At the turn of the century, Vince McMahon and NBC worked together to create a new kind of football, offering a very different product than that of the NFL. By all accounts, this venture was a failure, yet McMahon has since decided to bring his eXtreme Football League back under vastly contrasting circumstances. The current debate surrounding this product’s revival has almost nothing to do with the quality of the sport or how much a person enjoys football. It does, however, have everything to do with why McMahon likely chose now to return to his XFL dreams and the social and political connotations behind that reasoning.
First, we must look at the history of the XFL. When World Wrestling Entertainment (then Federation) chairman Vince McMahon, along with NBC, founded this football league in 1999, his wrestling business was at an all-time high. His largest rivals, World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling, were heading south, while his product boomed. By 2000, McMahon’s competitors no longer posed any threats, and he subsequently acquired them both in 2001, leading to a greater burst in prosperity. Having such a large success in the wrestling industry, he attempted to make his mark in another: football. Combining the NFL’s system of scoring with WWE’s flair for the – kayfabe – dramatic, XFL appealed to a new kind of football fan. With fewer rules, more cameras, and scantily-clad cheerleaders, the XFL appeared to be a perfect match for a fanbase cultivated from professional wrestling’s “Attitude Era” of the late 1990s.
Those fans, however, did not flock, only allowing the XFL to live for one season in 2001. Critics of the league claimed it was boring football, and McMahon and NBC lost around $35 million. With low television ratings and attendance, the XFL had no future. In its wake, McMahon’s mistake found its way on to a variety of lists, including TV Guide’s worst television shows of all time and ESPN’s biggest flops in sports. The XFL’s demise was a blemish for McMahon at the start of the century, so why return to it in 2018?
Today, the United States is filled to the brim with both social and political activism and forces acting against displays of protest. In 2016, with Colin Kaepernick leading the way, a popular setting for protests has become the football field. Choosing to kneel during the National Anthem, Kaepernick made a statement, fighting against the racial injustice found in the United States. Eventually, other football players followed in his footsteps, opting to kneel instead of stand. By 2017, the country’s billionaire celebrity of a president set his case against those kneeling, calling them “sons of bitches.” Donald Trump’s statements led to a public outcry. Many condemned his remarks, but many others applauded his words. Instead of protesting racial injustice, Trump’s supporters opted to protest the protesters, citing disrespect to the country and its troops. Their failure to acknowledge (or perhaps care about) the reasoning behind the players’ decision to kneel prompted a supposed boycott of the NFL, who allowed the kneeling to occur.
This is, of course, where Vince McMahon comes in. Though WWE’s chairman may claim the XFL is football “with no politics,” his decision to re-enter the industry at this time appears highly political. McMahon is no stranger to the Republican Party, which is the dominant force behind boycotting the NFL, or Donald Trump. His wife, Linda McMahon, unsuccessfully ran for Senate on the Republican ticket and is currently Trump’s Administrator to the Small Business Administration. Wrestling fans know this is not the only connection between the two. In 2007, the two partook in a “battle of the billionaires,” culminating in Donald Trump shaving Vince McMahon’s head at that year’s WrestleMania. Trump and McMahon have had ties to each other since the 1980s when Trump’s venue hosted WrestleMania. Since then, Trump has taken over Monday Night Raw and was even inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2013.
An apparent friendship exists between the pair of billionaires, and McMahon’s decision to reboot a former failure comes at a perfect time. When rumors first circulated of the XFL’s possible return, many were quick to note the connotations surrounding a revival, and now that it is confirmed, those connotations are harder to ignore. This “new” football league is more than just Vince McMahon’s alternative to the NFL; it is a clear effort to cater to Trump and those boycotting the league already in place.
No doubt, the XFL will enforce the “time-honored tradition” of standing during the national anthem, thus pleasing those upset with football players against racial injustice. McMahon claims his players will not be allowed to take a personal stance on the field, clearly meaning no kneeling and, in turn, showing that no politics is still a political move. Many can see Donald Trump praising the new league via Twitter in the future. This would be no small endorsement from the president as he hopes to shift audiences from a league that does not adhere to his personal vision.
Currently, Vince McMahon’s attempt to “re-imagine football” with XFL’s official 2020 return reads more as an attempt to create a place of refuge for those football fans who just cannot handle athletes speaking out against the country’s injustices. The XFL’s early beginnings resulted from a desire to make football cooler, perhaps edgier, and it failed. As the XFL is now so transparently a response to Trump’s “critiques” of the NFL, can it succeed? Perhaps the more important question is this: should it succeed?