Senate Candidate Linda McMahon, Former Senator Rick Santorum, and Pro Wrestling Deregulation

The tale of deregulation in professional wrestling is one of postmodernism run amok. Some of it is told in a 1988 article I wrote for The Washington Monthly, which became a chapter of my 2007 book Wrestling Babylon.

Vince McMahon, Linda’s husband, is a mad marketing genius. With the emergence of cable TV, and with the deregulatory trends of the Federal Communications Commission during the Reagan presidency, pro wrestling’s old Mafia-like territorial system was undermined. McMahon’s promotion, then called the World Wrestling Federation, pounced brilliantly. The McMahons heavily leveraged themselves for a national expansion. They bought TV time slots out from under old-line local promoters; they made barter deals to set up an ad hoc syndicated network attractive to national advertisers; and with WrestleMania I in March 1985 — one of the first major pay-per-view events — they won their gamble.

Another milestone in their glorious odyssey was the deregulation of wrestling itself. This hybrid “sport,” classically, was a quaint institution somehow under the purview of the same crazy quilt of state athletic commissions that oversaw boxing.

The red tape of this regulatory regime was made palatable by the fact that it also enabled the perpetuation of what the wrestling carnies call “kayfabe” — the deadpan representation to the masses that this entertainment was spontaneous and on the up-and-up, without choreographed results.

Vince McMahon decided to kill kayfabe, famously, in The New York Times. His enemies said this willful destruction of the architecture behind suspension of disbelief would ruin the business. Of course, McMahon was right and his enemies were wrong. Wrestling became bigger, or at least more profitable for him, than ever.

McMahon had a direct economic motive: he wanted to get out from under athletic commission encumbrances — and, most especially, he didn’t want to pay the taxes they imposed. One of the first big tests was in Pennsylvania. WWF used the Pittsburgh law firm of Vince’s favorite attack dog, Jerry McDevitt. The young lawyer-lobbyist assigned to the WWF account in the Pennsylvania legislature was Rick Santorum, later a two-term right-wing senator. (When my Washington Monthly article was published, Santorum called me and read passages out loud, laughing uproariously.)

The demise of kayfabe didn’t affect the fans, who quickly self-selected into two camps: “smart” fans and “marks.” But it wound up having a profound and counterintuive effect on wrestling talent. With their audience either no longer believing in their magic tricks or highly skeptical of them, wrestlers had to push the envelope with hard-core antics, such as brutal chair shots that can only be faked so much. Perversely, wrestling is now, by a significant magnitude, more dangerous now than it was back in the day when they used to maintain, with a straight face, that it was all real.

The “kayfabe” reflex remains, but it is a mechanism almost entirely in the control of Vince and Linda McMahon. The techniques of public opinion manipulation and corporate spin have been market-tested, perfected, and taken to new levels. Wrestling, like Francis Ford Coppola’s depiction of the Mafia, is American sports, American entertainment, American business … Americana.

And now Linda McMahon is one of the final two candidates for the Republican nomination for next year’s U.S. Senate seat election in Connecticut.

Irv Muchnick

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