WWE & "The Plane Ride From Hell": When The Joke Stops Being Funny
If you watched this week's episode of the Vice TV docuseries Dark Side of the Ring covering the infamous WWE "Plane Ride From Hell" as I and many other wrestling fans did, then you probably (hopefully) reacted the same way: the in-the-moment horror of what you were seeing…and then maybe more difficultly, the horror in looking at yourself and realizing that you had spent years laughing along at a story where people were really hurt.
We all know the story and the characters. We've all retold it to friends who were maybe more casual WWE fans and didn't know the behind-the-scenes exploits. We've all laughed at it over and over. And why not? The wrestlers and WWE themselves have always presented it as the ultimate "boys will be boys" episode and no one ended up getting hurt, right?
That's the problem and it's one that Dark Side of the Ring gave us a definitive answer to last night: yes, someone did indeed get hurt.
There's a line that keeps getting repeated throughout the episode by Terri Runnels whenever she's recounting a story when men mistreated her or outright sexually harassed her; "don't sell it!" It was told to her by her ex-husband Dustin Runnels after Brock Lesnar exposed himself to her backstage at a WWE show. It was told to her again on the plane by Paul Heyman when said ex-husband got loaded and took over the plane's p.a. system to sing her love songs.
While the verbiage might differ, over the past few years throughout the "me too" movement, we've come to learn that many women are familiar with this kind of phrase. A phrase told to women by other men to simply suck it up and ignore whatever a man is putting them through, almost always in a sexually harassing manner.
A woman we meet on this episode is Heidi Doyle, a flight attendant on the chartered plane that WWE hired for their European tour, which culminated with the WWF Insurrextion PPV event on May 4, 2002. The flight back to the U.S. that night after the event was when all hell broke loose and unfortunately, we learn that Doyle was the key victim in all of it.
We learn that throughout the flight, she and her co-attendants were victimized by an out-of-control drunken and drugged WWE roster and that Doyle was personally sexually harassed and assaulted by WWE Hall of Famer Scott Hall and most especially by WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair. I won't get into the specific details of what they did to her (I encourage everyone to watch this episode), but her still fearful and nervous recounting of it was harrowing, to say the least.
And that brings us back to "don't sell it!" We learn that Doyle's (I sincerely hope it's "ex" now) husband was neither supportive nor empathetic upon learning of what had happened to his wife and he grilled her with the standard "what did YOU do to encourage this?" bullshit response that many men jump to almost instinctually when learning of a sexual assault.
WWE was also anxious to bury this whole situation, as was the flight company, who told Heidi Doyle when she reported to them what she had gone through that "the privacy of the client must be respected", a firm and cold corporate way of telling her "don't sell it!"
When Doyle and her fellow flight attendant brought a lawsuit against them for the incident, they offered an out of court settlement to make it all go away, one which Doyle's husband forced her to accept so that their names wouldn't be out in the press and no one would know what had happened to his wife. For WWE and Doyle's husband, it was out of sight and out of mind. Again, "don't sell it!"
But it was never out of mind for Heidi Doyle. She's had to live with the memory for 20 years now. For us, it was a funny story about WWE superstars getting crazy and turning the joint upside down. A WWE version of Animal House that we can all enjoy living vicariously through. But for Heidi Doyle, it was a moment where she was assaulted and no one cared.
We've all (hopefully) learned over the past few years how we need to be better as human beings, especially towards women. And yet, both WWE and ESPN have both in that time glorified Ric Flair's sexual harassment as a funny cartoon.
WWE Hall of Famer Rob Van Dam uses a classic, but entirely appropriate saying in this episode when recounting his view of what happened: "never meet your heroes." It's true and it's something an excuse-maker like Tommy Dreamer (who goes out of his way in the episode to not only excuse and find humor in Flair's behavior but actually blames the victims) clearly doesn't understand. People, including most wrestlers, have idolized Ric Flair for decades and have always excused his behavior as nothing more than him being a party animal and simply being "Naitch".
Well, now we've heard directly from one of his victims. We've heard how painful it was for her in those moments and we've heard how painful it was to come out of it.
It's time, for once, to stop saying "don't sell it!"
Vice TV has posted the full episode on their YouTube account and you can watch it below.