Swagger and the WWE Wellness Problem

28 Feb


In recent months, WWE have been on a streak so impressive it threatens to eclipse that of The Undertaker’s at WrestleMania.

The debuts of Dean Ambrose (Jon Moxley), Seth Rollins (Tyler Black), and Roman Reigns (no relation to Luther) as The Shield, along with the subsequent storyline development, has been excellent. Coincidentally, Shield-focused shows TLC and Elimination Chamber were also two of the greatest Pay-Per-View offerings in years – in booking, if not in-ring action. Dolph Ziggler went over John Cena and aligned himself with AJ Lee instead of Vickie Guerrero, and freshened up his act further with the addition of “Big” E. Langston. Antonio Cesaro has been pushed despite dropping Aksana. Much-needed babyface turns to Alberto Del Rio and The Miz have been effective. Even Big Show and Sheamus have been putting on great matches. This is a WWE product that seems to be recovering from last year’s dark day of the 1,000th episode of Monday Night Raw, which was a disaster.

But the re-introduction of Jack Swagger has been gold.

Regular readers will know how often I’ve called for WWE to put its finger on the pulse of popular culture and current affairs and tap into modern events, longing for a return to the approach of the Attitude era where McCarthyist Brent Bozell III and his odious Parents Television Council (or PTC) were simply mocked by the creation of heel characters The Right to Censor (or RTC). I’ve also argued for the return of valets and managers to accentuate wrestlers’ positives, while hiding their weaknesses.

Jack Swagger, the “All-American” American, never too confident on the mic – not least with his slight speech impediment – has been given Uncle Zebekiah Blu, formerlt Dutch Mantell, now simply Zeb Colter, as a mouthpiece and manager who has, in turn, turned Swagger into the “Real American” (sorry, Hogan) – a xenophobic, right-wing zealot in opposition to Mexican-American Alberto Del Rio (thus reinforcing their respective face/heel roles).

This has been priceless. It has tapped into an undercurrent through America, and in the process hit a nerve – raising the ire of no less than Glenn Beck himself, the High Priest of the Right-Wing and Tea Party poster boy, that anti-women gun nut who calls progressivism a “disease” – you know, the same progressivism that historically gave the country free schools, libraries, as well as weekends, and got women the right to vote, abolished slavery, and improved civil rights. That disease of progress.

Now, they say you can gauge your value by the enemies you make, so if WWE are provoking Glenn Beck, they’re definitely doing something right. Zeb Coulter Colter’s diatribes on immigration and American “values” are priceless – even with Jack Swagger mouthing Zeb’s words on the autocue as he stands there awaiting his “we the people” finale.

Swagger’s finally had his biggest break since winning the World Championship from Chris Jericho in March of 2010, the beginning of an ill-fated title run and his fall from favour with WWE’s most influential officials. He’s been given another shot. And then he was arrested for speeding, possession of marijuana, and driving under the influence (of marijuana – which leads one to wonder how he managed to start speeding, considering most potheads can usually only drive about 10mph while stoned).

This, of course, did not bode well.

With mainstream media attention all over WWE for their topical and – by their standards – sophisticated storyline, Swagger’s indiscretion couldn’t have come at the worst time. Whether the sudden thrust into the spotlight was too much pressure for Swagger, or whether it was just simple stupidity, the fact remained that Swagger’s arrest was hitting headlines beyond just the TMZ muckrakers.

Now, the arguments on the dirt sheets have largely been focused on what needed to be WWE’s next course of action: fire him at risk of a high profile switch to TNA for a wrestler who just months ago was reportedly requesting his release; suspend him, and jeopardise the pre-WrestleMania creative plans; suspend him later, or even do nothing – the debate went back and forth. And certainly, it was a creative quandary for Vince McMahon, Triple H, and the gang.

On one hand, Swagger had insulted management by throwing their push back in their faces with such recklessness; on the other hand, he’d been caught smoking pot, something that’s been legalised in several states in the U.S. – albeit driving under the influence was not permitted (nor was speeding, an act which actually caused the death of Zeb’s own daughter in real life last summer.)

And this is where it really opens a can of worms.

Irvin Muchnick, a writer who specialises in the sports concussion crisis and covered the Chris Benoit tragedy with rare rationality, reason, and facts as opposed to the then-prevalent mainstream media hysteria over steroids, has not been popular with WWE. The reason? He scrutinises them and their Wellness programme and policies in ways rarely afforded to the sports-entertainment business (as I reiterate constantly, the industry’s lack of categorisation as either sports or performance makes it harder to regulate in the same way athletes and actors enjoy).

We’ve seen R-Truth’s Wellness suspension kick in conveniently after his Survivor Series involvement with headliner The Rock in 2011. Now Swagger’s been arrested for using a drug that WWE’s policy prohibits (albeit admittedly harshly when comparing it to alcohol). So what now? Does the Wellness department still wait for their next random test on Swagger, allowing him to literally piss the pot away? Or do they take the arrest and charges seriously, bring him in for an immediate screening, and suspend him upon finding marijuana in his system? The latter hasn’t happened, so we must assume the former is the case.

I’m not an advocate of Wellness treating marijuana, state to state, as more of a wrongdoing than alcohol. But I do think this gives Muchnick more ammunition to scrutinise the Wellness programme WWE has in place. WWE has to, in this writer’s opinion, revert it back to excluding marijuana – or face an avalanche of further accusations of manipulating the programme to suit their convenience.


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