WASHINGTON ― President-elect Donald Trump has touted Linda McMahon’s former company, World Wrestling Entertainment, as evidence that she is prepared to lead the Small Business Administration. But decades ago, the organization was mired in a sexual harassment scandal that included multiple allegations of abuse against minors.
No evidence has surfaced that McMahon had direct knowledge of the alleged abuse before the victims came forward. She and her husband, Vince McMahon, sought to portray themselves as swiftly responding to the claims. In a 1992 television appearance, soon after some of the allegations surfaced, Vince McMahon said that the organization had launched “an independent investigation on our own to get to the bottom of all of this.”
But the extent to which the allegations were known throughout the wrestling community ― as well as Linda McMahon’s direct role in settling at least one of the lawsuits ― is an unusual chapter for a businesswoman seeking a mundane government post.
In 1992, Tom Cole, then 21, sued the World Wrestling Federation, which later became WWE, and three men who worked for the organization. Cole had spent about five years working as a “ring boy,” a job that included setting up wrestling rings and running errands for $30 to $150 a night. He alleged that when he was between 13 and 16, one of the men, Mel Phillips, would “frequently caress” his feet and “rub them against his (defendant’s) own genital area.” Cole alleged that Pat Patterson ― a wrestler and close ally of Vince McMahon ― would “regularly grab plaintiff’s genitals or buttocks.”
Cole also claimed a Canadian professional wrestler, Terry Garvin, made sexual advances towards him at age 16 and 19, and he lost his job for turning Garvin down in the second incident.
Cole wasn’t the only one to come forward with claims of abuse and a culture of retaliation. In October 1999, another former ring boy alleged in a court filing that Phillips would “take [him] aside” and ask to play a “game” that involved rubbing his feet against Phillips’ crotch and Phillips pulling the boy’s toes apart until he screamed. In separate incidents on WWE-related road trips, the complaint said, Phillips rubbed the boy’s genitals. The plaintiff was a minor at the time of the incidents, according to the complaint.
A judge denied the company’s motion to dismiss that suit in 2000. WWE — which denied specific allegations of the “game” based on lack of “sufficient knowledge” — and the former ring boy reached a settlement out of court. The former ring boy declined to comment to HuffPost, citing that settlement.
The SBA, which President-elect Trump nominated Linda McMahon to lead, acts as an advocate for small businesses, and has important responsibilities that include running a large loan guarantee program and providing assistance during natural disasters. The current administrator previously served as secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.
Linda McMahon co-founded the company that later became WWE alongside her husband. She served various roles within the organization before becoming president and CEO from 1997 to 2009. She then resigned to seek a Senate seat in Connecticut, spending close to $100 million of her own money and losing twice. She and her husband also gave $5 million to the Donald J. Trump Foundation between 2007 and 2009 and donated $7 million to pro-Trump super PACs.
Former wrestler Tom Hankins told The Huffington Post he considers Linda McMahon a “bad choice,” for the position, pointing to the company’s history of crushing smaller competitors. He also noted that sexual harassment allegations were known throughout the wrestling business.
When Cole’s allegations first surfaced, other wrestlers also doubted that wrestling’s top brass were unaware of these issues within the industry. Barry Orton, a former wrestler who claimed that Garvin and Patterson harassed him during a road trip in 1978 (before he or they joined WWE), confronted Vince McMahon during an appearance on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1992.
“You’re saying that you knew nothing of it, and I just find that really difficult to believe,” Orton said to Vince McMahon, in reference to general sexual abuse issues, rather than his own specific incident. “You are the king of an empire, and you have eyes and ears everywhere. And it is so common ― at least the topic of conversation for three to five minutes every night in the dressing room, because a lot of the guys, they have to put up with it, and they hate it because if they say anything they’re out of a job.”
Bruno Sammartino, a longtime WWF wrestler, also portrayed sexual harassment and abuse as common knowledge throughout wrestling, first on a 1992 appearance alongside Vince McMahon on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” and later on Donahue’s show.
The Trump transition team and Linda McMahon’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
When the allegations first came to light in the early 1990s, the McMahons denied having any prior knowledge of the concerns about Phillips, Garvin or Patterson.
“To me this is the most reprehensible type of behavior in any organization,” Vince McMahon said during a 1992 appearance on “Larry King Live.” “Yes, we are certainly large enough now whereby this might have occurred. And if in fact it did occur, the individuals responsible would have been fired on the spot. We’re doing everything we can to internally investigate this situation.”
Phillips was let go in 1992 and Patterson and Garvin resigned, Vince McMahon said during appearances that year on King and Donahue’s shows. Patterson, however, was rehired five months later, according to Politico. During the appearance on Larry King Live, Vince McMahon challenged many of the claims against Patterson as a form of homophobia against an openly gay wrestling executive.
Garvin is deceased. Efforts to reach Phillips were unsuccessful. Patterson and the WWE did not respond to requests for comment.
Jerry McDevitt, the McMahons’ attorney, told Politico in 2010 that Linda McMahon is a “very compassionate person and a mother herself, and the day we met with Tom Cole, I thought having her present and a mother’s instincts were invaluable.”
After Cole’s lawsuit was filed, Linda McMahon quickly sought to intervene. While Vince McMahon largely handled the public side of the controversy, Linda McMahon also played a direct role in his settlement. A month after the lawsuit was filed, she was one of the signatories on an “agreement and release” with Cole that granted him $55,000 and certain legal fees, as well as his job back. In that agreement, the company denied liability.
In a 1999 interview with Wrestling Perspective, Cole noted that shortly after the settlement, Linda McMahon told him, “‘We’re going to send a car for you so you can go shopping. I’m sending $5,000 over so you can go get clothes and whatever you need.’”
Linda McMahon also offered her version of events on television, with Politico reporting that she portrayed WWE “as acting from an abundance of caution even in firing the announcer whose interest in stroking the feet of young boys had been ‘blown out of proportion.’”
Cole, who could not be reached for comment, ultimately returned to work with Patterson. Cole also said in an interview with the Post and Courier in 2011 that he didn’t have any lasting ill-will towards the McMahons.
“Over the years I’ve begun to realize how things are done,” he said. “They wanted to protect their company, but ultimately they did the right thing.”