One would have to be a diehard World Wrestling Entertainment fan to remember Ashley Massaro. She came to prominence in 2006, during the dark age of women’s wrestling, before its evolution to main-event status. Back then, women wrestlers were referred to as “Divas,” and competing meant pillow fights, bathing-suit contests, and “Playboy Bunnymania Lumberjill” matches. Ashley Massaro had charisma and athletic talent a decade ahead of a time when it would have been actually appreciated. Massaro is now dead at 39, yet another wrestler who died well before her time.
During her tenure in World Wrestling Entertainment, she suffered in more ways than one. WWE routinely visits military bases to give a lift to the soldiers fighting the endless wars in the Middle East. It’s of course a public-relations operation that makes the WWE look patriotic and generates goodwill for the brand for “supporting the troops.” Such trips also help make joining the military look like an opportunity to interact with “WWE Superstars.” Great for recruiting in an era when fewer people see the military as an attractive option.
On Massaro’s trip to a US military base in Kuwait, she was allegedly sexually assaulted. Given the high rates of sexual assaults in the military, the story is a tragic echo of what too many women endure in uniform. In fact, the incidence of sexual assault in the military is now higher than it has been since 2006, the first year these statistics were tracked and the year that Massaro visited the Kuwaiti base.
In 2016, Massaro joined dozens of former WWE wrestlers in a lawsuit against WWE alleging that WWE failed to care for the wrestlers’ repetitive head injuries. According to the November 2016 amended complaint, “Upon her return to the United States, she was seen by [WWE physician] Dr. Rios who interviewed her about the [sexual assault]. Dr. Rios reported the incident to WWE executives who soon thereafter met with Massaro to apologize for their negligence but persuaded her that it would be best not to report it to appropriate authorities.”
Her attorney also wrote,
This incredible situation derives from the WWE’s employment misclassification scheme wherein the WWE (deems itself) neither responsible for Massaro’s safety (despite [her] being on a WWE tour in the Middle East) nor does the WWE deem itself responsible to report or collect data about incidents such as this. The WWE in order to protect its public image and insulate itself from paying for its injured workers prefers to remain silent.
In an affidavit she submitted in 2017 as part of the lawsuit, Massaro wrote, “[WWE chief] Vince [McMahon] approached my rape in the same manner he approached all wrestler injuries. He did not want to damage the reputation of the WWE by making them public knowledge, so he exerted extreme pressure on us to stay silent.”
Massaro’s comments before the trip, as pointed out by the website Pro Wrestling Sheet, are painful to read. She said, “Anything can happen going over to the Middle East. But my company takes care of me, and I trust them. I have full faith that I will come back exactly the way I left, if not a little bit better in the heart.”
This wasn’t the only hardship that Massaro faced as a WWE independent contractor (they are not employed directly by WWE, as John Oliver recently pointed out in scathing segment on Last Week Tonight. )
She also, as part of the lawsuit, called out WWE for suppressing information about the effects of concussions on wrestlers—claims that are similar to those that have been made about the National Football League. Massaro also said that in her post-WWE life, she had been dealing with bouts of depression, mood swings, drug addiction, and other familiar side effects of repetitive head trauma. She reported that her time in WWE had left her with, according to The Boston Globe, “a hairline fracture of her spine, two herniated disks, and an ankle fracture that required the insertion of a five-inch metal plate to repair.”
The case was dismissed by US District Court Judge Vanessa Bryant in September 2018, but this was appealed by her lawyer who wrote, “Her case was pending an upcoming Appeal, like many of her friends—due to her premature death she is no longer getting a day in Court.” Massaro’s tragic passing is a reminder of the dark side of the World Wrestling Entertainment universe, and how profit too often takes precedence over people.