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World Wrestling Entertainment is not to blame for the murderous actions of Lionel Tate, Part I

By Scott Tibbs, January 3, 2004

OK, I will admit it. I am a fan of "professional wrestling". I have been watching the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling for nearly two decades. And yes, I know it's "fake". I enjoy following the storylines, and the action in the ring. Wrestling, unlike movies and television programs, involves the fans as an integral part of the story, and storylines can be modified on the fly if the crowd reacts poorly. (For example, "Hollywood Hulk Hogan" was brought back to WWE after a nine-year absence as a "heel", or bad guy, in 2002. The fans refused to boo him, instead responding with tremendous cheers. WWE was forced to turn Hogan "face".) Granted, there are some truly horrible angles and gimmicks that make me cringe. Some things have changed: The WWF, thanks to a lawsuit by the World Wildlife Fund, is now known as "World Wrestling Entertainment". WCW is gone, purchased and put on the shelf by WWE.

The case of Lionel Tate, who brutally beat a 6-year-old playmate to death when he was 12, has brought a lot of heat onto professional wrestling, especially on WWE. (WWE's former chief rival, WCW, was spared most of the criticism that was directed at WWE.) Tate's attorney, Jim Lewis, said that Tate was imitating moves he saw on WWE programs like UPN's "Smackdown". WWE filed a defamation lawsuit against Lewis for these statements. After the guilty verdict in Tate's murder trial, WWE (then the WWF) released the following statement:

"We at the WWF believe that the verdict and the public statements made by individual jurors unanimously support our position that professional wrestling should never have been involved in this case," said Linda McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, Inc. "Sadly, an innocent little girl has died. Lionel Tate by his own actions, the actions and decisions of his mother and defense attorney, have changed his life forever." "The WWF has stated consistently that the suggestion that wrestling had anything to do with Lionel Tate's murderous acts was a contrived hoax," said Jerry McDevitt, a partner in Kirkpatrick and Lockhart, and the WWF's litigation counsel. "The jury easily and quickly repudiated the defense counsel's claim that pro wrestling was somehow to blame for this intentional homicide, and individual jurors have reiterated this in public comments. The evidence proved, and the jury found, that this was death caused not by mimicking wrestling moves, but rather by a deliberate, prolonged, and savage beating."

Professional wrestling is not a "sport" per se, but an athletic exhibition where wrestlers perform moves on each other to entertain the crowd. In many cases, a slower-paced match can really get the fans going if the wrestlers know how to work the crowd. A good story leading to the "grudge match" draws fans in further. The wrestlers are trained to make these moves look devastating without actually causing injury to their opponents or to themselves. (This is not to say the moves don't hurt. Many times they do, though the wrestlers are supposed to "sell" their opponents moves to make it look like it hurts more than it actually does.) Both wrestlers are to cooperate on many of these moves to make both the move and the wrestler doing the move look good. As in any profession, some wrestlers are better than others. Some are known for injuring themselves or their opponents by being sloppy or careless. Meanwhile, other wrestlers can put on a good show while working safely. But despite training and precautions, accidents happen and wrestlers get injured. Mick Foley documents his many injuries in his best selling book Have a Nice Day.

I think it is a little much to blame professional wrestling for a brutal murder in Florida. In his second book, Foley is Good, Foley compares the potential injuries from use of "foreign objects" like chairs, kendo sticks, etc. in wrestling matches to the potential injuries if the violence of the "Home Alone" movies were to actually happen.

Where Foley's analysis is especially strong is his examination of the deaths of four children attributed to children imitating professional wrestling. Foley documents that simply imitating professional wrestling could not produce the results of the Tate case or a Yakima, Washington case where another disturbed twelve-year-old brutally beat his nineteen-month-old cousin to death. These events weren't horseplay, they were savage beatings. Tate's victim, Tiffany Eunick, suffered injuries severe enough to be consistent with a car crash. Indeed, the judge who initially sentenced Tate said "It is inconceivable that such injuries could be caused by roughhousing or horseplay or by replicating wrestling moves."

What of that Tate's "mother", Kathleen Grossett-Tate? She heard Tiffany screaming as Tate was beating her to death, and went back to her nap. The Orlando Sentinel reports: "(Former prosecutor Ken Padowitz) pointed to Grossett-Tate's testimony that she was upstairs sleeping while 6-year-old Tiffany was beaten to death in July 1999. Grossett-Tate was baby-sitting the girl but testified that she called a warning from upstairs when she heard Tiffany crying." CourtTV.com notes: "Shortly after 10 P.M., the kids playing grew loud enough to cause the single mother to yell down the stairwell for them to settle down." Tiffany's mother asked: "You heard my child crying and you chose to do nothing about it? And then you're going to tell me he's only 13? That's my only child. You hear somebody crying for help and it never dawned on you to check? A child? You're a cop on top of that? Give me a break."

And this woman has the audacity to blame World Wrestling Entertainment for her son's actions? She is a highway patrol officer and she did not know enough to stop a murder in her own home?

I find irresponsible that the Lionel Tate murder case is still connected by the media to a kid imitating professional wrestling, instead of a 170-pound pre-teen beating a 48-pound six-year-old to death. Yes, professional wrestling is a violent exhibition. But it is no more violent than many of the other programs that are on television, from acclaimed police dramas to programs like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". (By the way, how many times are firearms used on WWE programming? Hint: It is extremely rare for a firearm to be used as part of a storyline.) But professional wrestling is different. Wrestling fans are looked down on with statements like "Don't you know it's fake?" (Yes.) Or "It's just fat men in tights." Wrestling is an easy target, because it is considered "lowbrow" entertainment. As Foley notes, targeting the other programs might produce an unpleasant backlash.

Wrestling is easy to blame, and it is an easy target for fundraising. But what is most offensive is that you have murder cases, the deaths of innocent children, being exploited to score cheap political points. Anyone with any common sense would know that Lionel Tate wasn't "playing with" Tiffany Eunick. He was administering a savage beating that would result in her death.

There are legitimate things to criticize WWE for. The deaths of innocent children at the hands of two monsters are not among them. It is long past time to stop pointing fingers at professional wrestling and to place the blame where it truly belongs. In the Tate case, that blame rests with both the monster who murdered a young child and a "mother" who isn't much of a mother at all.