Former WWE ring announcer Justin Roberts says WWE misrepresented the story of an 8-year-old fan who died of cancer last year to enhance its corporate image. Roberts, who worked with WWE from 2002 to 2014, outlined his claims in a detailed first-person essay posted to Medium on Thursday night.
At the center of the story is young fan Connor “The Crusher” Michalek, who became the first fan to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame last month when he was given the premier “Warrior Award.” Roberts says in the essay he was “very much okay” with WWE honoring Michalek, but not okay with WWE’s motives behind it, which he says were “twisted” to create good publicity.
Part of WWE’s restructuring of the story, according to Roberts, was cutting his role in it entirely, despite that it was he who introduced Michalek to WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon.
“Reality was not a part of the story,” he writes.
Roberts outlines in detail how Michalek became so popular backstage, starting with the first time he met him and his father Steve during a Jan. 26. 2014 taping of the “Royal Rumble” pay-per-view in Pittsburgh.
“(Connor Michalek) caught my eye as it looked like maybe he was going through some rough times,” wrote Roberts, who also posted several photos of himself and Michalek with his essay on Medium.
Roberts goes on to describe in detail his friendship with Michalek, which included weekly Facetime sessions, during which Roberts would entertain Michalek during his medical treatments by video-chatting with him from the set of “Raw” on Monday nights.
When it came time to tell Michalek’s story — including what it portrayed at Michalek’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony — and how he became a backstage favorite among WWE superstars, however, Roberts says WWE re-wrote the story with bigger names, including fan favorite Daniel Bryan, who is set up in company press material to look like the main go-between, between the company and the Michaleks.
“Daniel was always good to (Connor) when they were face-to-face at the arenas,” Roberts writes. “Daniel is a quality person and incredible performer. I feel bad that the company put him in a position where people on the outside might assume they were closer than they were.”
Roberts also writes about a video WWE made to promote the fundraising charity Connor’s Cure that the company set up in honor Michalek, who died on April 25, 2014. The video showed Michalek smiling and happy alongside McMahon, Triple H, Bryan and others, but did not mention the close-knit friendship Roberts says he had developed with Michalek.
The video was quickly put on heavy rotation in all WWE programming and Roberts was the person who had to introduce it. He says his boss, who he doesn’t name, would tease him about it, despite knowing Roberts was still grieving for his young friend.
“Between how sad it was not to have Connor anymore, and to be forced to watch a revised version of history – a story that was very personal and meaningful to me – the sting deepened,” Roberts wrote. “My boss even made a joke out of me making the announcement at the TV events. He would time me and threaten to cut my microphone if I did not finish the announcement fast enough. And this cavalier attitude was especially frustrating for me. After all, it was important to the company to show this video (bordering on propaganda), and the company wanted me to say something after – but make it snappy!”
Roberts concludes WWE used its “rewrite” of Michalek’s story “to pat themselves on the back for being a standup organization.”
“I wish Connor’s Cure and Connor’s induction into the Hall of Fame were driven by sincerity and not strategy,” he writes.
Shortly after Roberts published his essay on Medium, the Twitter account for Connor’s Cure, which is reportedly run by Michalek’s father, posted two tweets about Roberts.
Regardless of what said, @JustinRoberts loved Connor and we love him.That's what counts.I will never 4get all he did for Connor, and now me.
— ConnorsCure (@ConnorsCure) April 3, 2015
— ConnorsCure (@ConnorsCure) April 3, 2015
Roberts isn’t the only person to question the motives behind WWE’s philanthropic endeavors. A tweet equating philanthropy to marketing posted on Stephanie McMahon’s official Twitter account on the day Michalek was inducted into the Hall of Fame, elicited several negative responses from fans online. Roberts also mentions the tweet in his essay, noting, “I felt like I was punched in the gut” when he read it.
— Stephanie McMahon (@StephMcMahon) March 28, 2015
— Wade Keller (@thewadekeller) March 28, 2015
@StephMcMahon So your company only gives to charity for the "free press" always make sure a camera is around type of deal? DISGUSTING!
— DolphinsTalk.com (@DolphinsTalk) March 28, 2015
— Savvas (@Macho_Grande1) March 28, 2015
— bob. (@BeeOhBeeRT_R) March 28, 2015
WWE defended its telling of Michalek’s story and its other philanthropic endeavors to The Washington Post on Friday:
“It is offensive to suggest that WWE and its executives had anything but altruistic intentions in honoring Connor and his legacy with The Warrior Award. In conjunction with Connor’s father, Connor’s Cure was established by Stephanie McMahon and Paul Levesque to raise awareness and funds for pediatric cancer, and to honor a boy that so many people within the WWE family came to love. The fund is managed by the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation and has already raised more than $200,000 for pediatric cancer research. …
“WWE is proud to use our global platforms to raise awareness for important social causes, including Connor’s Cure as well as our longstanding partnership with Make A Wish, our on-going partnership with Susan G. Komen, which has resulted in more than $1.5 million in funds raised, and our international partnership with Special Olympics.”
Michalek’s father Steve has had only good things to say about WWE publicly.
“My family is forever grateful for the gift that WWE, its Superstars, Divas and executives gave to Connor,” Steve Michalek said in a WWE press statement last last month. “They made him smile and encouraged him to continue fighting. His visits backstage, and his time in the ring with Daniel Bryan, brought Connor true joy and undoubtedly extended his life, giving us more time with him. Now, with this award and Connor’s Cure, Connor’s legacy will live on.”