In the wake of yet another backstage controversy in AEW, fans are asking themselves what could possibly be done to prevent this drama from continuing to escalate? What needs to happen so that fans and wrestlers in the company can focus on the quality of the product and not petty drama behind the scenes?
No, the answer isn’t to fire CM Punk.
The answer isn’t even for Tony Khan to assert more control over his roster.
Both of those things would probably help, but they are also extremely unlikely to happen. Punk is viewed as being too valuable by the company, and asserting control over the roster and backstage atmosphere does not appear to be aligned with Khan’s management style.
No, there is another, clear and easy solution that would solve most of these problems, and it involves media transparency. Almost all of the drama in AEW could have been prevented by wrestlers and company executives being more willing to go on the record with media outlets, and by media outlets being more unwilling to publish anonymous quotes and reports.
If we go back to the root of the drama surrounding CM Punk in AEW, it dates back to Punk’s belief that Adam Page and The Young Bucks were talking to wrestling news outlets and claiming that Punk is responsible for getting Colt Cabana removed from AEW. Leading up to Punk’s explosive press conference after ALL OUT last year, pretty much every notable wrestling news outlet had reported that wrestlers backstage felt that Punk was responsible for Cabana not having his contract renewed by AEW.
Those reports were not attributed to any actual names or sources, something that is the standard practice of the wrestling media. Whoever was the person talking to the wrestling media was open to the imaginations of the reader–something that would, of course, go wrong with the paranoia-filled locker rooms of a pro wrestling company.
Punk naturally assumed it was The Elite, due to previous scuffles with them and their friendship with Cabana, and particularly a promo line that Page used during his on-screen feud with Punk earlier that year, when Page implied that Punk got Cabana fired. This culminated in Punk’s meltdown during the press conference, where he blasted Page and The Bucks for leaking that information to the media in an explosive tirade that the company is still reeling from.
Following that episode, members of the wrestling media, including Dave Meltzer, Bryan Alvarez and Sean Ross Sapp, all said that they had not gotten that information from The Elite. So Punk blamed them for something they seemingly never did–all of which could have been avoided if wrestling media was not so reliant and therefore supportive of using anonymous sources and almost never attributing anyone directly when it comes to backstage news.
Subsequent issues involving Punk have become a soft-media war between different parties as they tussle to shape the media narrative of the locker room and the company. When a report (anonymously sourced, of course) that Punk had gotten Page banned from a Collision taping, there were immediate reports (also anonymously sourced) that Punk had nothing to do with Page not being permitted into the building. Who is telling the truth? We don’t know, but it would help a lot if we knew who was making the accusations in the first place.
The latest Punk incident, a confrontation with Jack Perry after Perry mocked Punk during his pre-show match at ALL IN, referring to an anonymous report from Fightful two weeks prior that said that Perry was adamant on using real glass for a stunt, only for Punk to talk him out of it with the report stating that Perry threw a temper tantrum in response to Punk kiboshing the stunt.
Perry was clearly upset about the story getting out, especially since it painted him in a negative light, and obviously blamed Punk. Just like how Punk assumed The Elite leaked the accusation that he was responsible for Cabana not getting his contract renewed, Perry assumed Punk or someone close to Punk leaked the story that made him look bad. This led to the line by Perry, which led to a backstage altercation, and has led to both men being suspended.
Going on the record and being transparent about comments made to the media wouldn’t make every wrestler like each other, but it wouldn’t feed into the paranoia that wrestlers naturally feel and would cut down on political games that are being played behind the scenes to try and damage a fellow employee’s reputation in the eyes of the public.
When discussing why more wrestlers don’t go on the record with media sources, the counterargument is often that there is no benefit to the wrestlers. Media outlets have shown a complete willingness to publish anonymous content from sources, significantly lowering the stakes for the sources and allowing them to pontificate and speculate in a way they would never do if their name is attached to it.
The benefit to the wrestlers to set a standard of going on the record is that there would be far less misunderstanding, politics and paranoia backstage in terms of who is leaking information to “the sheets.” Most wrestlers would agree that this is a good thing, although of course wrestlers themselves are the primary source for a lot of the information. AEW’s backstage atmosphere has been undermined by the paranoia that comes with anonymous sources running to news outlets, and yet the talent continues to choose to do it, likely because they are motivated by the personal gain of sending their chosen message out to the public, regardless of truth or accuracy.
Due to the historic closed nature of pro wrestling, anonymous sourcing has been something news outlets have felt compelled to permit and even standardized throughout their existence. A wrestler going on the record about backstage news is almost unheard of. Outlets no doubt feel like if they don’t run anonymous sourced content, they will have no meaningful news to attract readers or listeners.
The flip side is that anonymous sourced content is by its nature, unreliable, and why most major reputable news outlets only use it under special circumstances. Wrestling news is by extension, unreliable, and that unreliability has led to confusion, disdain and anger towards the outlets themselves, who often fail to satisfy readers because the readers cannot trust the information, particularly for a case like with the recent Punk stories, which involve contradicting information coming from both sides.
The wrestling business has evolved, and it’s high time that the way the media covers the industry evolves with it. The press conferences hosted by both AEW and WWE are a decent start, because those allow wrestlers to emphatically go on the record, while being recorded and broadcasted to viewers at home. But until the wrestlers themselves and the news outlets fully embrace the benefits of a cleaner, more transparent way of publishing news, the industry is still going to be rife with wrestlers using the media to spread misinformation for political gain.
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