World Wrestling Entertainment has always had some sort of public-relations issue, whether as half-serious as the fake versus real debate, as obvious as the steroids specter, or as unsettling as the CTE cloud.
This time, however, there is a rapidly developing problem that is unlike all the others.
The WWE is tag-teaming with Saudi Arabia.
On Nov. 2, the pro wrestling titan is scheduled to hold an event there called “Crown Jewel.” It’s the second extravaganza in a 10-year deal that cost the host nation an untold amount that is likely in the tens of millions. As you likely know, however, Saudi Arabia is in the news these days and not for wrestling.
Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared earlier this month after entering the Saudi consulate in Turkey to prepare for his upcoming wedding. There are credible reports that he may have been murdered. Republican senator Bob Corker told CNN that “intel points directly” at the Saudis. Worse still, The Washington Post has reported that there may be audio and even video tapes of whatever happened in the Istanbul consulate.
This is a problem for President Donald Trump, who (like other presidents before) has a cordial if not friendly relationship with the Saudis. This is a problem for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has ties with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. And now this is a problem for the McMahon family, who will have to decide whether to go ahead with a fun-fest backed by leadership that may have been behind the murder of a U.S. resident and prominent journalist.
As if that’s not bad enough, there are important questions about why the WWE was in this deal to begin with.
Saudi Arabia is hardly a model citizen in the world. One 2017 Department of State briefing on the kingdom includes this paragraph: “The most significant human rights issues included unlawful killings, including execution for other than the most serious offenses and without requisite due process; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of lawyers, human rights activists, and antigovernment reformists; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including on the internet, and criminalization of libel; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official gender discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were announced; and criminalization of same sex sexual activity.”
Then there’s the recent military assault on Yemen, which, according to U.N. investigators, “has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes, tortured detainees, raped civilians and used child soldiers as young as 8 – actions that may amount to war crimes.” And, of course, there’s the fact that the majority of the 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia. There has always been intense speculation about the Saudis’ involvement in the attacks. The kingdom has always denied any role, however, the U.S. government has reportedly found “incontrovertible evidence that there [was] support for these terrorists inside the Saudi Government.”
In a statement to Yahoo Sports, the WWE said it is “monitoring the situation” involving the disappearance of Khashoggi. But apparently it wasn’t monitoring the last generation of American history. Perhaps the WWE hoped that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman would be a reformer, but the Khashoggi disappearance puts that in serious doubt.
The counterargument is that the WWE is just sports entertainment and the real blame should go to the politicians. One problem with that is the headline match on Nov. 2 involves Kane, who in real life just won an election in Tennessee. Glenn Jacobs is the new mayor of Knox County, Tennessee. Another, larger problem is that Linda McMahon, former CEO of the WWE, is in the Trump cabinet. Pulling out of the event would be taken as a mini-rebellion against the president, who himself is a WWE Hall of Famer. Less than a year ago, the president tweeted his support of the Saudi kingdom, stating, “they know exactly what they are doing.”
I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2017
The more over-arching problem is the message the event sends about the WWE itself, which is a public company. Do investors large and small want to participate in an enterprise that so willingly associates with this regime? In the first event of this series, held in Jeddah, the WWE’s women wrestlers were not allowed to participate. That created its own backlash. Paul Levesque (Triple H) offered that perhaps the event would encourage more progressivism in the future. That was about as convincing as a referee regaining consciousness just in time to hammer out a three-count.
There is still time for the WWE to recalibrate. If Khashoggi miraculously turns up unharmed, that will be a huge relief to the free world and less pressure on Vince McMahon and Co. If the headlines get even more dire, the intensity will get even worse. That isn’t the best situation for a company whose stock price has tripled already this year. The question will be asked more directly: Is it really worth it?
As WWE legend Ted DiBiase used to say, “Everybody’s got a price.” The issue is whether the public-relations price would ever be too much for the WWE to afford.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Kaepernick receives one of Harvard’s top honors
• Izzo defends handling of sex assault allegations
• Odell’s antics say it all: Giants are in trouble
• Pelicans superstar says he’s the best player in the NBA