"This Was the XFL"

Via Sports Illustrated
As we've pointed out several times on this website, one of the most difficult things about being a wrestling fan is dealing with the McMahon family, who, by default, operate a virtual monopoly on professional wrestling. Unless you are really invested in independent wrestling, New Japan, or Lucha Libre, you have to deal with the McMahon power-structure in order to watch the theatre of the squared circle.

So when ESPN announced that they would be producing an episode of their acclaimed 30 for 30 series on what was Vince McMahon's most spectacular failure -- the XFL -- I was certainly intrigued. A documentary that was not produced under the auspices of the WWE could present a more objective and challenging perspective on the failed professional football league.

Alas, I probably had too high of hopes for this documentary. For starters, ESPN and the WWE have partnered together on a number of projects in the past two years, ranging from increased exposure of the WWE's product on ESPN's programming to an upcoming episode of 30 for 30 on Ric Flair. Perhaps more importantly, the documentary was directed by Charlie Ebersol, the son of Dick -- the godfather of NBC Sports and the man who has had a long-standing friendship with Vince McMahon.
As such, the documentary has a tameness about it that can be chalked up to family and familiarity: the younger Ebersol actually says so in a brief-vignette before an act-break, noting how difficult it was to talk to his dad and family-friend McMahon about their failure with the league for the documentary.

But in another sense, "This Was the XFL" actually reminds me of the worst elements of the WWE-produced documentaries about its wrestlers and rival promotions. In one sense, the doc mythologizes the career paths of both Ebersol and McMahon, noting how the older Ebersol went from Saturday Night Live to creating the behemoth of 1990s NBC Sports, while McMahon easily transformed the WWE from a regional promotion to the leader in "national sports entertainment." Of course, the documentary glosses over the complications of McMahon's "Manifest Destiny," especially his hand in destroying smaller wrestling companies.

In addition, while the documentary shows talking-heads such as Bob Costas and Matt Vasgersarian who were clearly uncomfortable with the tone of the league, Charlie Ebersol seems to back-away from condemning the sexism of the product. especially how the cheerleaders were portrayed by the league and NBC; in a sequence detailing how the cheerleader outfits were designed, one talking-head recalls how she suggested "Boobs, boobs, boobs!" should be the key to the uniforms and how positively enthralled McMahon was with the idea (it was creepy). Moreover, the doc glosses over the homophobic comments of McMahon in early press conferences where the WWE Chairmen frequently said his league who not be a place for "sissies" and "pansies." Instead, like WWE docs about the Attitude Era, the documentary almost gives these elements a pass as "just another part of the late-90s" and "that's what fans loved during that time."

It also seems like the documentary isn't sure what to do with McMahon and the "Mr. McMahon" persona that he brought to the league. It's clear the documentary tries to criticize McMahon's professional wrestling / carnival barker approach to his appearances on television with the XFL -- including his infamous "THIS IS THE XFL" promo before the league's first game -- but Ebersol struggles to make sense of the angry, vindictive, and dangerous McMahon who threatens Bob Costas in a very uncomfortable televised interview. McMahon's response to his unhinged interview with Costas in parts of the documentary is to brush it aside, as he claims "I should not have responded that way," but in other segments of the documentary, McMahon bemoans that he didn't have the opportunity to literally crush Costas. In these moments, McMahon straddles an uncomfortable line between 'joking about hurting someone' and 'really wishing he could have hurt someone.'

This condoning of the darker elements of the XFL is also reflected in the documentary’s treatment of the players. While Gary Maddux and Rod Smart are interviewed, “This is the XFL” barely mentions the lives of the players who actually played in the league. The documentary is eager to point out how McMahon tiered the salaries of players in his league – which paralleled the unequal salary formula of professional wrestling – but it rarely touches on the struggles of the players, save for a few mentions of injuries; in contrast, the episode “Who Killed the USFL” does a far superior job of illustrating the financial issues and tribulations of players in that league.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of the documentary is how it ends on a tale of redemption. In the final moments of the documentary, McMahon and the older Ebersol are seated at a table sharing a dinner and, very uncomfortably, recount what they’ve learned (?) about their experiences; the end reminds me of a mix of My Dinner with Andre and Manos: the Hands of Fate.  And like so many WWE documentaries, “This is the XFL” tries to celebrate the legacies of these two men and give credit to them for all the accomplishments of the league --- why, we are wiser, and the NFL now uses some of our camera angles! --- while underplaying the fallout from this failure.

In the end, there is some fascinating stuff in this documentary, but its unevenness and concern for preserving the legacies of Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon leaves the viewer feeling there is a lot more to this story.  But given how much influence the McMahons have over their stories, that’s a documentary we aren’t likely to see any time soon. 

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