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Sasha Banks and Naomi deserve better

The popular wrestling duo walked away from the WWE in May

On Saturday, WWE will be holding its second-biggest annual event, SummerSlam 2022, in Nashville, Tennessee. While it’s normally a celebration of the company’s talent, this year’s event is mired in controversy. WWE founder Vince McMahon recently announced his retirement following a Wall Street Journal report that alleged he used company funds to cover up inappropriate relationships and sexual misconduct accusations. Before that happened, the company was also under fire for the way it handled two of its biggest stars — Women’s Tag Team champions Sasha Banks and Naomi — who walked out over frustrations about how they were being portrayed on the WWE Network.

The move by Sasha Banks and Naomi is a landmark moment. Their decision to leave demonstrates a level of power usually reserved for white stars. The pair’s ability to walk away illustrates how successfully Black women have been able to market themselves as wrestling stars, how amenable the WWE has been to push its Black talent, but also how much further the company has to go to truly be a welcoming space for its Black stars.

The dispute first came to light two months ago, when WWE released a statement while Monday Night RAW was airing that said Banks and Naomi had left the event.

“During the broadcast, they walked into WWE Head of Talent Relations John Laurinaitis office with their suitcases in hand, placed their tag team championship belts on his desk and walked out,” the company said. While the WWE statement said the two women “were uncomfortable in the ring with two of their opponents,” subsequent reports have indicated that Banks in particular had grown frustrated with her placement on WWE programming and the lack of direction for their characters.

Earlier this year, Banks had reportedly been bumped from a title match at WrestleMania in favor of former MMA star Ronda Rousey. When Banks and Naomi won the tag team title that night, it was a consolation prize of sorts to give her a shining moment. But Banks believed there weren’t many long-term plans for her and Naomi after they won. A few weeks later, the duo allegedly had gotten word that their team would go through a de facto split. They also claimed the WWE had no real plan for the titles they earned or the popularity they built. If the breakup happened, it would derail the momentum Banks and Naomi were building as a team through backstage vignettes, social media posts and dynamic matches. The duo seemed happy to be partnered together, exuding a natural chemistry, while also showing that Black women could succeed in wrestling and also be friends.

Ending the partnership was the last straw for Banks.

As athletes whose popularity, income and on-screen representation are often left up to the creative teams at WWE — with McMahon historically having the final say — wrestlers often find themselves frustrated with their portrayals. But because of WWE’s size and reach, it’s rare for wrestlers to leave, because doing so can be detrimental to their careers. Stone Cold Steve Austin walked out in 2002 after becoming dissatisfied with the creative direction for his character, returning months later. CM Punk did the same in 2014 and never returned to a WWE ring.

At the time of their departure, Austin and CM Punk were the company’s biggest stars with enough money and fame to find other avenues to sustain careers. Banks is also part of that rarefied level of fame. She headlined last year’s WrestleMania, becoming the first Black woman to do so (along with her opponent Bianca Belair). She was featured prominently on Season Two of The Mandalorian and appeared on comedian Kevin Hart’s popular show, Cold As Balls, the week she walked out. Banks is as much a household name as anyone on the WWE roster other than, perhaps, champion Roman Reigns and MMA crossovers Rousey and Brock Lesnar.

And she knows it. Months before her walkout, Banks did an interview with Austin and explained that she would be demanding more for her character.

“Before, I was a superfan just thankful to be here,” she said. “I’m done with the ‘I’m thankful … I’m here.’ I’m signed and I’ve been here, I’ve put in the work and if I see myself where I want to see myself, I’m on Vince McMahon’s level.” And if we know anything about the way Black women are treated at any level of success, a Black woman who knows her worth and demands that it be recognized is rarely met with open arms.

Four days after the walkout, during a live broadcast of WWE SmackDown! play-by-play announcer Michael Cole delivered a statement on behalf of the company about the two women, saying, “They let us all down,” and that “their actions disappointed millions of WWE fans.” The statement felt vindictive and hypocritical. WWE changes cards and matches all the time without fans’ prior knowledge. After all, just last year at SummerSlam, Banks was advertised to be in a championship matchup until the very moment the match began even though the company knew she wouldn’t be able to wrestle for undisclosed personal reasons.

The on-air attack on Banks and Naomi became more disastrous when, weeks later, it was revealed that McMahon was under investigation for using company funds to pay off women he’d either had relationships with or to settle sexual misconduct allegations. Last week, McMahon retired in the midst of those allegations. And yet, WWE made no statement about him letting fans down. 

So far, the WWE has yet to accept any blame for the deterioration of its relationship with Banks and Naomi. Naomi has been on the WWE’s main roster for a decade and, for much of that time, her increase in popularity outpaced the TV time and storyline focus she’s gotten. Naomi won the WWE SmackDown Women’s Championship in 2017 — becoming the first Black woman to do so — but while her fans have been clamoring for more substantial storylines, Naomi still hasn’t gotten the TV time she’s deserved. Her ring entrances and athleticism are show-stealers, and she also wields her own power as a favorite of Black viewers who have rallied behind her on social media. (She’s also married to Jimmy Uso, one-half of the men’s tag team champions, who also shares an on-screen partnership with champion Reigns. Uso is also part of the Anoa’i family, one of the most powerful families in all of wrestling, which includes stars Reigns and The Rock, among others.)

Banks has earned much more attention on the WWE Network, having won women’s titles and tag titles on both the company’s RAW and Smackdown! brands. But her career has been full of restarts and fan frustration. When Banks first appeared on the main roster in 2016, she became an instant favorite and was featured in a long-term feud with Charlotte Flair for the championship. However, for years, Banks would win the title but never successfully defend it, losing the belt within a month of each victory. She took a four-month leave from WWE in 2019, citing burnout and fatigue. Banks also spent much of 2021 away from wrestling.

Each time she’d return more popular than before, and each time it seems like her star power was more apparent to fans than the WWE. Banks’ frustration seemed to boil over when the company placed its WrestleMania faith in Rousey instead of her, putting Banks in what would have been a throwaway tag team championship reign, if not for the way she and Naomi had caught fire with fans. 

Unfortunately that’s the story for many Black wrestlers: having to make the best out of questionable creative decisions by people who don’t look like them and who don’t understand their connections to fans, especially Black fans.

While the company deserves a ton of credit for amplifying Black wrestlers in a way it hadn’t in its early years, the WWE has handled two of its biggest Black stars’ demands to be treated better about as poorly as possible. And yet, these women showed the power they hold by standing their ground. Both Naomi and Banks can and will have flourishing careers. If they want to keep wrestling, the pair can go to WWE rival All Elite Wrestling, which wasn’t around when Austin and CM Punk left, or head overseas and make a good living wrestling in Japan. Outside the ring, Banks and Naomi can pursue even more acting and TV opportunities. If this standoff drags on, it’ll be clear that the WWE will need their star power more than they need the WWE. And that, in and of itself, is an example of Black excellence in an industry that still has a lot of catching up to do.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.