Wrestling with Hulk Hogan’s return to Raw

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The argument of many – from fans & bloggers to members of their own locker room – who found WWE’s reconciliation with Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea distasteful, offensive and/or misguided was that it was understandable for the company to recognize his importance to the business/artform. Anything beyond that sent the wrong message about a man whose remorse for being recorded calling himself a racist and making racist statements have read more like excuses than atonement.

In announcing Hogan’s return to Monday Night Raw for the first time since his 2015 firing, the company’s found a way to use Hulk’s legacy on the current product. He’ll appear Monday (Jan. 7) night as part of a tribute to Gene Okerlund, who died last week. Whether he was playing the Hulkster or Hollywood, Okerlund and Hogan worked together at the forefront of wrestling’s two biggest boom periods. It’s impossible to downplay the importance of the two Hall of Famers to one another’s career, or the industry. That makes it difficult to argue with offering Hulk a role in honoring his friend & colleague in Orlando next week.

Not impossible, mind you. There will be folks who believe this to be too much to stomach – that WWE using Okerlund’s memory as the next step in their public reunion with Hogan is even more reprehensible than just bringing him back to pop a crowd, or try to spike ratings. Maybe I should be one of them. I was pretty clear on what Bollea would need to do to make his apology ring less hollow, and to my knowledge, he still hasn’t done those things.

Has the WWE machine ground me into submission? Called my bluff that I want to consume their brand of pro wrestling more than I want to reject an old man for his racist views?

Or is this the right way to use him? We have no reason to think Okerlund wouldn’t want Hogan to be part of honoring him. And it does utilize the “recognize his role in history” loophole many of his detractors left open when expressing their objection to his return.

You need only look to social media or a sold out nWo reunion to see there are lots of people who support Hulk’s return to a larger role in WWE and wrestling. Maybe if Raw happened to be in California instead of Florida next week, Hogan’s Mean Gene tribute would have been kept to a video that isn’t shown in the arena – like their promotion for the Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia where he made his last appearance amidst an even bigger controversy. But in his own home state, the crowd would likely be welcoming, even without the Okerlund memorial.

As a global outfit with fans from both sides of the political aisle and cultures all around the world, many of whom want to purchase a ticket to see Hulk Hogan or buy red & yellow (or black & white) bandanas, does WWE owe it to their shareholders to bring him back into the fold? Is this an attempt to do that in the least objectionable way possible? Is that them being sensitive to those hurt by his past statements & current justifications for them, and seeking a compromise position? Or exploiting Okerlund’s memory for their – and Bollea’s – bottom line?

Being as I’m not a mind-reader, I’ll have to wonder about the answers to those questions. If WWE chose to answer them, we’d get some well-crafted public relations speak – which doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be some truth to it. Part of my personal processing of this whole situation is as someone with a business degree who spent a decade in corporate marketing. And that part of me does tip his cap and say, “well played”. From firing to slow reintegration, this is about as well as you can handle the most recognizable face in your industry making racist statements on a sex tape – from a PR perspective.

It’s on an ethical basis that things get murky. As a fan, I’ve stuck with wrestling and WWE through a lot of shadiness now. My current paycheck depends on my continuing to pay attention to Vince McMahon’s company. So even though I believe welcoming Hogan back beyond recognizing his Hall of Fame status in the history books is sending the wrong message – at least with the level of contrition and type of amends he’s made to date – I’m not going to refuse to watch or otherwise make too big a stink about his appearance to honor Okerlund on Monday night.

I will continue to remind anyone I can that what he said on that tape was reprehensible – the notion that a black man is only worthwhile if he’s rich moreso than even the word he used to describe black people. And that repeatedly mentioning the upbringing which taught him it was okay to think that way, or counciling others to be careful what you say because it might get recorded, instead of learning why the views he expressed are wrong and helping others who hold them to change their thinking, are signs he hasn’t learned anything and therefore shouldn’t be celebrated.

“Let me tell you something, Mean Gene,” will always have a place in my heart. From Okerlund’s passing to WWE’s announcement Hogan would return to celebrate his life, I’ve been reminded of that. I’ve also been reminded that, despite that, I don’t have forgiveness in my heart for Terry Bollea.

And WWE will continue to make me wrestle with that.




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