enough for one, he may lean into his mom or dad and ask who Jimmy Snuka was. It’s likely at this point that someone is either using the WWE app to pull up Snuka’s matches during the commercial break, or they’re using Google.
If the latter is happening, then we have a problem.
Going to Google pulls up several articles about the death of Nancy Argentino, the fact that the murder was never closed, and the fact that all three times this case has come up, Snuka has been brought in as the only suspect. The second or third link is usually Wikipedia, where we find out that while Snuka was never convicted of murder, he was to pay the surviving family $500,000, which he has now gone to his grave without paying. Articles detailing how he was alone with her in the motel room when he called the ambulance, as she laid on the floor, covered in cuts, bruises and a wide assortment of injuries, indicating she had lost a physical fight with a man heavier than she was. More and more ugly case details light up the smartphone, along with lengthy stories about Snuka’s drug history, and by the time the commercial break is over, we are left with a family scrambling for an answer for their child while also trying to sort out their own emotions.
This is where the WWE now has been placed into an uncomfortable predicament.
If they continue to honor the legacy of Jimmy Snuka, wrestling fans will claim that they are glorifying a former drug addict and murderer, who as of this writing, still has several action figures on the market under the “Legends” brand name. His face still is plastered on a litany of t-shirts and toys for children ages 4-10, which means that to acknowledge him, means that the parents of these children now have to explain drugs and homicide in a formula that a child would be able to handle, a feat no parent these days really wants to achieve. These people do not want their children to cheer for someone who may have committed a heinous crime, and they do not want the parental responsibility of explaining anything to their children at all.
But if they don’t honor the career of Jimmy Snuka, then the WWE will be considered to be shady anyway. It will seem like they are trying to keep his name a secret, as if they were hiding a killer. Or in another unsavory light, it will appear as though they are destroying this man’s history without knowing for certain if he was or was not a killer. Until proven in a court of law that he killed her, this man has gone to his grave innocent in the eyes of the law, and evidence or not, that is another scenario the WWE now has to contend with in each of their decisions.
Not acknowledging anything means withholding information from children, but acknowledging everything means glorifying a criminal as a children’s hero.
Fan opinion is also not helping. Fans are accusing the WWE of “pulling a Benoit” by withholding a collection of his matches for a special section (as of this writing) simply because “some whore” died. And yes, we are that callous as a nation, folks. Because Nancy Argentino died as Snuka’s girlfriend, fan accusations are that she deserved to die, she was a “whore” and that because she was female, she was likely trying to “sleep her way” to the “top” and that Snuka should be exonerated whether he killed her or not, simply for the fact that people enjoy his matches so much, they would gladly have let him set fire to a church full of the disposable gender without prosecution, if it meant they could enjoy his matches without censorship. The disgusting things fans have said about a woman dead for going on 34 years does not surprise me, as the same was said of Nancy and Daniel Benoit the instant the WWE decided to withhold Chris Benoit’s matches from circulation after their deaths in 2007. And with the fact that the average fan is quick to vote away women’s rights and freedoms, I’m not surprised women are seen as this disposable in society anyway.
So what can the WWE do in light of the Snuka trial?
Let’s be clear. Very few public companies have had to deal with the type of PR nightmares the WWE has had to endure since the 1980’s. The NFL in contrast has only been dealing with similar controversies for less than a decade. The WWE has had to put up with this for much longer while still pandering to an all ages audience. World Class Championship Wrestling is one of the only other companies that has had to deal with blow after blow in terms of dying wrestlers and crime on the same public, televised level as the WWE, and they have been out of business since 1990.
Pure and simple, there is no blueprint for a company to maintain a squeaky clean image during these times. No blueprint for the WWE to go by in case someone dies, someone has a drug past or someone is dragged into court for murder. Each case has been treated case by case, and the company has had to figure out how to handle these issues without a safety net.
As of this writing, the WWE is doing the only middle ground things they can do, out of respect and out of a need to keep face.
As soon as Snuka was arrested in 2015, the WWE placed his legends deal on suspension, and suspended his name from the Hall of Fame. They kept neutral, pending a court of law.
They ran a tribute video to Snuka the Monday following his demise, allowing room for fans and wrestlers alike to mourn if they chose to.
None of his matches have been pulled off of the WWE Network or censored in any fashion.
No further tribute packages have aired as of this writing. (01/17/2017)
This has been the approach the WWE has taken in recent years with wrestlers who died amid controversy. Chris Benoit, Woman, and Dino Bravo, each of whom died under contentious circumstances, all have their matches aired mostly uncensored on the WWE Network, albeit with warnings about sensitive content and parental controls. They are never named on the black warning screens, but fans figure out quickly that they are on the list of controversial subjects in the company’s history and are no longer surprised to see the card. The only noted censorship comes from a few of Chris Benoit’s matches featuring muted chants, but the Network no longer censors signs made by fans to cheer him on on recently added tapings.
The WWE has chosen with Jimmy Snuka and with several other controversial wrestlers, to play their matches as they were, barring music copyright dub overs, keeping the legacy of what they did inside the squared circle alive. However, they do not bring up what happened outside of television, keeping their private lives off of the Network in respect to their surviving families.
On the slippery slope of this ethics issue, the WWE may not have a blueprint to go by, but they at least have found middle ground. And considering the children watching, that may be the very best thing we can ask for at this time.