The accusation of racism in WWE has once again reared its ugly head. It is an issue that has been brought up over the years, but never thoroughly investigated because only a handful of wrestlers have spoken out on the matter. Also, because professional wrestling is dismissed more often than revered as an entertainment genre, the issue is often swept under the rug and never taken seriously. The Atlantic’s article on racism in professional wrestling sparked the first real conversation on the matter, and the recent firing of Alberto Del Rio has raised concern and awareness on the issue to an increasingly unprecedented degree.
The Wrestling Observer reported that WWE’s Manager of Social Media, Cody Barbierri, made a racist remark about Del Rio at last week’s TV tapings. A staff member remarked to Barbierri about his plate not being clean and Barbierri replied “That’s Del Rio’s job.” Del Rio confronted Barbierri, told him he didn’t appreciate the comment and asked for an apology. Barbierri smiled, would not apologize, and Del Rio “slapped the shit” out of him, knocking him to the floor. Del Rio was originally suspended until after Summer Slam, but reportedly, Barbierri threatened to sue WWE and the company felt they had no choice but to release Del Rio from his contract. Barbierri, on the other hand, is still employed by the company and made some off the cuff comment about Del Rio, using WWE’s official Twitter account.
Del Rio should have gone to human resources and reported the matter. However, in the wrestling bubble which is often void of how things are done in the real world, going to HR is a big no-no for a wrestler. In 2008, Mark Henry went to human resources for a racist remark made by the head writer at the time, Michael Hayes. Henry was ridiculed, belittled, and temporarily made a social pariah in the locker room. Wrestlers are taught to handle things themselves and a court of veteran and or highly respected wrestlers will determine guilt or innocence. How this is practiced varies from locker room to locker room, depending on the players involved and the issues at hand. Plus, Alberto Del Rio is a second generation wrestler who grew up in this business so handling things himself as opposed to going to management is ingrained in him more than most. This doesn’t excuse Del Rio from striking Barbierri, but it certainly explains him taking matters into his own hands rather than seeking another avenue for assistance.
One strike against Del Rio is that he is an Olympic wrestler and Mixed Martial Artist which is a dangerous proposition when putting your hands on someone. Let’s say Barbierri was slapped directly in the ear, lost some of his hearing, and WWE didn’t fire Del Rio. A lawsuit filed by Barbierri’s sounds a lot better if it says “Assaulted by Olympic Wrestler and MMA fighter” instead of “Assaulted by Fake Wrestler.” Another strike against Del Rio is that his contract was rumored to be up in November and that he had planned on not re-signing with the company. In theory, there is no need to fight for one of your employed acts if they are already on their way out. I have to admit, when I first heard of Del Rio’s release without the facts, my first reaction was “good”. Mind you, I don’t want anyone to lose their job, however, Alberto’s character had been stale for some time and he has won the world title on multiple occasions. There was nowhere else to go for his character but down. Also, would WWE fire John Cena if he slapped Cody Barbierri? It may be an unfair question to ask, but I doubt it. While I am thinking about what-if scenarios, since unprofessional conduct is Randy Orton’s middle name, and he still has a job after all these years, it really makes me wonder about the real reason Del Rio was “released”.
I speak from experience when I say that I would be upset if someone made a racist remark about me. I would be even more upset if I spoke to this person calmly while I struggled to keep my composure, only for the individual to smile and arrogantly dismiss my feelings. The word on the street is Cody Barbierri is a “jerkoff” who is arrogant and talks down to wrestlers. That is alarming on its own accord considering that wrestlers bring in the money and thus, pay his salary. However, he has the backing of Stephanie McMahon, so his attitude flew under the radar. This is disappointing to hear because it’s another tale to chalk up the long list of accounts where the WWE’s second-in-command being callous and dictatorial with her staff. Plus, Triple H retweeted Barbierri’s Twitter comment that he made using the company’s account which is a deviation from the standard “Future Endeavor” statement which never mentions the reason for dismissal or personal sentiment towards the talent in question.
As a person of color, former independent wrestler, promoter and wrestling fan, it’s disheartening to hear so much about racism emanating from the standard bearer of our industry. With Summer Slam right around the corner, I should be excited, giddy even, making predictions, and planning a pay-per-view get together at my house. As of this writing, I could care less because a big part of me feels betrayed. Am I nothing more than a second-class citizen in the eyes of the sport entertainment brand that I’ve passionately followed, defended and endorsed with my hard earn money for 26 years? At the end of the day, Alberto Del Rio struck first and in the eyes of the law, there’s a strict liability attached, regardless of provocation. Still, it’s hard to ignore what appears to be the lack of sensitivity from WWE that is abhorrently out of touch with society in 2014.