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Is it too soon for Hulk Hogan to return to WWE?

The disgraced grappler, banned for making racist comments, has been reinstated to the Hall of Fame

UPDATE: Early Wednesday, three black wrestlers employed by WWE — The New Day’s Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods and Big E — released a statement saying they were “indifferent” about Hogan’s re-induction into the Hall of Fame. While the trio conceded that there is “no argument on whether or not Hogan should have his place” in the Hall of Fame, they added that it’s difficult “to simply forget … the situation in which those comments were made.” Until Hogan makes a “genuine effort to change,” The New Day said they don’t plan to associate with him or anyone who has “conveyed this negative and hurtful mindset.”

Before Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown in the middle of a Ferguson, Missouri, road in August 2014, there was a physical altercation between the two inside of Wilson’s squad car.

According to testimony Wilson provided to a grand jury, Brown approached Wilson’s door and reached his right arm through the open window. At that point Wilson, then 28 years old, said he became overwhelmed by the 18-year-old Brown. “I tried to hold his right arm and use my left hand to get out to have some type of control and not be trapped in my car anymore,” he told the grand jury. “And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.”

The mention of Hogan was no fortuitous admission. By comparing a burgeoning teenager to a professional athlete known for his Hercules-like frame and 24-inch biceps, or “pythons,” Wilson sought to dehumanize Brown and send a cue to the jury that because this black teenager possessed superhuman strength like that of Hogan, he had no choice but to fire 12 shots at him. (Wilson also described Brown as a nearly bulletproof “demon” and feared a single punch from the teen could be “fatal.”)

Wilson’s use of Hogan was a dog whistle to his sympathizers that this black man was dangerous and a threat to his, and their, safety. Unbeknownst to Wilson and most of the country, Hogan shared similar sentiments about black men.

On Sunday, after a three-year ban, WWE, which had employed Hogan (real name Terry Bollea) in some capacity since the 1980s and inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2005, reinstated Hogan to its Hall of Fame, marking the disgraced grappler’s first public foray back into professional wrestling since a sex tape became public in July 2015 showing Hogan making racist comments about a black man dating Hogan’s daughter, Brooke. In the video, Hogan is heard referring to the man as a “f—ing n—–” twice while wishing that if his daughter were to “f— some n—–,” Hogan would “rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall n—– worth a hundred million dollars.” Before the tirade, Hogan told the woman in the video — which was but one snippet of a longer video that involved Hogan having sex with the wife of his best friend, a man aptly named Bubba “The Love Sponge” Clem — that “I am a racist.”

Through the late 20th century, Hogan, 64, helped catapult the then-World Wrestling Federation from regional outpost to billion-dollar national juggernaut. Stressing prayer and vitamins, Hogan became a larger-than-life character who went on to star in cartoons and movies and endorse restaurants and blenders. By the 1990s, with the facade of the All-American hero persona washed away by a federal trial that exposed Hogan’s (and many other wrestlers’) rampant steroid use, he turned into a “heel” character, igniting the fabled “Monday Night Wars” between WWE and then-competitor World Championship Wrestling, where the two companies averaged 4 million to 5 million viewers every week over multiple years. (WWE purchased WCW in 2001.)

But with one video, Hogan was all but deleted from the WWE history books: He was removed as a judge on WWE’s reality television show Tough Enough and fired from the company, and he had his name and merchandise removed from the WWE website.

The response by WWE was so shocking in part because Hogan means so much to the history of professional wrestling, and because the WWE has perpetuated racist and offensive stereotypes about African-Americans since its inception, including company CEO Vince McMahon blurting out the N-word on live television in 2005.

After his termination in 2015, Hogan released a statement apologizing for using “offensive language” that was “inconsistent with my own beliefs.” Hogan emphatically stated that “this is not who I am.” Hogan’s history suggests otherwise.

During his 2016 invasion-of-privacy trial against Gawker Media for the media company’s publishing of a separate snippet of the sex tape, Hogan described in graphic detail the differences between Hulk Hogan, the character, and Terry Bollea, the person; specifically, Hogan admitted that while Hogan has a 10-inch penis, Bollea does not. Humor aside, this was Hogan arguing that he is one person in public and another in private.

When applied to the video in which he used the N-word, Hogan is arguing that he’s not that person; it’s another person. Despite admitting on camera that he is a racist, Hogan, like during his testimony, is gaslighting us: Someone else entirely is the real racist.

But if the man on tape was not the real Hogan, then who was it? Was it the real Hogan who referred to himself as a “good n—–” in the company of other black wrestlers? Was it the real Hogan who, in 2012, repeatedly used the N-word on a radio show and then, like a roided-out Paul Dawson, questioned why he could not say it? Which Hogan was it that, three days after his firing, liked a tweet on Twitter that likened Hogan’s use of the word to then-President Barack Obama’s?

This entire episode stems from Hogan not wanting his daughter to date a black man. In the video, Hogan never says what about the man — Miami rapper Yannique “Stack$” Barker, whose father, Cecile Barker, signed Brooke Hogan to his record label — made him unsuitable to date his daughter other than his race. Black male sexuality, dating to chattel slavery and lynching victim Emmett Till, has always been seen as an instigator of white female mortality and a threat to white male masculinity. And Barker dating Brooke Hogan was a threat to her father’s entire being. When a white Twitter user jokingly told Hogan that he had sex with his daughter, Hogan retweeted the message.

For those who argue that the use of racial slurs doesn’t make one racist, a bar Hogan owned in Tampa, Florida, came under fire a year before the video was released for refusing to allow in patrons who wore “plain white” T-shirts, hats worn “sideways or back facing,” low-hanging pants and, ironically enough, do-rags and bandannas. Message: No young black men are welcome.

Which makes WWE’s decision to bring back Hogan so soon (some wrestlers spend decades away after a fallout with the company) a strange one. Hogan is by no means the most controversial member of the WWE Hall of Fame. Tamara Lynn Sytch, also known as Sunny, has used the N-word before, and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka was charged with murder before his 2017 death. There also is, of course, President Donald Trump.

It could be that the N-word isn’t viewed as being that racist to WWE. The company did essentially suspend Hogan for three years, but it has used racial slurs on the air numerous times and always left the door ajar for Hogan’s eventual return. WWE has, outwardly at least, led the charge for gender equality and anti-bullying over the past few years, but racial discrimination doesn’t appear to be too high on its list of corporate causes despite it being a national talking point. Hogan’s reinstatement came just days after Papa John’s founder John Schnatter was forced to resign from the board of his own company after he used the same racial slur in a conference call.

What are the black performers in, and fans of, the WWE supposed to make of this? Cedric Alexander, who signed with WWE in 2016, tweeted Hogan’s catchphrase “Brother” in response to the news, but back in 2015, fellow wrestler Big E tweeted: “Appropriate a culture, pilfer from its dialect, profit wildly from it, and regard its people as subhuman. Makes sense.” For the black fans who were offended by Hogan’s remarks, his return is a punch to the gut. Were their concerns not legitimate in the eyes of WWE decision-makers? WWE has capitulated to fan outrage in the past, most recently in March, changing the name of a match because its namesake, the Fabulous Moolah (real name Mary Lillian Ellison), was accused of both sexually and financially exploiting female wrestlers throughout the previous century.

On Sunday, just one black wrestler appeared on the main card of the “Extreme Rules” pay-per-view event despite a roster that includes the longest-reigning tag team champions in company history (The New Day), one of the most popular women’s wrestlers in the world (Sasha Banks), and the first black man (Alexander) and woman (Naomi) to win singles titles at the company’s biggest event of the year, WrestleMania. That wrestler, Bobby Lashley, is a multi-time champion in WWE and is built like fellow heavyweight Brock Lesnar. In 2008, at the height of his popularity, Lashley left WWE for, among multiple reasons, an alleged racial incident involving backstage producer Michael Hayes. Hayes, the former leader of Southern stable The Fabulous Freebirds, has been employed by the WWE in various capacities since the mid-1990s. He’s also been involved in two high-profile racist moments in WWE history. As a character, Hayes wore Confederate apparel to the ring and once painted the Confederate flag on his face. In 2008, he told black wrestler Mark Henry that he was “more of a n—–” than Henry, which earned Hayes a 60-day suspension.

In 2016, Hayes, alongside The Fabulous Freebirds, was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"