This Christmas Eve, children across the heartland will go to bed with visions of chokeholds and body slams pounding in their heads. They will dream of unwrapping such jolly delights as "WWF No Mercy" and "WWF Smackdown 2."
Santa, watch your back.
WWF, of course, stands for the Worldwide Wrestling Federation. "No Mercy" and "Smackdown 2" are two of the hottest selling video software games in the country marketed to kids. Players can smash opponents onto tables, bash their heads into boiler room pipes, and enter the arena to bury each other in "casket matches." An estimated 1.2 million children under age 12 have been exposed to such real-life stunts on "WWF Smackdown!" events, according to the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council.
Parents who publicly criticize the WWF and its products should beware. The WWF seems to relish roughhousing its opponents in court almost as much as its wrestlers enjoy brutalizing each other in the ring.
Take the ranting lawsuit filed last month against the Parents Television Council in U.S. District Court in New York. WWF lawyers, who did not return my calls, accuse the group, founded by conservative activist Brent Bozell, of "unlawful threats, intimidation, coercion, deception and flat-out lies." The wrestling empire is demanding millions of dollars in relief and damages to protect their status as "the most popular family entertainment programming in the world" and preserve their "rights of artistic expression and free speech."
Just what did Bozell's organization do to set the unitard-clad artisans of WWF off? The parents dared to exercise their constitutionally protected rights to protest the the WWF's foul-mouthed programming and ask advertisers to boycott the UPN network's family-hour airing of "Smackdown!" According to the parents' group, they persuaded advertisers to spurn the WWF not through "threats," but by disseminating transcripts and videotapes of the wrestling conglomerate's family-hour programming.
Here's one typical example, cited by the Parents Television Council, of the "artistic expressions" uttered on a Thanksgiving broadcast of Smackdown by the wrestler known as The Rock: He threatened an opponent by promising to take a turkey drumstick, "bend you over, turn it sideways and stick it straight up your candy ---."
As Bozell notes, the WWF's product "speaks for itself." Gone are the days of Gorgeous George, Andre the Giant, and Hulk Hogan. Today's professional wrestlers peddle no-holds-barred degradation and denigration. Former wrestler-turned-Christian ministry leader Ted DiBiase, who once managed WWF thug Stone Cold Steve Austin, now forbids his own sons from watching the WWF. "It has taken the low road," DiBiase told Christianity Today magazine. "There are no more heroes."
"Lighten up!" WWF Chairman Vince McMahon, wrote in a bitter letter to Bozell. "Where is your sense of humor? We sell fun!"
That's true, to some extent, but few are laughing in Florida, Texas and Washington state, where the influence of professional wrestling on young viewers has been linked by news outlets including Court TV to the deaths of children aged 6, 3, and 18 months. The 6-year-old was thrown repeatedly into an iron stairway railing; the 3-year-old died after his brother performed a "running clothesline" move across his throat; the 18-month-old was body-slammed on a couch until his cousin got bored and returned to watching TV before finally noticing blood foaming from the unconscious baby's nose.
The Parents Television Council doesn't advocate censorship of the WWF's violent trash. It advocates personal responsibility and corporate accountability for the industry's impact on children. It supports consumer empowerment and the use of the free market -- of ideas and enterprise -- to warn families and fight back. As a result of the council's boycott campaign, the groups says that several major corporations, including AT&T Corp., Domino's, Burger King, Coca-Cola, candy maker Mars Inc., MCI Worldcom, the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, pulled their advertising from the WWF Smackdown series. Many more, according to the council -- including Allstate, Campbell's Soup, Kellogg's, and Wendy's -- provided written or verbal notification to the parents' group that they do not and will not sponsor the show.
The only thing Bozell's group is guilty of is success. That is why the bullies of the WWF, with their backs against the ropes, have resorted to a litigious smackdown of their critics' free speech.