Nearly 500 tweets per hour containing the hashtag #firejbl are being sent by WWE fans on Twitter in response to the alleged bullying of a play-by-play announcer who has a history of mental health issues, according to social media analytics firm Hashtags.org. A small number of these fans have even threatened to cancel their subscriptions to WWE Network, the company's streaming video network. But can an online debate truly affect the policy of a $1.6 billion entertainment juggernaut?
Last week, Mauro Ranallo, a commentator on WWE SmackDown since January 2016, reportedly left his position at the company after allegedly being harassed by John "Bradshaw" Layfield, a fellow SmackDown announcer who previously wrestled for WWE dating back to 1995 and who's better known as JBL. (He retired from the ring in 2009.) The alleged incidents of harassment include Layfield criticizing Ranallo for tweeting thanks for receiving a fan award for best announcer of 2016 and then criticizing Ranallo for not attending a recent episode of SmackDown. It's been reported that Ranallo, whose contract with WWE runs through August, missed the episode of SmackDown because he was suffering from a bout of depression.
Aside from the social media chatter, the online discussion surrounding Ranallo has also dominated Squared Circle, the popular subreddit devoted to pro wrestling that has nearly 200,000 subscribers. Numerous other online haunts, including Facebook and Instagram, have seen similar fan protests. Google search traffic for the term "fire jbl" has also spiked in recent days.
When asked about the online protests, a WWE spokesperson told me that Ranallo "remains under contract with WWE until August 12, 2017," though this spokesperson did not mention that the company had removed all references to Ranallo on its social media sites last week. Ranallo himself removed all references to WWE in his Twitter profile last week, as well.
Ranallo has been outspoken about his battles with bipolar disorder. In a 2015 story for mixed martial arts website Sherdog, Ranallo, also an MMA and boxing announcer, spoke about having had suicidal thoughts.
"People think [bipolar disorder] is a label, an excuse," he said. "It's not. It's very real, but it can be dealt with and I'm living proof people can lead functional lives and be bipolar."
Complicating matters, the WWE has corporate partnerships, via its "Be a Star" anti-bullying initiative, with organizations like National Education Association Healthy Futures, DoSomething.org, and STOMP Out Bullying. While neither NEA Healthy Futures nor DoSomething.org responded to my request for comment, a spokesperson for STOMP Out Bullying told me that it "never condones any form of bullying," but that it only comments on specific cases regarding "youth bullying" or cyberbullying.
Intrigued by the growing online movement, I contacted some of the people who threatened to cancel their subscriptions to WWE Network. Most believed this was truly the only way for the company to take the #firejbl movement seriously.
"I gave [WWE] until the end of the month to take responsibility of the situation, but I'm ready to cancel now," Twitter user @BrentBowser1337 told me via direct message. "As someone who has a bipolar father, and someone who has struggled with suicidal tendencies myself, I have no sympathy for JBL nor for the WWE if they continue their anti-bully campaign and allow bullying to continue in their work environment."
"This is not how a publicly traded company should deal with this situation," he added.
Over on Squared Circle, the discussion surrounding Ranallo grew so large and intense that it spawned three "megathreads." Fans openly wondered how a company so seemingly committed to progressive ideals like diversity and inclusion could allow such alleged behavior to go unchecked. "Cancelled my WWE Network sub and listed JBL's history of bullying as the reason," said one Redditor named Chiponyasu. This "is probably the only thing I can do that they'll care about even a little."
Just how much the WWE cares remains to be seen. The WWE Network's 1.45 million subscribers in the U.S. makes it the fifth biggest streaming video service in the country (behind Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and MLB.tv). A handful of Redditors and Twitter users threatening to cancel their subscriptions is unlikely cause massive changes. But many in the online community continue to hope their voices are heard.
"Until the culture changes in WWE, I will not be continuing my Network sub," abzonline, a member of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter message board (which is behind a paywall), said yesterday. "Whilst [WWE] won't feel the effect of my cancelled sub, I think that if anyone does not approve of this, as a matter of principle, they should also cancel their sub."
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