Linda McMahon’s WWE and ESPN — Connecticut Cohorts in ‘Sports Entertainment’ and Sexual Harassment

“Popular culture has always been a bit coarser than political leaders like to acknowledge.”

– Kevin Rennie, Hartford Courant, March 21

It’s always hard to know exactly what went down when competing versions of boys and girls are involved. I look forward to getting more facts on the allegation of sexual harassment that led to the dismissal of World Wrestling Entertainment executive vice president and general counsel Jared Bartie in the middle of ex-CEO Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign.

One thing is clear, however, to anyone who knows the second and third things about the “very testosterone-loaded business” in which McMahon touts her success, which in turn is submitted for the approval of voters – and that is that there is a lot more where this story came from. More on all this in due course.

For now, let’s give the story some context. I think of Stamford-based WWE in much the same way I regard its Connecticut cousin in sports crime, Bristol-based ESPN. Both have turned themselves into iconic brands by ratcheting up the shlock and commerce of their respective genres. Their culture of hyper-commodification, I think not coincidentally, has been nurtured by offices plagued by much more than their share of sexual harassment scandals.

WWE executive Bartie’s female accuser herself came to the company from other high-level marketing jobs in the television industry. In a 2005 trade magazine interview about directing her former employer’s new and racier marketing campaign, the woman said selling sex was “easier today than it was 20 years ago. It’s an evolution of our society; our sensibilities change.”

She added: “We want to be clever and innovative and have fantastic humor and talk about what’s happening in the now. But we don’t want to go over the edge.”

One can only imagine what a great impression this woman must have made in her job interview at “PG” WWE. (I’m even wondering if Linda McMahon stole her line about “evolving” standards – a word McMahon applies to everything from program content to now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t drug testing. If WWE had seen at least a little of it between 1996 and 2006, a few more wrestling performers might still be walking around today in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.)

At ESPN – according to New York Times reporter Michael Freeman’s 2000 book, ESPN: The Uncensored History – more than 90 claims of sexual harassment were filed by female employees of the network during the 1990s. One of the accused, Mike Tirico, is now the lead announcer on Monday Night Football.

In 2006, ESPN fired analyst Harold Reynolds, who had just signed a six-year contract, amidst charges that he showed a little too much range inside and outside the “Baseball Tonight” set. (Reynolds is now with the MLB Network.)

The more recent case of the tawdry affair with a production assistant of another ESPN baseball commentator, Steve Phillips, is slightly off-topic but in the same ballpark.

At the time, Reynolds argued that he was being scapegoated. Reporting on the Jared Bartie scandal in the new issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer, whose knowledge and perspective on these matters are unquestioned, wrote: “The only thing we got is that Bartie is not there, it looks like he’s gone, and [the story on my blog] is the reason why, but there was a feeling he may have been a scapegoat. WWE made no mention of this even though Bartie ranked No. 5 in the company’s hierarchy at the time of his suspension or termination. The WWE web site has removed Bartie from the Executive Officers page which would seem to confirm him no longer being with the company.”

Not knowing exactly what happened, I’m not sure Bartie was a scapegoat. But consider this: As general counsel of WWE, he no doubt had spent a larger percentage of his time than the average “GC” on managing and defending sexual harassment disputes. That he then felt bulletproof enough to have engaged in behavior even coming close to that line says a lot.

As in all other areas of this blog’s reporting, I do not presume to be telling the women – or men – of Connecticut what to think. If the former fully understand Linda McMahon’s business background and have calculated that, in the world of realpolitik, it was an appropriate path to power, then so be it.

But I do ask everyone to spare us all that mother/grandmother/French teacher crap.

Irv Muchnick


1 Response to “Linda McMahon’s WWE and ESPN — Connecticut Cohorts in ‘Sports Entertainment’ and Sexual Harassment”

  1. 1 Keith Harris May 13, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    I interpreted the scapegoat line by Dave Meltzer to mean that there is a culture of sexual harrassment that is endemic within WWE, like there is within ESPN. Should Bartie have been “fired” from WWE, sorry I mean forced to part ways amicably with the company, when his boss has probably been guilty of similar behaviour in the past?

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