WWE needs to be better than this.
Even with its vast team of writers and the endless wrestling knowledge within the company, the best WWE could come up with was a Jeff Hardy drunk-driving angle to open “SmackDown” Friday night on Fox. While having pro wrestling blur the lines a bit is usually encouraged, working a storyline around a performer’s real-life sobriety battle and long-term demons is a tired, failed and lazy premise.
The 42-year-old Hardy has a history of issues with drugs and alcohol dating back more than 15 years. Most recently, he was arrested for a DWI in October and public intoxication at a beachfront hotel last July. Hardy, who infamously wrestled Sting intoxicated for Total Nonstop Action in 2011, had another DWI arrest in March of 2018.
Sobriety is a day-to-day battle that shouldn’t be taken for granted — or exploited.
But WWE opened “SmackDown” with police and ambulances around Elias, who was supposed to face AJ Styles in the semifinals of the Intercontinental championship tournament. The audience is told he was hit by a car that is popped up on a curb in the parking lot of the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Fla. “Eyewitness” Universal champion Braun Strowman said the person who got out of the car was dressed in black.
What followed was actually comical, adding the slightest touch of levity. A cop — played by an enhancement talent wrestler — searches the car, sniffs an open and perfectly placed bottle of liquor, and sees a piece of paper that identifies Hardy as the owner of the rental car fall from the visor. The cop yells out “Jeff Hardy” as if he’s calling him to the DMV window.
The “police” eventually found a confused Hardy nearby in the bushes as Hardy complained that his head hurts and was seemingly unaware of what happened. What follows is the uncomfortable scene of a dazed and stumbling Hardy being cuffed and led to a police car. A confused Renee Young — playing the reporter on the scene — delivers the line: “Jeff Hardy appears to be inebriated. The rental car is in his name.”
The painful scene makes it seem that Hardy was the culprit instead of playing up the doubt, which would have made the angle just the slightest bit better. Elias being cut down eventually opened up a spot for Sheamus in the tournament. So the drunk-driving angle was the main story device for this SmackDown, which Hardy closed by returning to cost Sheamus his match before attacking him.
The idea did help “SmackDown” earn its highest rating since April 17 at 2.147 million viewers — up 14,000 in the second hour of a packed show. Maybe it was the ‘Oh My God’ factor, people not really being outraged by the angle or the need for a distraction from the world. It was a small ratings victory for WWE. Whether it was cheap pop remains to be seen.
This isn’t the first time wrestling has tried to bring a talent’s sobriety problems into a storyline. WCW did so with Scott Hall in 1998 in a more extreme way than WWE did with Hardy. It still is something former WCW President Eric Bischoff has said he wishes he hadn’t done.
“It wasn’t entertaining and it was a weak attempt on my part, singularly, to try and make sense out of reality in the fictional world and I regret it,” Bischoff said on his podcast in 2017.
WE tried something similar with Legion of Doom member Hawk and his struggles with drugs and alcohol in 2000, something his partner Animal said in a recent episode of Vice’s “Dark Side of the Ring” cut too close to reality. He had taken it a step further in a 2015 interview with Wrestle Talk TV, saying it was in “bad taste” and “disrespectful.”
“I’m not a big believer in touching on things that are too close to home,” Animal said. “There’s some things you have to have respect for and leave them aside.”
It raises the question of whether WWE was right to go in that direction again with Hardy.
Sheamus does appear to have set him up and yes, WWE did quickly exonerate Hardy. WWE put out a “breaking news” story on it website saying Hardy was “released from custody by the Orlando police after successfully passing the required sobriety tests, therefore absolving Hardy of the charges of public intoxication, driving under the influence, and the hit-and-run on Elias earlier tonight.”
This could have been worse, but it doesn’t change the visuals that opened the show.
It’s easy to dismiss all of this by saying that none of it would happen without Hardy’s consent. That doesn’t make it right and there are other people in his life to think of. They have lived a very real version of this with him.
His brother Matt, now working with All Elite Wrestling, tweeted how happy he was to be with AEW in the wake of Jeff’s segment and later thanked AEW president Tony Khan in another tweet.
“You’ve created an amazing, positive, supportive environment that I am SO proud to be a part of,” Hardy wrote of Khan. “I’ll give you, the talent & every @AEWrestling employee my best across the board.”
Others, such as former WWE star CM Punk, didn’t seem to have a big problem with the segment and is glad he doesn’t take wrestling “so serious anymore.’
“Currently divided,” Punk wrote on Twitter after being asked how the segment affected any desire he has to wrestle again. “The country is on fire and it legit made me laugh out loud for a second so, entertained? Mission accomplished?”
Public opinion on the segment usually will differ, and fans obviously tuned in to watch it unfold. But WWE needs to be better and more creative. An angle based on a talent’s real-life sobriety issues has been done before and failed. It walks a dangerous line that you risk being on the wrong side of.