Feature Article

Blame WWE's High-Risk Culture For Paige's Retirement, Not Sasha Banks

The Anti-Diva has wrestled her final match.

According to multiple sources, WWE superstar Paige is being forced to retire from in-ring competition due to a serious neck injury. She's 25 years old, and although she's only been on WWE's main roster since 2014, she's actually been performing since she was 13. Her entire family is involved in the business, and she tag teamed with her mother in her family's Norwich promotion. That's 12 years of wear and tear.

This is not Paige's first bout with neck problems either. She suffered chronic pain from a herniated disc, and she underwent surgery in late 2016, during which she got three screws in her neck. One of her doctors even cautioned her against wrestling again. So to put this retirement into perspective, it is not completely unexpected.

Still, a number of WWE fans are blaming Sasha Banks for ending Paige's career. The alleged fateful moment was captured on video at a Long Island house show on December 27. In the clip filmed by YouTube user SVRdude, you can see Banks kick Paige in the back. Paige hits the ground hard and struggles to rise before falling down again. The referee throws up the 'X' sign with his arms--a signal to the medical team that this is a legitimate injury.

The kick was a bit stiff, and the communication was off; it didn't seem that Paige properly braced for the impact. But regardless of what Banks could have done differently, this is a dangerous spot to begin with. This kick is not a face-to-face move, where the recipient can see the strike as it's coming and roll with it to lessen its impact. The recipient is completely blind and at the mercy of the performer. Banks should have never executed it, least of all on a wrestler with chronic neck issues. But a match is also a team effort; Paige should have never agreed to take it. And the company should have never allowed it to happen either.

Kayfabe is dead; one would be hard pressed to find any fans, outside of young children, who think professional wrestling is a 100% real, legitimate competition. And many performers, in a misguided attempt to give fans something to believe in, perform dangerous, eye-popping stunts on a too-frequent basis. In the old days, particularly dangerous spots would be confined to pay-per-views, where they would have the most psychological impact.

Take the suicide dive, for example. It's a headfirst torpedo dive, through or over the ropes, to the hard floor outside the ring. Its execution is based on trust; if the recipient fails to catch his opponent, the performer could become paralyzed or die.

This was once a climactic move--so rare and extreme that it could end a match altogether. But now, it's performed so regularly (multiple times on a single Raw or SmackDown) that's it's become "just another move." The wrestlers have only reinforced this--they used to roll around, moaning in pain, after performing moves this dangerous. Now, they pop right back up, which undermines the gravity of their risk.

This normalization is toxic. When a high-risk move is rendered typical, fans become desensitized and bored of seeing it. It'll no longer draw the same reaction. And the wrestlers must perform increasingly dangerous moves to keep the fans invested. Until, of course, those moves also become typical. It's a vicious cycle that leads to oblivion. There's only so much the human body can take.

Seth Rollins, for example, has a move called the "buckle bomb," in which he throws his opponent, shoulders first, into the turnbuckles or the outside barrier. It looks brutal, and it's extremely dangerous because the margin for error is so thin. It dislocated and injured Finn Balor's shoulder. It temporarily paralyzed Sting and ended his career. Like the kick to the back, it's simply too big of a risk, no matter what crowd response it gets.

Or take Big E, who weighs close to 300 pounds and performs a suicide spear that he frequently botches by landing on his head or neck. It's not even fun to watch him perform this move; the viewer fears for his life.

And this move is not a recent addition to Big E's repertoire; the highlight reel above was compiled over a number of years. So why is Big E still performing the suicide spear? Because the company hasn't stopped him; because Big E is willing to perform it, and he clearly values the massive crowd response over the risks to his health; because the recipient outside the ring, tasked with catching this gigantic man, is willing to stand there, enable Big E, and risk injury to himself.

And if one day, Big E paralyzes himself or kills the person he dives into, who's to blame? Should fans blame Big E for diving? Should they blame the opponent for failing to catch him properly? Should they blame WWE for not putting a stop to this when they had the opportunity to do so? Or should they blame themselves for cheering a dangerous stunt that risks the health of these performers?

Paige's retirement is not an indictment of Sasha Banks so much as it is an indictment of WWE's culture, which allowed a dangerous, ill-advised spot to take place at a house show, where there were no television cameras and no larger narrative stakes.

The performers don't protect themselves enough. The performers don't protect their opponents enough. The company doesn't protect its performers from themselves, or allow them enough comfort and leeway to say "no." And the fans share some blame too, for offering positive reinforcement for cheap stunts and for chanting "Boring" at things they would have cheered for, once upon a time.

WWE is very good at making changes with the benefit of hindsight. The piledriver was banned after it nearly paralyzed Steve Austin. The muscle buster was banned after it ended Tyson Kidd's career. WWE may soon ban kicks to the back, thanks to Paige's mishap.

Of course, even with these changes, wrestling will always be dangerous. But the risks can be minimized significantly, and no one should have to lose his or her health and livelihood for change to take place.

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