My heart hurts today, and I am trying to figure out why. It’s because of Hulk Hogan, but I think it’s more than that, too.
If you haven’t yet read the transcript of what Hogan allegedly said according to the National Enquirer, his words are indefensible and inexcusable. There is no place for hate speech from anyone regardless of who they are or were. His comments are hideous, ignorant, shameful, and racist. That needs to be the lead on any and all commentary related to this situation. My intention of this article is not to defend what Hulk Hogan said. His comments represent humanity at its worst, and we as a society need to do better and demand more of each other not only in our words but also in our actions. These words are my first attempt at taking action.
I woke up on Friday morning to a text from my brother asking if I had seen the Hogan stuff. Overnight, Hulk Hogan—arguably the biggest name in the history of professional wrestling and inarguably the face of WWE (formerly WWF) in the late 1980s and early 1990s—had been removed from WWE’s website and removed as a judge on the company’s Tough Enough reality TV program. WWE followed by issuing an official statement that Hogan’s contract with the company had been terminated.
As with most breaking news stories in 2015, my Twitter feed was a mix of speculation, commentary, and memes with the occasional tidbit of actual information sprinkled in. Separating fact from fiction took some time, but one thing was clear: the fact that WWE had severed ties with the Hall of Famer so suddenly and so thoroughly suggested that it was bad, whatever it was. Eventually, after a few rumors, which speculated/suggested/guessed about what the “bad” in question was, were shot down, the National Enquirer broke the story with the transcript of what Hogan allegedly said. The audio, which as of the time I am writing has not yet been posted, reportedly comes from the infamous unauthorized sex tape featuring Hogan.
Maybe my heart hurts because Hogan is also a victim here? Nope.
It’s worth noting, again, that it was an unauthorized tape. Hogan said the tape was made without his knowledge or consent, and it was likewise made public without his permission (Related: Hogan is currently in litigation suing the website Gawker). In Hogan’s mind, he was speaking to an audience of one. Surely, most people have said things behind closed doors that they would not say publicly. Think of the worst thing you have ever said out loud. How many people heard it? What if people judged you as a person based on that one quote? Would that be a fair assessment of who you are as a person?
Let’s assume (and hope) that this was the worst thing Hogan ever said out loud. Our instinct is that even if it was the worst thing he ever said, since he said it once in private (and got caught), there’s a fair chance he said other racist things at some point in his life. But all we have right now, for sure, is this one incident. So, everyone agrees: what he said is foul. It’s disgusting. It’s awful. But how much weight should it hold? And do we even have the right to judge the character of a 61-year-old man based upon a single conversation? Hogan already issued a public apology. Do we believe him? Do we forgive him? Today? Ever?
I don’t know. I think I can forgive Hulk Hogan in time. But I do know that none of what I just wrote in the previous two paragraphs gives Hogan a pass for having said what he said.
Maybe my heart hurts because he was a childhood hero of mine. OK, now we’re getting warmer.
Everyone knows wrestling isn’t real, but the feelings it evokes most certainly are. While Hogan was never in the discussion of the best technical wrestlers in the ring, no one made a crowd of fans feel more than Hulk Hogan did. But today, instead of that childhood euphoria, Hogan fans felt something much different. Learning of the news about Hulk Hogan made wrestling fans across the world feel dirty inside. This wasn’t the first time. From family issues to the aforementioned tape, Hogan’s personal life over the past 10-15 years had already muddied his public image, but most of his fans, myself included, were able to look past his personal missteps or avoid looking altogether to keep up the facade of Hulkamania. That changed today.
I was born in 1984, the same year Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik to claim his first world championship. I grew up on Hulkamania. I said my prayers and took my vitamins just like the Hulkster. I had his poster on my wall, his action figures in my hand, and his T-shirt on my back. The opening lyrics of his iconic theme music are: “I am a real American / fight for the rights of every man.” Today those words ring a little hollow. I’m worried that from now on every time I hear that song the waves of nostalgia that flow through me will be mixed with guilt and shame.
We live in a celebrity-saturated culture. Most people know more about Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber than Sheryl Sandberg and Arne Duncan. Heck, I wrote two separate articles listing my 30 favorite WWE personalities (Hogan was #2) and 30 favorite athletes of all-time, but I couldn’t name 30 scientists or 30 surgeons if my life depended on it. Our society puts athletes and entertainers on a pedestal as if they are superhuman. After all, what child doesn’t love superheroes? Hulk Hogan was a real-life superhero to me. He body-slammed a giant. He stood up for what was right. He represented the “good” red, white, and blue in the triumph over “evil” time after time throughout his WWE career.
As children, we believe our heroes are infallible. Everyday heroes like our parents and grandparents as well as larger than life heroes like Hulk Hogan can do no wrong. We trust them. We believe in the mythology of them. Eventually, there comes a point in everyone’s life when we begin to question things, and we realize that everyday people, even our grandparents and our parents, are humans who are figuring out life one day at a time just like us. And so we are left holding on to a childhood narrative about superheroes. Superheroes are invincible. Superheroes are ideal. But superheroes are also make believe. We hold on so tightly to that last shred of innocence that when it comes crashing down it hurts inside. He was known on screen as “The Immortal” Hulk Hogan, but in reality, it turns out that he is human after all. The champion I looked up to, the superhero I worshipped as a child was, in fact, just a man.
When I was a child, I would have given anything to be more like Hulk Hogan. Today, I came to the sad realization that he is more like me. Flawed. Like we all are.
And maybe that’s why my heart hurts most of all.
Hulk Hogan is not the first nor will he be the last person to say something blatantly racist. Anyone can search through a famous celebrity’s Twitter mentions or a YouTube comments section and find hundreds if not thousands of equally disturbing comments being posted every day. It’s not pretty. And it’s easy to point at those people making outlandish comments on social media or even in person and wave our fingers at them for being such ignorant, narrow-minded, hate-filled people.
However, it is also important for us to recognize that racism is so much more than just that nasty headline we read about or that awful thing that so-and-so said.
My heart hurts because I know that I—a white, male, heterosexual—at the very least exist in a system that privileges my status and oppresses those who are “other” and at my worst may help perpetuate that system. “System” is a key word here. Although I have never said anything like what Hulk Hogan said, that doesn’t mean I’m without fault. No one is.
In a few months, my wife and I will welcome our first child into the world, the same world that produced the hateful comments that inspired this article. As a father, I want what’s best for my son or daughter but not at the expense of others. I want my child to know love not hate. I want my child to be educated about the world they are being born into. For example, I want to share Mia McKenzie’s advice on four things we should all teach kids about racism right now. But in order to teach my child most effectively I know that I must continue to educate myself when it comes to issues that I know not enough about, such as justice and equality, oppression and racism.
I am a husband, a son, a brother, and soon, a father trying to model love to my family. I am a high school English teacher trying to model love to my students. To borrow another WWE superstar’s old catchphrase, I want to rise above hate. I am flawed, but I am trying. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can start by being willing to ask the tough questions of others and of myself. Perhaps more importantly, I can help by reading and listening to the voices of those who are deemed as “other” and sharing them with the world.
My heart is hurting today because so many others are really hurting (and have been for so long), and I am still learning to know how to show that I care.