Vince McMahon cynically plays ‘Mr. McMahon’ on WWE ‘SmackDown’

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As a disgraced Vince McMahon stared down the thousands in attendance at Minneapolis’ Target Center to open Friday’s live broadcast of WWE’s “Friday Night SmackDown,” he invoked his company’s signature tagline: “Then. Now. Forever. Together.” The most important of those four cornerstones, he insisted, was the ultimate one: together. Strange sentiment from someone who earlier that day stepped back from his decades-long role as chief executive and chairman following revelations in the Wall Street Journal that he’d allegedly paid millions to silence a former staff paralegal with whom he carried on an extramarital affair.

But the 76-year-old billionaire’s appearance was strategically divorced from reality the moment it was advertised. (The woman he is said to have paid off was 41 at the time of their reported relationship in 2019, and was also allegedly offered to John Laurinaitis, WWE’s head of talent relations, “like a toy.”) The peacocking mogul who strutted down the entrance ramp to open “SmackDown” and ultimately hightailed it just as fast was not Vincent Kennedy McMahon. It was his onscreen alter ego, “Mr. McMahon,” a guise behind a guise that McMahon has inhabited for years to both burnish his bona fides as an onscreen tough guy and cannily parody his very real reputation as a controlling megalomaniac. The same indefatigable promoter whose show-must-go-on mentality has only hardened since WWE began airing several hours of live and pre-taped content each week viewed the timing of tonight’s primetime airing through one lens: opportunity.

While Vince may have temporarily ceded C-Suite authority — handing the reins to daughter Stephanie one month after her own publicly declared leave of absence for, ironically, family reasons — WWE confirmed in a corporate release that he will retain creative control of all programming. Which, on this day, meant there was no way to stop sports entertainment’s master manipulator from seizing on mainstream media attention to suit his own ends, no matter how mortifying or misleading the spectacle.

If that tack sounds like a page out of his longtime ally Donald Trump’s playbook, the most important insight to glean is that it’s Trump who has always tried to keep up with his savvier friend. (Unlike the gilded former president, McMahon endured a volatile trailer-park childhood in North Carolina before, yes, taking over and expanding his father’s business.)

The truth is, Vince doesn’t have that much to lose, and he knows it. He’s been open in the past about being unfaithful to his wife, Linda, who served under Trump as administrator of the Small Business Administration. He’s slithered out from underneath federal scrutiny time and again, most notably in 1994 when he evaded conviction on charges of ostensibly using WWE as a glorified steroid-distribution racket. (As we speak, WWE is co-producing a scripted series about the scandal.)

More recently, he came out unscathed after ex-wrestler Ashley Massaro accused him of negligence for failing to take action after she was allegedly raped overseas by a military doctor as part of a WWE tour of armed-forces bases. (Ditto a class action brought by Massaro and others that the company was responsible for neurological injuries sustained in the ring.) Massaro tragically died by suicide in 2019.

In a detail that seems to have been brushed over, McMahon even hinted at culpability since the news of his latest alleged indiscretion broke, offering in a corporate press release that he has “pledged my complete cooperation to the investigation by the Special Committee, and I will do everything possible to support the investigation. I have also pledged to accept the findings and outcome of the investigation, whatever they are.”

Those words betray the brazenness of someone who may have lost the confidence and respect of a segment of viewers and even stakeholders, but still owns a majority of controlling shares in the company he’s overseen for 40 years. And that confidence helps clarify how someone under this kind of scrutiny in a post-#MeToo culture can so comfortably reassume a thinly veiled persona he concocted when WWE was on the ropes against serious competition a quarter-century ago. (It was Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling then, upstart billionaire Tony Khan’s All Elite Wrestling now.)

Competition is what fuels Vince McMahon — competition for ratings, global dominance, social media saturation, prestige, alpha-male pride and the adoration of millions. He doesn’t care what people think of Vince McMahon, but he knows how his fanbase feels about Mr. McMahon, and he played both sides against the middle in Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, his daughter has dutifully filled the credibility gap, piggybacking off her father’s not-quite mea culpa by adding that she is “committed to working with the Independent Directors to strengthen our culture and our Company.”

But unlike almost any other company in the modern era, that workplace evolution will have to coexist alongside the personal misconduct and creative whims of a nominally deposed mad king who insists on defying disgrace.

In other words, they’ll be enduring this scandal together.

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