Pro Wrestling’s Commentary Culture Needs to Change

Here's how

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WWE announcer Renee Young / Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Jim Cornette, a longtime pro-wrestling personality who has appeared in some form or another in almost every major wrestling brand, continues to be one of the more controversial figures in the industry. Although few people alive could match Cornette’s impressive résumé, his curmudgeonly character and abrasive disposition have garnered him several long-standing foes.

This week, the National Wrestling Alliance, a deeply respected federation that has waned in popularity amidst the rise of newer and flashier brands, announced the hiring of Cornette as a member of its commentary team, drawing immediate widespread criticism from fans and performers alike. The hiring of Cornette, although wildly disappointing, also puts a sharp juxtaposition between NWA and the new crop of promotions that are working toward bettering the industry by making sure that it’s not just the people in the ring who represent a diversity of perspectives. 

The Cornette problem is specifically interesting beyond the undeniably bad optics of the situation: Cornette is not simply yet another cisgender, heterosexual, white male hired despite his obvious obsolescence within the business. What’s fascinating about the decision to hire him is that it seems almost spiteful in the face of criticism around the socio-political changes within the industry. That is to say Cornette’s schtick is that wrestling needs to abandon its more fantastical and vaudeville aspects and aspire to complete and total realism in order to recapture the glory of its most popular cultural moments. Although Cornette often takes his opinion to polemic extremes, this is a totally reasonable stance to have considering the contemporary status of pro wrestling as niche hobby as opposed to the ubiquitous form of entertainment it was decades ago.

However, in his pursuit of realism, Cornette has blurred the lines between his truculent in-ring persona and his actual personality, thus making him yet another belligerent troll in the industry. Despite his self-proclaimed left-leaning politics, Cornette has been criticized for his intolerance of Islam and his past usage of several racial slurs. He’s more recently gone after LGBTQ pro wrestlers using questionable verbiage. When reproached, Cornette usually doubles down in the manner of a juvenile 4chan troll, tiredly bragging about drinking the tears of the triggered—or whatever. 

The issue here is not Cornette’s ideology around pro wrestling writ large but his cantankerous and poisonous personality, which often manifests as patent bigotry. Older people in the industry have been quick to say that his decades of experience excuses his more odious statements, but the new generation of audience members and athletes has been vocal with their disagreements. NWA’s hiring of Cornette establishes the brand, just as it arrives at a new TV deal following a split from Ring of Honor, as pointedly behind the times.

Commentary teams throughout the industry have a significant diversity problem: It’s still frighteningly rare to see duos or trios comprising anything other than white, cisgender, heterosexual men. Leering and lecherous on-mic asides between the men remain—especially during women’s matches—aggravatingly commonplace, even at the highest level, as are homophobic and racist jokes.

Bizarrely, WWE, despite its overall conservatism, has been somewhat ahead of the game on this matter. It has featured female ring announcers like Lilian GarciaJoJo Offerman and Alicia Taylor for years and now use the adorably wholesome, semi-retired pro wrestler Beth Phoenix on NXT commentary and broadcast professional Renee Young on RAW commentary. Although the men at the ringside table next to them sometimes simply can’t contain their misogyny or condescension, Phoenix and Young’s presence helps mitigate the situation. (Frustratingly, commentator Corey Graves spends a considerable amount of time on the mic arguing with Young, often making the show impossible to watch.)


By contrast, All Elite Wrestling—a burgeoning wrestling brand being posed as WWE’s newest competition—has no women on its commentary team at all. This seems particularly striking considering the new company’s touting of gender parity as a founding tenet of its philosophy.


The lack of women (and sexual minorities) on commentary teams on major programs seems baffling considering the plethora of talent on the indies. Chicago-based promotion RISE, formerly a women-only federation that recently rebranded to be more gender-inclusive, is voiced by pro wrestlers Veda Scott and Allysin Kay aka Sienna. The comedic duo provide jaunty banter amidst serious conversations that regularly display their in-ring expertise, all while remaining incredibly respectful of pronouns. Cheery comedian and podcaster Sarah Joy Shockey, currently commenting at AAW and Black Label Pro, has become a favorite amongst hardcore wrestling fans for her endless optimism and positivity. Meanwhile, Kathy Campanelli has been generating buzz at the California-based GLAM promotion.


“I just try and do my best when I’m thrown in a commentary position. It’s my weakest area in wrestling, but I just go and have fun and try and give my best,” says the affectionately nicknamed Step Stool Sarah, who has worked in several capacities including commentary at Black Label Pro.


“It’s important to get different aspects from different people,” Sarah continued. “And if you only have straight cis males, you’re not gonna get that much difference ... Especially when it comes to women in matches, it’s not always fun to hear men calling the match. Even including people from other ethnicities can make a huge difference.” 


It might seem nit-picking to go after commentary teams specifically, but these correspondents play a specific and important role in pro wrestling as a storytelling art form, as opposed to the role the same team would play in traditional athletics. For those not watching live, it’s the commentary team that shapes the narrative of every show by providing performers’ backstories, explicating current feuds, elucidating the syntax and rules of each match, and reacting appropriately to the events of the card. The commentary team is a kind of Greek chorus, showing the audience how they should be responding to the story. If commentary teams remain composed of only white cis men, the kinds of stories that can be told are simply stifled, and the audiences that feel invited to share in the performances will be limited.

Related: Why the PWI 500 Is the Most Controversial Status Symbol in Wrestling

Related: WWE Just Moved Its NXT Showcase to Directly Compete with AEW

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