ST. PAUL, Minn.—Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's scheduled one-day return to the pro wrestling ring is just one more sign of the times for Wade Horn.
It's not that Horn, president of the Gaithersburg, Md.-based National Fatherhood Initiative, has it in for the wrestler-turned-governor. He doesn't think the public should worry about the publicity (and prestige) a reigning governor might bring to the sport when Ventura referees the World Wrestling Federation's Summerslam on Aug. 22.
Rather, Horn's big concern lies with parents who matter-of-factly introduce their children to WWF's low-brow mix of vulgarity, sexual innuendo and pseudo-violence.
“I see fathers bringing their kids to these matches,” Horn told the Register. “What is going through their minds?”
“It's indisputable that if we saturate our kids with violence and sex that they will begin to associate the two together,” said Horn, who is also a child psychologist. “This isn't rocket science. This doesn't require a psychologist. This is just logical.”
Horn was quick to admit, though, polling data and television ratings seem to indicate that parents might be sending mixed signals.
“Everybody says that there's too much sex and violence on TV,” he observed, “but somebody is watching this stuff.”
Indeed they are. The WWF has doubled its revenues within the last two years, to $251 million, and earlier this month announced a stock offering expected to generate $172.5 million. For better or for worse, professional wrestling has become a significant, though often overlooked, force in popular culture.
In recent years, the amount of vulgarity and violence in professional wrestling has escalated significantly, but Jim Byrne, senior vice president of marketing for WWF, said he believes that the WWF is simply providing audiences with what they want.
“Yes, we can be a little raunchy,” Byrne told the Register. “Yes, sometimes our wrestlers use colorful language. It's all 100% entertainment.”
Explaining the Minnesota governor's decision to make the Aug. 22 appearance, Byrne said, “Vince McMahon (the founder of WWF) and Jesse Ventura remained good friends over the years. It looked like a great opportunity for everyone to have a lot of fun.”
For parents who object to WWF fare, Byrne encouraged that they use the federation's ratings system, which rates each of its show. Different WWF programs such as “RAW” or “Heat” air on different nights and at different times to let parents better monitor their kids' viewing, Byrne said. And if all programs are unacceptable, then Byrne suggested that parents are free to change the channel.
Ventura spokesman John Wodele agreed. He said that it is not Ventura's responsibility to make sure children aren't watching.
“The governor is a firm believer in parental discretion,” Wodele said. “If they think it's inappropriate, they should monitor access.” He added that the show is intended only for adult. “It's a pay-per-view event; it's not free TV.—There's ample opportunity for parental decision.”
The appearance of the Minnesota governor, who left wrestling in the '80s, may not even attract many children to watch the Summerslam because Ventura isn't as popular with kids as he is with those of college age who grew up with him, said Peter Turo, 13, of White Plains, N.Y.
“Kids our age don't know much about government anyway,” Peter told the Register.
More Demand, More Supply
In fact, wrestling programs dominate most of the top-rated slots in cable television and rank No. 1 among the college-men audience.
But that might change. Plans are in the way for more wrestling, and at earlier times when more kids will likely watch. The Nashville Network will air an hour of Extreme Championship Wrestling from 8 to 9 p.m. starting Aug. 27.
The UPN network announced that it will broadcast wrestling every Thursday from 8 to 10 p.m. with a program called “WWF Smackdown!”
Gov. Jesse Ventura
UPN President Dean Valentine defended his decision at a television critics' meeting in Los Angeles. “We do not believe there is anything sexist or violent about the WWF,” he said.
Others were not so convinced. “There's nothing liquid about water, either,” retorted Horn. Wrestling, he said, “is not a good thing for impressionable minds.”
When Valentine was asked if the WWF was sexist for having a pimp character who brings with him women he calls “hos,” Valentine responded, “Hey, guys, it's comedy. Ligthen up.”
Fake or Real?
“Most 12-year-olds think it's fake, but so what?” said Horn. “Just because you call it a comedy, doesn't mean it has no impact.”
Peter Turo, the 13-year-old from White Plains, agreed that most his kids age know that wrestling is staged. “But I only know it's fake because I've heard it's fake,” he said. Not so with 6- and 7-year-olds, his friend Tim Hurst pointed out. “They think it's real.”
In May, a 7-year-old Dallas boy killed his brother with a clothesline he learned from watching wrestling on TV.
WWF's influence does not stop with just the violence. Many kids knew that former female wrestler Sable had posed nude for Playboy magazine, because it was mentioned prominently on the WWF and received widespread media publicity on talk shows like “Roseanne.” Moreover, many male wrestlers make references to deviant sexual acts and often degrade women both verbally and physically.
Real vs. TV
Gary Wolfram, of Hillsdale, Mich., blamed parents for shunning their duties. “How do children have the time to watch this stuff?” asked the Catholic father of three.
In order that his 11-year-old son, Wyatt, properly understand the distinction between television and reality, Wolfram takes him along on deer hunting trips.
“When you take your child along for a hunt, you can show him true violence,” Wolfram said. “The deer's dead. It's not coming back up. On TV, you just shoot the person and that's it. It's a false sense of violence; there's no consequences for your actions.”
Josh Mercer, a native Minnesotan, Is based in Washington, D.C