Alberto Del Rio: The wider issues at play
August 14, 2014
By Daniel R. Browne
WWE has recently been preoccupied with its annual, all together unsavoury take on late spring-cleaning: namely the firing of various and sundry wrestlers and staff. This action tends to run parallel to the performance of the corporate side of WWE, and as anyone with even a cursory awareness of the company’s current bottom line will tell you, now is not the time to be investing in WWE stock.
As unpleasant and unceremonious as this scenario might be, it is not unusual. The same cannot be said however of a single sentence on WWE.com this past Thursday, confirming the abrupt and immediate dismissal of Alberto Del Rio. A capable and charismatic hand, Del Rio was not thought to be vulnerable to Vince McMahon’s capricious whims. This seemingly proved not to be the case though, as his employment was unceremoniously terminated. However, as is so often the case with WWE, the real story was yet to come.
Hot on the heels of the website announcement came a rather sharp rebuke to a ‘tweet’. The seeming obsession with Twitter notwithstanding, it was still surprising to see the WWE page – more often than not a vehicle for prosaic blather – used as an aggressive addendum to the official line. WWE has claimed that Del Rio was shown the door as a result of a physical altercation with a staffer. It is undeniably the case that if there is substance to the allegations, then Del Rio is a very silly boy. Whatever the provocation, the WWE philosophy is the reverse of how the English analogise the mullet: Party in the front, business in the back. In other words, it’s best to manhandle your opponent in the ring, not in the cafeteria.
WWE has alluded to the need for its athletes (as wrestlers are not employees) to behave in a professional manner, with Del Rio being no exception. If you take this statement at face value, the question is obvious: what exactly prompted a professional athlete to strike an office employee? WWE has declined to elaborate on this in anything resembling detail, and Del Rio has thus far kept his own council. As always though, parties outside of WWE jurisdiction have delved further, and the results are potentially extremely damaging to the company’s image. If the scuttlebutt is to be trusted, Alberto Del Rio was fired for retaliating against a perceived racial slur aimed in his direction.
This is obviously a significant development. Even if it is true, it does not exonerate Del Rio from the consequences of striking an employee. What it does do though, is place those actions into a context that has already engendered considerable public sympathy. As the overworked WWE legal and PR departments are doubtless aware, racism is a rather popular social topic at present, and any instance of such behaviour cannot be idly dismissed. From the moment The Wrestling Observer broke this apparent revelation, the worm has turned against WWE for its response. Already, calls have been made for Del Rio’s reinstatement, or failing that the sacking of the abused staffer with the apparently philistine sense of humour.
This has become a broader issue for WWE. If there is one area of social contention that provides the means for hysteria, it is racism. The recent public war against it has been ubiquitous and unrelenting, on both sides of the Atlantic. Whatever the truth, a story will be told here that can simultaneously favour yet potentially impeach WWE. Such a paradox is created by the medium WWE is so keen to embrace: social media. WWE is delighted to exploit the immediacy of the forum when seeking out popularity, but it will find it an altogether venomous – and uncontrollable – beast in the wake of negative press. It is trial by popular consensus, and alleged instances of racism tend to put a dagger through the heart of objectivity.
For all Vince McMahon’s bravado and disregard for the national media, the one thing he fears most is a public, mainstream backlash. The Del Rio story only broke on Thursday (07/08/24), yet already The Washington Post has seized upon it, undoubtedly because of the racist aspect. What started out as a bout of WWE sanctimony has escalated into a story non-wrestling fans, critics and most importantly – as far as WWE is concerned – stockholders will notice (and ponder). This extends also to key markets for WWE. With the WWE Network on the cusp of global inception, the last thing the company needs is to potentially alienate an entire country. This it may well do with Mexico, if the accusations of racism, and a lax American attitude to it, persist. As Rey Mysterio has so aptly demonstrated during all his financial dealings with WWE, there is considerable suspicion and nationalist distrust at play here. WWE does swift, profitable business in Mexico, and any eventuality that threatens to damage or even derail this fact entirely, is worthy of significant consideration.
I remarked earlier that this was a real problem for WWE, and the essence of that observation lies in the aforementioned ‘trial by popularity’. There is presently only one perspective aired, and no definitive story has been established, yet the word ‘racism’ has already elevated this jumble of insinuations into a social debate. Unquestionably, WWE will default to damage limitation mode over the next few days. Guilty or not, the unnamed employee who sparked this situation, with his foolhardy attempt at jocularity, will quite possibly have to add his job to things he’s lost in recent days (alongside his dignity). It simply isn’t in the company’s interests to be recalcitrant at this moment, as all attempts at prevarication will fail. Twitter, so beloved by WWE, and its hundreds of millions of judges, juries and executioners will see to that.
There are other issues for WWE to consider; especially when factoring in the spectre of mainstream media attention. The wrestling industry, WWE included, has maintained a generally progressive attitude to race at large; even when that was an unfashionable thing to do. That being said, one need only look back over each decade to find various instances of what could be construed as xenophobic, homophobic and yes, racist elements to WWE characters. Benign and archetypical they may be, but gimmicks such as Papa Shango, Cryme Tyme, Kaientai and even Eddie Guerrero’s Latino Heat character could all be construed, by the unacquainted at least, as examples of gentle or even casual racism. In my opinion, WWE was not engaged in malicious behaviour in any of these instances, but a snowball can so easily become an avalanche when there’s enough snow present. The company cannot be seen as light or, God forbid, exploitative on the issue of racism.
It is striking to me that this piece began with its focus squarely on Alberto Del Rio. At no point though has a retrospective of his accomplishments been discussed, nor his probable job prospects going forward. That is precisely the point though. That Alberto Del Rio has been fired is no longer the nub of the story. This a race issue now, and that will quickly take on a life of its own. WWE should not underestimate the scope of that word and the issues it can – and will – create. Thus is the double-edged sword of social media. Hero one second, zero the next, and WWE fires wrestler in race row is not one of the more desirable ‘number one trending topics on Twitter’ WWE will hope to claim. I’m sure they’ll be only too quick to agree on that point.
Note: In recent days, it has been announced that Del Rio will be returning to Mexico to participate in AAA’s largest show of the year, TripleMania. Such a move, while altogether unsurprising, is logical as Del Rio has significant name value in his homeland. He is a scion of a legendary Mexican wrestling dynasty. Before arriving in WWE, Del Rio (real name Alberto Rodriguez) worked as ‘Dos Caras Jr’, the son of the original Dos Caras (and Del Rio’s actual father). Del Rio previously enjoyed a prestigious career in Mexico, and his WWE exposure, coupled with the manner of his departure from Stamford, should ensure Del Rio a rapturous – and prosperous – return to any Mexican ring of his choosing.