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Pro Wrestling unmasked

This billion-dollar industry is preaching violence and vulgarity

By John W. Kennedy

In 1977, "Superstar" Billy Graham had it made. Graham held the World Wrestling Federation heavyweight championship, while riding a flamboyant and arrogant persona as one of the most despised "heels" in the business. Today, Graham (real name is Wayne Coleman) is a follower of Jesus Christ who refuses to watch professional wrestling on television.

Graham once was an evangelist himself. But after falling away from the Lord, he took up professional wrestling. Wrestling has always been boisterous and cartoonish, but for decades the heroes acted with some virtue. Earlier this decade, Hulk Hogan, during his "good guy" period, urged kids to say their prayers and take their vitamins.

"I stopped watching wrestling because they pushed the envelope too far," says Graham, now 56. "The shows are very degrading to women, there’s foul language and gestures, and there’s real strong sexual overtones. I decided I didn’t want this stuff coming into my house, my eyes or my mind. It made me physically ill."

The two top leagues — the WWF and World Championship Wrestling — rake in a reported $1 billion a year. Their latest contest of one-upmanship is to see which league can exhibit the most outrageous behavior. They are not naïve about the consumer buying power of teens.

Americans with cable television can find wrestling five nights a week, most often in two-hour blocks. Usually, the shows are in the top cable television ratings; the USA Network is the top-rated cable network because of its wrestling programs.

UPN’s two-hour WWF Smackdown!, its top-rated show, draws more than 7 million fans each week and has bolstered the network’s overall ratings with a 160-percent increase this year among teen-age boys.

Why has wrestling become so omnipresent on the tube? People watch it, and not merely to see two men grappling on a mat. Most wrestling shows carry a warning that the content isn’t appropriate for viewers under age 14 because of violence, coarse language and sexually suggestive dialogue.

The formulas vary little. The two-hour show has a circuslike atmosphere with different acts appearing every few minutes. Floodlights and pyrotechnics begin the program as the first two opponents strut down an aisle to their theme songs. They enter the ring, microphones in hand, and engage in vilifying taunts for as long as 15 minutes. Crude words rarely heard on television a few years ago abound, particularly verbiage about the human anatomy. Wrestlers wear T-shirts or trunks with rude messages. Wrestlers fight in the aisles, in the audience, backstage. The more outrageous the behavior, the louder the cheers.

Wrestlers throw each other onto tables, pound each other with baseball bats or crowbars, and wield chairs, ladders, garbage cans and guitars across each other’s bodies.

Everyone uses underhanded tactics. "There is no more good versus evil," says Ted DiBiase, a retired wrestler and born-again Christian. "It’s the bad versus the really bad. There are no more heroes."

DiBiase says the content changed largely because the WWF, "who took wrestling from a blue-collar crowd to family entertainment … plunged it back in the gutter and marketed it to young people. I’m not proud of wrestling. It has taken the low road."

DiBiase wrestled in relative obscurity for a dozen years until 1987, when the WWF transformed him into the Million-Dollar Man, one of the era’s vilest villains. The account is described in DiBiase’s autobiography, Every Man Has His Price: The True Story of Wrestling’s Million-Dollar Man (Multnomah Publishers, 1997).

On television, in classic morality plays, good ultimately would always conquer evil. While he triumphed temporarily, the Million-Dollar Man would always be defeated in the end. But the public persona altered DiBiase’s ego.

"I was having such a selfishly good time in my new lifestyle that I forgot about God," DiBiase writes in Every Man Has His Price. "The Million-Dollar Man became less of an act for the public and more of the real me. I became worldly." In 1992, with his marriage on the rocks, DiBiase in desperation cried out to God and repented. A year later a neck injury ended his wrestling career. In a way, DiBiase was grateful because he had no other Christians in his profession for accountability.

Kids respond to hype

Eddie Rentz, director of the Youth Department of the Assemblies of God, says he is vexed by the popularity of televised wrestling. "Even many Christian teens wear shirts promoting these wrestlers," Rentz says. "It concerns me to see the world having such an influence on students."

Brent Bozell III, founder of the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council, says Smackdown! attracts 1.2 million children under age 12. Youths exposed to such brutal and obscene fare week after week become desensitized, Bozell says. School personnel have noticed more rude gestures, nasty talk and even wrestling moves that have harmed — and in at least one case killed — other students. Bozell believes such programming contributes to the culture of violence that has spawned shootings at several public schools in the past two years.

"The overwhelming majority of parents have no clue just how offensive wrestling has become," Bozell says. "These programs are going after impressionable youngsters."

Even though most children understand that there is a measure of fabrication in the wrestling ring, messages of rudeness, vulgarity and perversity subtly influence their thought process, Rentz says.

"Wrestling has become a cultural craze that’s influencing students. It’s very dangerous. Wrestling breeds a spirit of contempt for authority, and it has become very sensual. The Bible teaches that what we think upon we will eventually do."

Bozell hopes the crudity of televised wrestling is a passing fad, but notes that it may take a while to leave. Seven of the top 10 shows on cable TV last year were wrestling, he says. Graham predicts wrestling will only grow bigger because the sex and violence recipe is working.

Wayde I. Goodall, chair of the Assemblies of God Family Life and Parenting Committee, says he does not understand why Christians are drawn to such programs. "It’s full of blatant lies, cursing and vulgarity," he says. "God did not create women to be disrespected in this way. What we watch affects the way we behave."

Scotty Gibbons, youth pastor at James River Assembly in Ozark, Mo., says, "Christian teens don’t have to pray about God’s will in watching. It’s black and white." The carnal nature of pro wrestling is reflective of Colossians 3:5, he says: "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry" (NIV).

Tim Wildmon, vice president of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association, says professional wrestling long ago ceased to be a legitimate sport; and as it’s portrayed today, appeals to man’s baser nature. "To cheer when one man hits another over the head with a metal chair is barbarism," Wildmon says. He believes televised wrestling has contributed to more aggressive, violence-prone boys.

A yearlong Indiana University study of 50 wrestling episodes supports Wildmon’s suspicions. The analysis found more than 2,000 obscene incidents and references to satanic activity.

Wrestling also reinforces stereotypes against minorities.

While predetermining the outcome of matches has been practiced for years, now the acting isn’t confined to the ring. The leagues actually have scriptwriters who admittedly watch "trash talk shows" for inspiration. The scriptwriters write lines for wrestlers to recite in the ring, in backstage dressing room banter, even in car chases. Running story lines of feuds between the wrestlers and their female followers have included attempted rape. Threats of murder are common in the pre-match rhetoric.

DiBiase, who once managed "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, laments Austin’s standard current performances of guzzling beer, bellowing profanity and delivering obscene gestures upon entering the ring. Austin also initiated "the gospel of Austin 3:16" after defeating an alleged Christian wrestler who spoke about his faith in the Bible. "Austin 3:16 is blasphemy any way you look at it," says DiBiase, who says 6 million Austin 3:16 T-shirts have been sold in this country.

DiBiase first shared his Christian testimony four years ago at a conference of Athletes International Ministries, an outreach to pro and collegiate athletes and coaches run by Phoenix (Ariz.) First Assembly of God. DiBiase now heads Heart of David Ministries in Clinton, Miss., and is involved in full-time evangelism, speaking to church youth groups, men’s meetings and prison gatherings about machismo and materialism.

In talks to church groups, DiBiase, 46, asks youths how many watch pro wrestling on TV. Dozens of hands go up. When he mentions that he managed Steve Austin, cheers rise. DiBiase quickly sets them straight that Austin’s behavior is an affront to God. DiBiase will not allow his sons, ages 17 and 12, to watch WWF.

Bumps in the road

The flare for the theatrical backfired last May, when Owen Hart, 34, plummeted 78 feet to his death when a cable lowering him for a grand entrance in the ring malfunctioned before 17,000 fans in Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo. Matches resumed 15 minutes after Hart’s body had been removed. The WWF did not want to refund money because the event was part of a live pay-per-view, where tickets cost an average of $30 and can draw a million viewers. Hart’s widow, Martha, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the WWF.

It has been reported that 10 wrestlers, ages 27 to 41, have died in the past seven years of suicides or heart attacks, often brought about by the use of steroids, cocaine or painkillers. DiBiase’s father, "Iron Mike" DiBiase, died at age 45 from a heart attack while wrestling.

Most wrestlers on TV today obviously use steroids, according to Graham. Heavy steroid use helped enhance Graham’s physique en route to bodybuilding titles and then professional wrestling. But steroids took a toll, including the need for both hips to be replaced and the loss of three inches from his 6-foot, 4-inch frame because of degenerated disks in his back. By the time he retired in 1989, Graham had lost his wealth, health and zest for life. He contemplated suicide before rededicating his life to Christ in 1994. Today he is active in Athletes International Ministries.

The one power that can derail wrestling’s headlong cesspool plunge is loss of sponsors and customers. The Parents Television Council led a campaign to pressure sponsors to quit advertising on Smackdown! and by December Coca-Cola, AT&T, the Army, Mars Candy and Domino’s Pizza had all withdrawn as advertisers.

News sources reported that shopper complaints caused Wal-Mart to pull an action figure of wrestler Al Snow, complete with a severed head of a woman that reads "Help Me!" across the forehead. The action figure was designed for ages 4 and up.

Becoming involved

Like it or not, Bozell says, entertainers and athletes are role models for most teens today.

"We’re not able to stop the agenda that’s being pushed, but Christian parents can take control over what’s on the set," Goodall says.

Parents need to be aware that a 7-year-old boy screaming in a frenzy while watching wrestling on television is not just a harmless activity, Rentz says. "It’s important for parents to sit down with their kids and talk about why it’s not a good idea to fill one’s mind with these images."

Rentz says parents whose children have a passion for wrestlers should channel their interests to following more virtuous examples. "There are many athletes who love God with all their heart who can be positive role models."

Gibbons believes Romans 12:2 is applicable for teens who enjoy wrestling: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

Rentz advises contemplating the advice of Philippians 4:8 – think about what is true, noble, right, pure and admirable.

Goodall suggests young people take the advice of Psalm 119:9,11: "How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you."

John W. Kennedy is general editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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