October 23, 2020

Safeguarding In UK Wrestling

In recent years the popularity of UK Wresting has soared. With shows every weekend around the country drawing in big crowds of both young and old, the activity which is a mixture of both acting and sport is now highly popular in the UK just as it is in America and Japan.

NXT UK is a professional wrestling television programme produced by WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) arguably the biggest entertainment giants for wrestling.  The show airs in the United Kingdom on BT Sport, Channel 5 and Paramount Network making overnight successes of some of the show’s stars.

Films like Fighting With My Family based on the true-life success story of Saraya-Jade Bevis (Paige) who was signed to WWE and was the youngest ever Diva Champion at the age of 21 have been hugely successful.

In recent months, however, wrestling has repeatedly hit the headlines for the wrong reasons; abuse by leading wrestlers and secondly safeguarding issues.

Wrestlers, promoters, and other people in the industry were accused of sexual misconduct, with people using the hashtag #SpeakingOut as they shared their stories on social media. A wave of suspensions and sackings followed in the UK and the US, including big names from WWE.

BBC journalist Jonathan Savage reported that West Yorkshire Police were "carrying out initial enquiries" into allegations of a number of cases of abuse reported by female wrestlers.

Following this, many big names in the wrestling world from different organisations such as WWE and Elite Wrestling, both victims and the accused have been disclosed in recent publications

Kelly Klein a professional female American wrestler wrote on Twitter: “I was raped by a now well-known wrestler when I was 18. I didn’t feel like I had support or sufficient proof. I believed my career would be over before it started."

Impact Wrestling released Joey Ryan, Dave Crist and Michael Elgin following multiple sexual misconduct allegations shared on social media

WWE recently released Former British champion Gentleman Jack Gallagher over allegations of menacing advances at a New Years Eve party in 2014.

The former cruiserweight wrote, "In 2014, at a New Year's Eve party, I met a young woman and my behaviour towards her was inappropriate. As this party was nearly six years ago and I had drunk quite a large amount of alcohol that night, unfortunately, I do not recollect what happened. I wish to make it clear that drinking is not an excuse for my behaviour that night. I want to express my deepest regrets, and I am genuinely sorry for the upset that I have caused." He continued. "This isolated incident is not reflective of my behaviour and attitude towards women. As a man, I know I can do better, and with the support of my wife, I have taken the time over the last few months to understand what I can do. But this is not about me, but about the women that come forward as part of the #SpeakingOut movement. I will continue to support women and this movement to the best of my ability." 

WWE released a statement on the allegations against the performers in the wrestling company. It said: "Individuals are responsible for their own personal actions. WWE has zero-tolerance for matters involving domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault. Upon arrest for such misconduct, a WWE talent will be immediately suspended. Upon conviction for such misconduct, a WWE talent will be immediately terminated." 

UK wrestling star Matt Riddle is alleged to have abused Candy Cartwright, also a wrestler, in 2018, who claimed on Twitter that Riddle forced her to give him oral sex after choking her.

Another UK wrestling star Jordan Devlin (WWE NXT UK Superstar) has also been named after allegations were made by Hannah Francesca.  Francesca posted a series of tweets in which she alleged she was physically abused by someone in the industry and when she went to the promotion, she was told “One of my boys wouldn’t do that.” She included photos of her bruised body.

WWE executives are reportedly getting together to discuss the influx of abuse allegations levied against NXT UK talent. Tom Colohue reports that WWE officials have called an emergency meeting to discuss the allegations against stars from the brand who have been accused of sexual, physical or mental/verbal abuse: https://411mania.com/wrestling/sexual-misconduct-allegations-el-ligero-mikey-whiplash-uk-wrestlers/

Labour MP Alex Davies-Jones raised the Speaking Out movement in Parliament during a debate on misogyny in sport and stated "The disturbing reality and lived experience for many female wrestlers is, more often than not, entrenched in misogyny," she said.

"I have heard horrific tales from female wrestlers who were faced with threats of rape or sexual assault, all in the name of 'friendly banter', "I have also heard from women as young as 13 or 14 who, at the start of their careers, were the targets of vile behaviours that saw male wrestlers competing to be the one to take their virginity." Davies-Jones said the #SpeakingOut movement had left the wrestling industry "tainted with its harrowing stories of emotional and sexual abuse" and questioned what was being done when there was "no governing body to hold to account" and "Who should these young women turn to?" the MP asked, telling BBC Sport: "Wrestling has fallen through the gaps because it's not necessarily a sport."

In September 2020 it was announced a group of cross-party MPs will launch the first ever inquiry into British Professional wrestling to consider how best to promote, support and improve the wrestling industry in Britain. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wrestling, co-chaired by Davies-Jones and Mark Fletcher MP will start taking evidence, written and oral, to inform a report due to be released in early 2021. Other MPs involved in the inquiry include Tonia Antoniazzi MP, Paul Bristow MP, Ruth Jones MP and Connor McGinn. Guidance on how to provide evidence to the inquiry can be found here.

NXT UK’s Pete Dunne has posted about the situation, noting that he is “disgusted by what I’m reading. Well done to those speaking out. I really hope we can make British wrestling a better place and keep everyone safe. This is a huge eye opener and let’s hope it will force a big change.”

Coach Relationships And Minors

Another reg flag that came from the exposure in wrestling was relationships formed with younger athletes. As with recent exposures in the sport industry, with regard to British Gymnastics, Ballet and Swimming, coaching falls within a problematic loophole. It is illegal for teachers, care workers, doctors and youth justice workers to have sexual intercourse with 16 or 17-year-olds in their care. However due to a loophole, adults who hold a position of power over a young person such as coaches can legally have sex with someone of the age of 16 even in a position of trust such as this.

Such position of trust formed with a coach prevents many young people speaking out for fear this will not only damage their career but that they may not be believed. It provides a dangerous shift in the balance of power. Coaches may have worked with individuals for years having formed close bonds not only with the trainee themselves but also family and friends of the individual.

The NSPCC have been campaigning to change the law to be extended to include any adult who holds a position of power over 16 or 17-year-olds for many years. https://www.nspcc.org.uk/support-us/campaigns/close-the-loophole/ #CloseTheLoophole

Wrestler Banks, whose real name is Travis Bligh, has been accused of emotional and psychological abuse during a relationship with a 17-year-old trainee, Millie McKenzie. Millie accused the then 30 year old coach Banks of being emotionally manipulative of her during a “secret one year relationship” when she was training under him. Banks, who was also released by the WWE's NXT UK promotion, gave BBC Sport a statement in response, saying: "I apologise again for the pain that was caused. This was an entirely consensual relationship but I recognise that what happened should not have happened. "I support the efforts being made by the Speaking Out movement to enable everyone in wrestling, and other sports also, to feel safe and never have to face a similar situation."

Lucia Lee, 18, was another wrestler who came forward. In June 2020 she claimed young women were "slut shamed" and referred to as "ring rats", accused by male colleagues of having "slept their way on to shows". Speaking to BBC Sport, Lee said: "After my first match - I was 16 - there was a 30-something-year-old man backstage. Everyone congratulated me and he just sort of gave me a massive hug and whispered into my ear, 'your arse looked amazing during that match'. "If you speak up against someone that's on big shows, they can start going around to each individual promotion and saying 'don't book her, she's a troublemaker; don't book her she's a ring rat'."

Many of the alleged victims blamed a 'locker room' culture in wrestling that allowed misconduct to happen with a lack of rules no one to check on you.

Again due to the loophole, this will be another sport/activity which will allow young people to remain vulnerable.

What happens next?

It will be of interest to see in the coming months, what safeguarding measures are proposed to protect individuals going forward.

In addition to the Biritsh Inqury, Equity, a trade union for entertainers, has suggested five pledges to regulate British wrestling, including safeguarding and 'dignity at work' policies, separate dressing rooms at shows and agreed transport and accommodation arrangements.

Progress Wrestling told BBC Sport: "We've all got to be great for this industry to work and to prevent another Speaking Out movement happening. Because if we're on the same level, we're on the same page, it's going to be safer for everyone."

Revolution Pro Wrestling CEO Andy Quildan said it wants "an independent body and we want to be held accountable".

British Wrestling have confirmed they are working closely with the NSPCC. The link to this is here.

We encourage anyone who has concerns about sexual abuse to get in touch. You can contact us by emailing aboutabuse@hjtalks.co.uk

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