In June 2022, after Vince McMahon first stepped back as chairman and CEO of WWE — during an investigation into a $3 million settlement for an alleged affair — he still received a standing ovation when he arrived on RAW to introduce John Cena’s return. The moment would ultimately be his final onscreen appearance. By early July of that year, The Wall Street Journal reported that McMahon agreed to pay out over $12 million to four women in the last 16 years to “suppress allegations of sexual misconduct and infidelity.” The SEC and federal prosecutors launched investigations into his use of company funds to make the payments, and the WWE would be forced to update its earnings statements once it discovered McMahon’s hush-money payments actually totaled somewhere near $19.6 million. As is characteristic of the organization, no mention of the unfolding behind-the-scenes drama was addressed onscreen that summer. It was so ignored, in fact, that when McMahon finally announced his retirement in a press release on July 22, 2022 — citing only his age as the reason — his daughter and interim CEO Stephanie McMahon would lead that week’s Smackdown audience in a chant of “Thank you, Vince!” Looking back at this era in his February 4 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, wrestling historian and journalist Dave Meltzer referred to these appearances as “the most embarrassing crowd reactions at a wrestling show in decades.”
At the time, McMahon attempted to maneuver around the scandal, a tactic that had worked for him in the past. This is, after all, a man who has been accused of covering up everything from a murder to more claims of sexual abuse by his employees. None of this was enough to end him or prevent him from storming back into the company in January 2023. He used his controlling interest to replace three members of the same board that had investigated him and orchestrated a merger between UFC and WWE to create TKO Holdings. Ari Emanuel, the CEO of the new company, even allowed McMahon to become executive chairman of the new firm. During a CNBC appearance, Emanuel cited their 23-year business relationship and called working with McMahon an honor. While it may have seemed at the time like McMahon would once again narrowly avoid a public downfall, this was merely the opening salvo for the scandal that could reshape the world of professional wrestling as we know it.
At the time of McMahon’s CNBC appearance, he was allegedly two months late on a payment of $500,000 to Janel Grant, the former employee whose $3 million settlement had initially sparked the board investigation. According to the lawsuit she filed on January 25 of this year, McMahon had not made any payments to Grant since February 2022. Her health care, which McMahon had allegedly agreed to pay for, had ceased on April 15, 2022. According to the suit, Grant suffered from PTSD and “required extended inpatient treatment,” and her symptoms — which the suit lists as including flashbacks, rashes, weight loss, insomnia, panic attacks, and nightmares — made it difficult for her to leave home. On top of that, her NDA was so restrictive that it allegedly prevented her from even mentioning she’d been employed by WWE.
Grant’s lawsuit, which names McMahon, former head of talent relations John Laurinaitis, and the WWE itself as defendants, was filed two days before the Royal Rumble, one of WWE’s biggest events, and just after the company’s massive $5 billion deal with Netflix was announced. That evening, a representative for McMahon issued a statement that he would “vigorously defend himself.” But by Friday afternoon, longtime sponsor Slim Jim had announced it was pausing its sponsorship of the Rumble. McMahon’s resignation was announced a few hours later, and Slim Jim resumed its sponsorship.
During the postshow press conference on January 27, chief content officer Paul Levesque, known professionally as Triple H, didn’t address the lawsuit directly but referred to a “new beginning” at the company. (McMahon is his father-in-law.) When asked about the lawsuit, he said he was “going to do exactly what you expect me to do here” and insisted he’d like to focus instead on the company’s “amazing week.” When asked what was being done to make employees feel safe, he simply said “everything possible.” When asked if he’d read the lawsuit, he said he had not and reiterated that he “didn’t want to get bogged down in the negatives.”
Journalists and fans were disappointed, to say the least. “This was really bad,” Meltzer posted. Fightful writer Colby Faria posted, “You didn’t care enough to read the goddamn lawsuit???” Writer Trevor Dame, while livetweeting the press conference, offered, “This man is a fucking ghoul.”
A few wrestlers have spoken out, calling out both McMahon and those protecting him within the company. “[WWE executive director] Bruce Prichard is basically Vince’s avatar, if he’s still around Vince still has a hand in the business. Vince was still running things through Bruce when he was ‘gone’ before,” former WWE superstar Ronda Rousey tweeted.
Nikki and Brie Garcia, both veterans of the WWE and the stepdaughters of Laurinaitis, also issued a statement. “This is something we don’t stand for or condone from anyone no matter who they are,” they wrote. “We want all women to feel safe and supported in the workplace and in their everyday lives.”
Legendary WWE superstar Mick Foley even spoke out on his podcast, calling the allegations “ugly” before adding, “I feel very similar, just like that dead-inside feeling the way I had in 2007 after the [Chris] Benoit murders.” Benoit was a wrestler who murdered his wife and 7-year-old son before taking his own life in 2007.
Older stories are also resurfacing through Reddit, like Terri Runnels’s story of Brock Lesnar — who was identified as one of the unnamed parties in Grant’s suit — allegedly exposing himself to her backstage in 2004. And another story that wrestler Ryan Nemeth, who worked at WWE from 2011 to 2013, shared on Reddit, where he describes being asked to post about the mistreatment of women by his friends, only to have his friends beg him to delete it after some remarks Triple H made to the locker room. Nemeth declined to comment when reached by Vulture. At the time of this alleged incident, Triple H would’ve already been an executive vice-president of WWE.
Finally, a source Meltzer describes as “one of the biggest company stars of the modern era,” but who spoke to Meltzer on the condition of anonymity, cast doubt on the idea that Triple H could’ve been completely ignorant of the allegations outlined in the suit. “He’s the f’n cerebral assassin, best politicking dude in history, literally wormed his way from a green, entry level wrestler into a (still, average wrestler) absolute top of the office, executive, you think he doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on around him?”
If the higher-ups at WWE were hoping this would simply blow over and end in a quiet settlement, last week made that outcome less likely. On February 1, Laurinaitis broke ranks and insisted through his lawyer that he is also a victim of McMahon. “Mr. Laurinaitis denies the allegations in the misguided complaint and will be vigorously defending these charges in Court, not the media. Like the Plaintiff, Mr. Laurinaitis is a victim in this case, not a predator. The truth will come out,” his lawyer Edward Brennan told Vice. “Read the allegations. Read the Federal Statute. Power, control, employment supervisory capacity, dictatorial sexual demands with repercussions if not met. Count how many times in the complaint Vince exerts control over both of them.” The quote reads to some as a tacit corroboration of Grant’s allegations, and it marks a shocking end to what many assumed was a close partnership between men who had worked together for decades.
The very next day, on February 2, the Journal broke news that federal prosecutors had been investigating McMahon for sex trafficking and sexual assault. In Grant’s lawsuit, she mentions that reliving her experiences through interviews with investigators had made her PTSD even worse. The grand-jury subpoena mentions five other women whom investigators had been interviewing, including former referee Rita Chatterton, who first publicly accused McMahon of rape in 1992.
According to sources that spoke with Meltzer for the Observer, management has not communicated with employees regarding the suit. Instead, the company is building to WrestleMania as furiously as ever, with Dwayne Johnson returning to the ring as the potential challenger to Roman Reigns for the Undisputed WWE Universal title. This has upset fans who’d hoped to see the champion lose a rematch to fan favorite Cody Rhodes, and this new “scandal” has taken over WWE’s comments sections in a way upper management surely appreciates.
However, Grant’s suit has a very specific, stated aim: to do away with the NDAs that McMahon has used to silence women for years, which, a source revealed to Vice, he may have drafted even without WWE’s knowledge. Since the suit was filed, Grant’s lawyer Ann Callis says they’ve been inundated with messages from people looking to share their own stories about the company. “We are just beginning now to wade through all this,” she told NewsNation. “But we’re frankly overwhelmed.” More stories coming to light would certainly increase the pressure on TKO and WWE to make a meaningful effort to change the internal culture of a company that invited McMahon back in even as it acknowledged he was as big a risk to their business as another pandemic. So far, it seems the strategy has simply been to distance themselves from McMahon as though he is an aberration, not the architect of the company who boasts a 23-year friendship and working relationship with Emanuel. Who, for what it’s worth, now sits next to The Rock for his CNBC interviews.
What’s Going On With Vince McMahon and the WWE This Time?