I like watching football in all forms, including weird, crappy versions—especially weird, crappy ones, if I’m being honest. So when rumors began to circulate this week that Vince McMahon was planning a reboot of the failed XFL, I got excited. The NFL might actually be forced to listen to fans if confronted with a legitimate, deep-pocketed competitor. And while the original XFL was doomed for a variety of reasons—reasons no. 1, no. 2, and no. 3: the football sucked—nostalgia and a 30 for 30 documentary have retroactively boosted the league’s reputation. It was rebellious, it was inventive. I mean, just watch this video:
If you exclude the fact the XFL was actively marketing a head injury to one of its best players, this video is perfect. It would be cool to see smarter execution of a fun idea.
But what McMahon proposed at his Thursday press conference promises to be very different from the original XFL. While the first XFL tried to sell fans on violence, a teaser video for XFL 2020 promises the game will be “safer.” While the first XFL played up the sex appeal of cheerleaders, McMahon vows that these games will have no cheerleaders whatsoever.
Most notably, this revamped iteration of the XFL will include a pair of player conduct restrictions. The first XFL let players express themselves in ways that the NFL would never allow; this one will crack down on athlete activism by requiring all players to stand for the national anthem. The first XFL literally featured a team called the “Las Vegas Outlaws”; this one will allow “no criminality,” according to McMahon, who says that any player who is arrested (not even convicted!) will be banned from the league. The X now stands for Xtreme Lawfulness.
There is no reason to believe that the XFL will be able to poach football talent from the NFL: McMahon’s initial investment appears to be $100 million, suggesting that the entire eight-team league will operate on a budget that’s about $90 million less than each NFL team will be allowed to spend on player salary in 2020. The XFL’s football product will be just as bad as it was in 2001. The main difference with the new version is that while the first XFL sold rebelliousness, this one will make unyielding obedience its primary selling point.
McMahon contends that the league will have “nothing to do with politics,” but of course, his proposed updates are inherently political. He’s tapping into comments repeatedly made by President Donald Trump. Trump has railed against the NFL for allowing players to protest social injustices by kneeling during the national anthem, saying that any owner who fired a kneeling athlete would instantly become the most popular man in America.
In fact, McMahon is going a step further and barring any player who has ever been arrested. This seems to stem from the inaccurate belief that a big problem with the majority-black NFL is it has large swaths of players with criminal records. In reality, NFL players are arrested much less frequently than the general population.
McMahon is even listening to Trump’s complaints about NFL officiating, promising “less stall” and “fewer infractions” in his new league. And it’s not surprising that McMahon is essentially constructing a football league that addresses the problems Trump has with the NFL. (Trump probably should not be trusted on this matter.) After all, McMahon and Trump are longtime collaborators. Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame; McMahon’s wife, Linda, was appointed by Trump as the head of the Small Business Administration. Here is a completely accurate sentence: At WrestleMania 23, the current president of the United States body-slammed and shaved the head of the husband of a future cabinet-level appointee before being stunned by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. (Trump did an awful job selling the stunner.)
But Trump’s beliefs about the NFL don’t align with reality. It’s true that the NFL’s ratings are down, but so are ratings of baseball, hockey, NASCAR, soccer, and the Olympics, which haven’t had the same anthem protests that Trump claims are responsible for the NFL’s imminent demise. The NFL should be troubled by its ratings dip, but it is not, as Trump implies, failing. Fewer people are watching, but the league’s games still draw more viewers than any other televised event. The NFL is simply one of the parties affected by a general dip in TV viewership, a trend that should concern all sports entities, regardless of how they have handled social issues.
One sports entity that isn’t struggling, however, is McMahon’s WWE. In January 2015 its stock dipped under $10 per share; now it’s trading at over $34 per share. The value of the company has doubled in the past 18 months, turning McMahon from a merely extremely rich person into a billionaire. The company launched the WWE Network in 2014, and its $10-per-month subscription fee has generated upwards of $100 million in annual revenue, a marked improvement from the company’s previous dependence on the hit-or-miss world of pay-per-view buys. Plus, strong TV ratings mean there is likely a bidding war upcoming for the WWE’s non-subscription shows.
Suffice it to say, the WWE does not follow the stringent rules that McMahon is proposing for the new XFL. The WWE certainly does not immediately ban any wrestler who is arrested; in fact, just last week, it allowed a wrestler arrested for DWI on Sunday to appear on a Tuesday episode of SmackDown. The national anthem is not played before most WWE shows, and the company’s messaging surrounding peaceful protests is one of encouragement and acceptance. Triple H, McMahon’s son-in-law and an executive with the company, said in October that WWE respects “everybody’s First Amendment right of freedom of speech, their right to peacefully protest, and do what is meaningful to them.”
I don’t understand how McMahon could look at the massive success he’s achieved by running an organization that operates like the WWE and come to the conclusion that America is pining for a league built upon on strict adherence to societal norms. Perhaps McMahon thinks the collapse of the original XFL means that he should do the exact opposite of what he did the first time around. His sexy, edgy football league failed, so he is launching a football league for fans of authoritarianism.
The result will be a league that preserves the garbage football quality that killed the first XFL while eliminating the outlaw ethos that’s remembered somewhat fondly. McMahon thinks he’s going to Make Football Great Again; he seems more likely to make bad football boring.