Jim Heaphy has been a Wikipedia editor since 2009 and is a regular Teahouse host. His focus is on content where he creates an eclectic mix of articles. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect any official opinions of this publication.
Wikipedia referees wag a finger at Professional Wrestling editors
Joining such hot button topics as the Syrian Civil War, ISIS and cryptocurrencies, professional wrestling is the latest topic area to come under community-authorized general sanctions. This decision was a result of a sometimes heated discussion at the Administrators' Noticeboard that concluded on June 22, 2018. Why did the community feel the need to impose these sanctions?
Inexperienced but passionate editors working in the professional wrestling area led to excessive edit warring and heated disputes. The nature of professional wrestling itself, which occupies a grey zone between truly competitive sports and scripted fictional entertainment such as film and television dramas, was an even deeper cause. The term sports entertainment is sometimes used. Complicating the issues even further, although the matches are scripted and predetermined, professional wrestling has historically presented itself as reality. Called kayfabe within professional wrestling, the social convention is that scripted matches performed by stylized characters are presented as if it is all genuine. This practice leads those who dislike it to conclude that pro wrestling is based on lies. In this strange cultural phenomenon that goes back to its origins in carnivals and sideshows many decades ago, all participants in professional wrestling were expected to insist that the matches, championship titles, the grudges, the feuds, the gimmicks and the over-the-top characters were all 100% genuine. The dominance of kayfabe has eroded a bit in the Internet era, but the attitude is still very much alive. Unsurprisingly but unfortunately, the kayfabe attitude influences Wikipedia's coverage of pro wrestling.
I first saw professional wrestling around 1960. These locally produced wrestling matches were shown on black-and-white TV with much lower production values than today, but they presented the matches as absolutely genuine. I remember sitting in front of the TV with several other neighborhood children, and I was laughing and calling the whole thing a fake. The other kids were indignant with me and insisted that these were real athletic competitions fought by truly brave and strong warriors. That was my introduction to kayfabe although I had never heard that term at that time. It seems that I was a skeptic from a very young age.
Sport or entertainment?
Reminiscing, I recalled a massive hulk of a gravelly voiced wrestler known as Dick the Bruiser who was a dominant figure in the Midwest at that time. Sure enough, there is a Wikipedia biography of this fellow, and I was surprised to learn that he had played professional football for the Green Bay Packers in the early 1950s, when the Packers were a mediocre team. The rough voice was due to a larynx injury he suffered with the Packers. He had appeared in every regular season game for his four-year NFL career before becoming a professional wrestler. It seems that wrestling was a more lucrative career than football in those years, and quite a few NFL football players later became wrestlers. I expanded the biography, adding some facts about his education and football career, which I had learned about. I also discovered that he was involved in a wrestling riot at the old Madison Square Garden in 1957. Two police officers were injured, two fans were arrested and Dick the Bruiser, whose real name was William Fritz Afflis, was banned for life by the New York State Athletic Commission. Since that brawl was reported by the New York Times, of course I added it to the article. It seems that kayfabe was forgotten that night, at least by the enraged fans who threw hundreds of chairs.
For some reason, working to improve the biography of a single wrestler who died nearly 27 years ago gave me a bit more sympathy for the productive editors who work in this strange topic area, even if I disagree with some of their opinions about what is encyclopedic and what isn't. It must be something about my personality. I try to assume good faith and that serves me well.
I cannot agree with treating professional wrestling as a real competitive sport and presenting its scripted story lines as if they were real events. Some wrestling editors like to point out that our plot summaries of fictional movies, for example, describe the plots as if those events actually happened. That ignores the fact that this content is presented in a section called "Plot summary" and that the motion picture industry does not present its fictional films as true. The professional wrestling industry continues to present its scripted matches as if they are real competitions, and that influences young fans. While care must be taken to ensure that our professional wrestling articles reflect Wikipedia's norms, and not kayfabe norms, I do agree that professional wrestling is highly notable and that this encyclopedia ought to give it comprehensive coverage. I have a growing respect for the editors who are trying sincerely to improve those articles.
WikiProject Professional wrestling is very active, and I recommend that any editor with any interest in the topic area should read its talk page and make constructive comments there. Simply reading a couple of lengthy threads there helps any editor to better understand the passions and enthusiasm that motivate many pro wrestling editors.
A current debate
Since July 10, an ongoing, in-depth discussion at the Village Pump asks: "Should the 'In wrestling' section be removed from professional wrestling articles?" In effect, this proposal gives productive wrestling editors a consensus to systematically clean up poorly referenced trivia from these articles. Reading that debate reveals how many wrestling editors are devoted to maintaining poorly referenced fan site content. It seems that Wikipedia is now, in effect, the fan site for professional wrestling. That makes me uncomfortable. Unsurprisingly, many of these accounts commenting at the Village pump are newly created and show little if any understanding of our policies and guidelines.
Cleaning up over 10,000 pro wrestling articles is a necessary challenge but I am optimistic it will happen because I have learned that there are quite a few solid pro wrestling editors who are trying to do the right thing.