AEW and the Talk of Diversity

I love wrestling.

I always start off these kinds of pieces by declaring at the forefront that I am an unapologetic wrestling fan. I love this beautiful art form. It’s escapism and magic. It’s tragedy and comedy. It exhibits the stories that make us human.

I love wrestling and will always love wrestling, to the grave.

But, wrestling can disappoint me, put me in a bad place to the point where I reconsider why I even bother to watch it every Wednesday night.

When I launch Twitter to see stories of transphobia towards fans at shows, racist tweets that target Black wrestlers for vocalizing their frustrations with the industry, prominent voices in the community that enable this behavior within their own tight-knit fan base, and in a more specific example, 2020’s Speaking Out movement, it dents any joy that I derive from something I’m supposed to love.

We must listen to each other, discover and implement attitudes that ensure that wrestling can continue to be an inclusive environment for EVERYONE.

And so I turn to AEW’s passionate fanbase. 

I get it: this is a great time to be a pro wrestling fan. In less than 3 years, AEW has become *the* alternative option for professional wrestling in the United States, and their shows are unlike anything that’s been seen in decades, at least since WCW. Isn’t it refreshing to have a promotion that listens to its fanbase, a promotion that nabs the hottest free agent wrestlers from across the country and whips up dream matches in a stitch? 

It’s the breath of fresh air that many have been waiting for, and certainly one I’ve been waiting for too. I can’t describe the immense joy I feel when I get to attend an AEW show; they’re among my favorite live events, and so far, I’ve walked away from every single one happy. It’s great that tons of my favorite wrestlers are all in the same promotion, making AEW a must watch for me every Wednesday.

Case in point: I generally enjoy what AEW has accomplished, and look forward to what they manage to do in their move to TBS. 

But, AEW must listen to its critiques, understand where they are coming from, and address these issues in a professional manner.

I think it’s safe to say that with growing pains come problems that must be addressed. AEW is still a much younger company compared to WWE, IMPACT, and other promotions out there, but that does not excuse it from its mistakes.

Especially when it’s someone who has first-hand experience within AEW, like Big Swole.
Her health was previously cited as the reason she departed from the company, and while she stated that there were other reasons for her decision at the time, those factors have now come to light, declaring that AEW’s lack of Black representation in the top card and the disorganized structure of the women’s division were the main drivers for Swole walking away from AEW.

In fact, she made many points that I’ve previously expressed regarding AEW’s inconsistent inclusion of Black, Latino, and other wrestlers of Color, in either prominent storylines on the flagship show Dynamite or at the top of the card. While I’m thrilled that the Lucha Bros are the current AEW World Tag Team Champions, there’s always room for improvement to ensure inclusion at the main event level, and we, as fans, can continue to make the push for AEW to keep featuring an inclusive set of BIPOC talent on Dynamite and on PPV.

Swole’s words are insightful to what the promotion can improve on, and over the course of 2021 they started to rectify in the eyes of fans. Two women’s tournaments and a few main event spots on TV are great steps in the right direction, but it’s still abysmal that women’s matches are either relegated to PPV pre-shows, or given a single 5-10 minute slot on Dynamite, and I sincerely hope the latter changes with the switch to TBS.

But even though Swole was nothing but courteous and polite with her comments, she still struck a nerve with AEW’s more hardcore fans, and that’s what I’m concerned about. 

Massive quote-tweet ratios. Public shaming. Automatic dismissals of her experience. Lambasting her wrestling abilities. All of these rude tweets in order to defend the “perfect image” AEW projects.

Ugh, gross. Come on now.

There is no need to tantrum on Twitter and act like it’s the end of the world whenever a much-needed point of criticism comes from good faith. 

Granted, this wasn’t the majority of people I saw on Twitter. A lot of my friends and peers in the wrestling community made great comments and responded well to Swole’s critiques, and I applaud them for taking a stand to stand with her. But regardless, this is a huge problem in the AEW community that must be reiterated and addressed, once again.

First of all, not every critique is in the name of tribalism. This absolute way of thinking is harmful when it comes to having meaningful, productive conversations like Swole was trying to highlight in her podcast.

Her comments were absolutely not made as anti-AEW rhetoric, as some people I’ve seen on Twitter believe it to be. This was a perfect opportunity to have a conversation on inclusivity and equity of Black wrestlers in the AEW title scene, as well as considering how the wrestling industry, as a whole, can ensure that a diverse set of voices can contribute to the community and feel safe and included doing so.

Instead, it all got lost in the name of tribalism, and that’s infuriating. 

And if this situation wasn’t already messy enough, Tony Khan’s response made everything worse. He was not only unprofessional, but also enabled the callout, defensive behavior that AEW’s toxic portions of its fan base are known for. 

Now, does Tony Khan have every right to respond back? Yes. He is AEW’s president, the face of the promotion in its business aspects. He is free to comment on any statements that critique his company’s operations.

However, should he have responded in the manner that he did? NO. Either respond in an understanding, polite manner or not at all. 

On the cusp of 2022, Khan’s tweet caused uproar in the community, but for every person who called out his lack of professionalism, there were just as many who jumped to his defense.

This is very concerning. 

Tony Khan’s behavior and the defenses towards his reaction not only substantiates the blind tribalism that harms professional wrestling discourse, but also enables bigoted fans to continue spewing comments that are sexist, racist etc. 

Anthony Bowens was the target of homophobia a few weeks ago on Dynamite. Nyla Rose faced transphobic comments two weeks later. This was all in the same month. With these incidents, and now Tony Khan’s own words, I question the protocols AEW has in place to protect all corners of the community, especially those from BIPOC, LGBTQ+ backgrounds.

Obviously, the internet is the internet, and bigoted individuals are bound to, unfortunately, exist on social media and real life, but it’s a whole layer of futile ignorance hearing this kind of tweet from Tony Khan.

Appalling, truly.

I expected to see this conduct from a random fan with 8 numbers in their Twitter handle, NOT from the president of AEW. Tony Khan has a moral duty as the face of All Elite Wrestling’s branding to set a good example to his fans and potential viewers of his product.

At least on paper, in theory. In practice, the reality is sadly not the case.

This unprofessional behavior has been emulated too many times in professional wrestling’s past, by wealthy promotion owners and leaders in our industry. 

It is for these reasons why I stand by the notion of supporting wrestlers, not promotions. 

The fact that it has been less than a week since the incident and Tony Khan has still not given Big Swole a public apology is unacceptable. I know that several AEW wrestlers have made statements regarding their discussions with Tony in private, but he brought it on himself to respond flippantly to a former employee, who appreciated AEW’s close-knit locker room (if you actually listened to her podcast), who only wanted to give constructive advice, to both make AEW more equitable and attract new fans outside of the white male demographic.

I’ve said this before, but please, we have to listen, and do more than listen.

Being a true ally means lifting up Black voices in the wrestling community when they feel wronged by the systemic structures that inhibit true progress, not speaking over them and gaslighting their emotions. It means standing up for fans and wrestlers being discriminated for their sexual orientation and gender identity. It means demanding better for the women, not just in AEW, but across the board, in every major professional wrestling promotion out there. It means calling leaders in the industry out when they endanger the comfort and safety of their audience.

You can still love your favorite things and hold them accountable when they fall short. I guarantee you that it’s possible.

Wrestling is so beautiful, and it should be for everyone, always. But, we must learn to have healthy discourse and consider the issues that stall movement in a progressive direction, and this especially goes for AEW fans.

Before AEW Dynamite premiered in 2019, it was promised that the promotion would become a diverse alternative to WWE, that there would be an inclusive card featured on TV and wrestlers from various backgrounds would be given main event opportunities every week. 

Are we doing enough to maintain that promise? Have we done a thorough job being consistent with this?

I can only hope that equitable inclusion only trends upward in the future, and that we do better with honestly listening to each other’s grievances.

That’s what we must do, AEW fans. Demand, push on, and do better.