How Come No One Cares about the Referee?

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On the one hand, the purveyors of the astonishing spectacle of wrestling assert that of course the entire business is a pageant of improbable if skilled fakery among steroidal mutants displaying vigorous athletic vivacity. Therefore it means nothing. Just a show. It has no effect on viewers. Merely sumpin' to watch. That's entertainment for you.

On the other hand, just try to purchase advertising time on prime television wrestling and you will discover from the prices that?gosh?there is an effect, which is that people see the ads and then spend their own money on what they're lured to buy. So wrestling cannot at the same time be wholly without social meaning as an event, and yet compellingly influential as an economic force. That must be why dozens of Fortune 500 companies advertise on wrestling shows, even though they wouldn't dream of appearing steadily on programs that end with the safecracker living in the mansion on the hill, the pedophile becoming a trustee of the Sarasota Opera or the swindler of widows and orphans assuming the presidency of the University of Michigan. After all, there are moral standards to uphold. People have to obey the referee, otherwise they have to be punished. That's what decent companies believe.

Except about wrestling. Despite its fakery, it manages nonetheless to produce discernible gastric upset among numerous grownups normally inclined to advise their children and fellow citizens that hitting the referee with chairs is an unmistakable sign of incivility

For example, at the end of 1999, Coca-Cola, AT&T, the U.S. Army and Mars, among others, decided that though they had advertised on the World Wrestling Federation program Smackdown! for years, more than enough was enough and they pulled their money out. This indelicate gesture was sufficiently arresting to stimulate the federation (apparently despite its concerns about artistic expression and the First Amendment) to announce that it would renovate some of its more miserable effusions, to provide the equivalent of a TV-PG rating. Presumably this would generate the happy result that now the entire family could assemble in the rec room to share with moral confidence all the ruleless mayhem; racial, religious and ethnic profiling; and stupifyingly stupid story lines generated by the scriptwriters back at Headquarters and performed by gladiators expertly schooled in Method Overacting. And so what if one of the features of extreme wrestling involves barbed-wire shields applied to the bodies of wrestlers who then bleed for your edification? If it's a fake, it is certainly real enough to associate each cut and drip with a particular barb, and to provide a performance of sufficient viciousness as to provoke a police raid. Assault and battery arrests would follow under any other circumstances. And if the referee is consistently ignored by those in theory subject to his rulings, well, it's just entertainment and don't try this at home.

But perhaps people do, especially young men who appear to thrive on extremities of danger and rulelessness. Last week in San Francisco the X Games were held?the adrenaline olympics?involving an international group of some 450 on-the-edge competitive athletes. During the games last year, more than a quarter of a million spectators paid cash money to attend, and more than five million people surveyed the events on ESPN?a group of viewers that included 37 percent of the teenage males in the United States of America. And this group of young consumers is in a position to spend $650 billion a year; they are willing and able to use their funds to observe other people in death-defying acts on luges, with parachutes, on dirt bikes and in an extraordinarily imaginative array of other ways to do something completely unnecessary in a manner altogether uncomfortable?the scarier the merrier.

This is to say nothing of the countless hours young men spend combating imaginary enemies or each other in computerized and PlayStation war games. These often involve the most elaborate and bloody forms of pictorial devastation. They choose this by and for themselves. It is not on their junior high curricula. Earnest parents do not press it on them. They like it, perhaps the way the Romans loved their Colosseum spectacles of animal hunts in the morning show. Then after a light lunch, featuring torture or flogging or beheading of condemned criminals collected from the nation's hoosegows, the afternoon's entertainment featured gladiators doing their best work, with one clearly deserving survivor per duet. Occasionally for worthy purposes of public celebration, such as the dedication of the Colosseum in AD 80 by the thoughtful emperor Titus, the slaughter thousands of beasts was the order of the day.

Extreme wrestling reflects a longstanding tradition that may in turn reflect some important feature of our own nature. So do cockfighting and boxing without rules and limits, and so does the shootout at the OK Corral, and so does the effortlessly recurrent gun-fare in films and video, especially American. But even in these turbulent conflicts, by and large the stars don't hit the referee with chairs. And by and large insurance companies and SUV vendors don't advertise at the scene of the crime. And I still don't understand why no one cares about the referee.

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