POLITICO: The story of the “ring boy” scandal suggests at least two possible interpretations of the would-be senator: that she was a compassionate and effective leader, who put a decisive end to a scandal while rescuing its real victim; or, that she was a calculating executive who knew how to take care of troublesome public relations problems in a boundaries-free industry.
The Victim: “‘I Can Truly Say Without Hesitation I’m Thankful For How Linda Handled My Situation.’ … The Two Alleged Harassers, He Continued, ‘Were Fired For There Actions And They NEVER Returned To The Company. That Alone Is More Than Most Companies Would Do Now (Let Alone 20yrs Ago) I’m Sending A Check To Linda’s Campaign Fund This Evening’.”
Linda McMahon's world of wrestling
By Ben Smith and Maggie Haberman
Friday, July 30, 2010
In February 1992, Vince and Linda McMahon faced a classic corporate crisis: A former worker named Tom Cole accused top executives of sexual harassment, hiring a New York lawyer and making his case through the media.
But the McMahons’ company, the World Wrestling Federation, was not your average entertainment corporation, nor was Linda McMahon’s response a page out of the corporate textbook. With Vince McMahon as the iron hand and Linda as the velvet glove, the WWF fired two men accused of harassing the young “ring boys” who followed the wrestling circuit from city to city, and accepted the resignation of a third.
While Vince McMahon led tough negotiations, Linda McMahon took the troubled accuser under her wing, telling him — in his account — that she thought of him “like a son” and would send him to college on the company dime.
The result was an abrupt end to a story that had made it to the pinnacle of the popular media of the time: the Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue talk shows. The WWF, its lawyer told POLITICO, ultimately paid modest settlements to Cole and two other ring boys. Two officials never returned to the company, though the most senior of the three — a close friend of Vince McMahon — was rehired five months later.
The episode offers a glimpse behind the most unusual resume of any serious statewide candidate in 2010. Linda McMahon, now 61, will likely be the Republican candidate for the Senate in Connecticut, and face off against Democrat Richard Blumenthal, now regarded by the GOP as vulnerable because of the controversy over his false claims that he served in Vietnam while in the Marines.
McMahon is running on the strength of her record as chief executive of the company now known as World Wrestling Entertainment, a post she formally assumed amid a steroid investigation that centered on her husband. She stands on the verge of the GOP nomination after a self-financed primary campaign that has left her rival, former Rep. Rob Simmons, who sought to run on the issue of character, in the dust.
Critics, including many social conservatives, express disgust at wrestling’s stream of sex and violence. But Linda McMahon’s allies have been adept at turning any such criticism into evidence of snobbery. Wrestling, after all, is wildly popular in Connecticut and in America.
A more concrete question than whether wrestling hurts America is McMahon’s role in the culture that developed around it, with its cadre of oiled pop culture icons like Hulk Hogan, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
McMahon’s most recent ad minimizes the freak show aspects, featuring two women dismissing the wrestling broadcasts, famous for their exaggerated antics, as “soap opera.”
“Look, she tamed the traveling show world of professional wrestling, turned it into a global company and created 500 jobs here in Connecticut,” one of the women says in the ad.
But McMahon’s critics say the business itself — racked by allegations of steroid use and injuries to wrestlers — should be examined, not just its glitzy product.
The story of the “ring boy” scandal suggests at least two possible interpretations of the would-be senator: that she was a compassionate and effective leader, who put a decisive end to a scandal while rescuing its real victim; or, that she was a calculating executive who knew how to take care of troublesome public relations problems in a boundaries-free industry.
“It’s the circus, and they got these kids — they got runaways and kids from broken homes and groupies,” said Irv Muchnick, author of a book that blames the WWF for wrestlers’ deaths, which the company denies.
Cole, the product of a difficult childhood and broken family, was recruited at 13 to the unglamorous work of assembling and taking apart the ring. And to the McMahons’ long-time lawyer, Jerry McDevitt, Linda McMahon’s intervention in the ring boy’s case after he made the accusations was a telling moment of compassion.
“She’s a very compassionate person and a mother herself, and the day we met with Tom Cole, I thought having her present and a mother’s instincts were invaluable,” McDevitt said.
To Muchnick, what the McMahons did was a classic case of calculated self-protection. They “did their toxic clean-up operation, and they did it very fast,” he said.
Linda McMahon’s role wasn’t solely turning an accuser into an ally. She also was the appealing face in television interviews about the story, portraying the league as acting from an abundance of caution even in firing the announcer whose interest in stroking the feet of young boys had been “blown out of proportion.”
Sitting for an interview in the league’s bland Stamford headquarters after a last spasm of the story hit the local news, McMahon wore a boxy black and white suit, a heavy gold necklace, and a sober look — a spokeswoman’s role she had perfected in a counterpoint to Hogan, “Macho Man” and the building’s other denizens.
McMahon’s subject was Cole. “We took an opportunity to help a young man who — for whatever reason — seemed confused. He seemed troubled and wanted to have an opportunity in life, and we felt that we could help him.”
Cole’s case raised some questions: He never filed a criminal complaint alleging sex abuse, and only came forward well after the alleged improprieties, and he subsequently returned to work with one of the alleged harassers.
But McDevitt, who represented the company and the McMahons at the time, said they had substantiated some of Cole’s claims.
Cole would later say in a deposition (in a libel suit the WWF brought, and later dropped, against a sports columnist who first wrote about the case) and in media interviews that he was one of a group of young, male fans recruited to help assemble and take apart rings. He alleged a series of encounters, including an apparent sexual proposition from the former wrestler who supervised the ring boys, and the ring announcer’s fascination with his feet. (The supervisor died in 1998; the announcer could not be reached for comment; neither was ever charged with a crime.)
Cole also claimed in a deposition that Vince McMahon’s right-hand man, Pat Patterson, had grabbed his buttocks.
When the McMahons learned of Cole’s allegations from media reports, McDevitt said, they raced to New York to meet him at the office of his lawyer on a cold Sunday morning early in 1992.
This was hardly a standard corporate move. The accuser had lawyered up, and most executives would have been hard at work putting distance between themselves and Cole. But the McMahons saw an opportunity to end the story, and, confident in their very different skills – Vince’s hard negotiating style, Linda’s equally fearless charm — they sat down with Cole in his lawyer’s office.
“Find me any CEO of a company under the kinds of circumstances we faced at the time — a vague attack in the tabloids about this ‘boy sex scandal’” who would do what the McMahons did, McDevitt said. “They got up from their desks, and they sought this boy out to hear his grievance — personally.”
Cole recalled the climactic meeting in his 1999 interview in Wrestling Perspective, a small newsletter edited as a hobby by an Ohio newspaper reporter and a New York journalism professor.
Vince McMahon scoffed at the lawyer’s demands for big money, Cole recalled, but he promised immediate action, and offered Cole his job back, along with “back wages” calculated at $55,000.
Cole signed the settlement on April 8 and went back to work the next Monday, to a charm offensive from Linda McMahon.
“We’re going to send a car for you so you can go shopping. I’m sending $5,000 over so you can go get clothes and whatever you need,” he recalled her telling him.
McDevitt described the gift of the clothes as a “gesture” on the part of McMahon. He said he took offense at any insinuation that it was about anything other than trying to help a troubled young man.
“I loved wrestling. I loved working for the business. It’s what I wanted to do my whole life,” Cole said in the 1999 interview, explaining why he’d returned to the job.
And two of the men he accused of misbehavior were gone for good. But in August, the WWF rehired the third man, Patterson, after an internal investigation. A close friend of McMahon and a gay man in a culture that can be at times both homophobic and homoerotic, he wrestled as “Pretty Boy Pat Patterson,” and, according to McDevitt, had been “horribly victimized” by other false allegations.
McDevitt declined to respond directly to the question of whether Patterson had in fact grabbed the ring boy, saying he would not have words put in his mouth. He insisted the central question was whether Cole had been comfortable with Patterson’s return.
“I had many conversations with Mr. Cole, and the most relevant conversations 18 years ago were ones in which I discussed with him bringing Pat Patterson back to work and whether he had any problem with that. He did not,” McDevitt said, adding that there has been “not a single claim against Pat Patterson in the 18 years since he returned.”
While McDevitt was unwilling to respond to questions about what Patterson had or had not done, he said he thought Cole, under the influence of others, “was pushed to bend the facts a little bit with respect to Pat.”
Patterson could not be reached at Florida telephone numbers associated with his name, and McDevitt declined to make him available to POLITICO.
At any rate, Cole, in his 1999 interview, said he didn’t raise any objections to Patterson’s return.
The WWF sent Cole to community college, but when he didn’t live up to a promise to earn passing grades, his job — and the WWF’s charity — ended.
In the 1999 interview, Cole was bitter at the WWF, at the “manipulative” and “ruthless” Vince McMahon, and particularly, at Linda McMahon.
“I wish I could say she was a nice person. Sometimes she gave me that feeling and sometimes she didn’t,” he said in 1999. “I don’t know what I feel about Linda McMahon. Disappointed — disappointed in everything that she had promised they would do.”
In the intervening years, according to McDevitt, his views about her changed.
Cole hung up on a POLITICO reporter who called seeking his recollection of McMahon, then, ,according to McDevitt, alerted him to the call. The next day, McDevitt provided the following e-mail, as written by Cole:
“I can truly say without hesitation I’m thankful for how Linda handled my situation. Without me going out into the world and finding myself, god knows where I'd be,” reads the email. The two alleged harassers, he continued, “were fired for there actions and they NEVER returned to the Company. That alone is more than most Companies would do now (let alone 20yrs ago) I'm sending a check to Linda's campaign fund this evening. She is after all my favorite type of Politician...Fiscally Sound. As a life long Republican I hope she wins.”
Whether she does will depend in no small part on the public’s judgment of her role navigating wrestling’s often-lurid scandals and challenges. The “ring boy” affair is one in a series that suggests that McMahon — businesswoman or cynic, maternal or manipulative — was good at what she did.