Why Racist Hulk Hogan Hasn’t Earned Our Forgiveness
The WWE wrestling icon is hosting this weekend’s WrestleMania and all appears to be forgiven from his racism controversy. But has he ever really apologized for his actions?
“I'm not a racist. I never should have said what I said,” Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea explained in August of 2015.
It was on ABC’s Good Morning America that the WWE wrestling legend, there to theoretically apologize for using the N-word in a surreptitiously shot video, issued the mea culpa.
“It was wrong. I’m embarrassed by it, but a lot of people need to realize you inherit things from your environment. And where I grew up was South Tampa, Port Tampa, and it was a really rough neighborhood, very low-income. And all my friends, we greeted each other saying that word. The word was just thrown around like it was nothing.” Asked by interviewer Amy Robach if he had “inherited a racial bias,” Hogan answered in the affirmative. “I would say that is very fair. The environment I grew up in, all my white friends, all my Black friends, to hear the word on a daily basis when they’d greet me in the morning, that’s what they’d say to me, Good morning, so-and-so. I think that was part of the culture and the environment I grew up in.” He begged fans to forgive him because “I’m a nice guy” and he was at a low point in his life. In 2021 terms, you could say that he was trying to undo being “cancelled.”
As glossy apology tours go, there have been worse, and in the long run, it seemed to work. Hogan, let go from his “goodwill ambassador” public relations role with World Wrestling Entertainment when the scandal broke in July 2015, was brought back into the company three years later. This Saturday and Sunday night, he’s one of two hosts of WrestleMania, WWE’s biggest event of the year, which is being held at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Fellow Tampa native Titus O'Neil (real name Thaddeus Bullard), a Black man, is his co-host. Hogan is flourishing like the racism scandal never even happened. That’s strange, though, because his supposed “apology” was so clearly hollow to anyone who had followed the story.
“I mean, I don’t have double standards,” begins the meatiest Hogan quote from the story that broke the scandal in The National Enquirer. “I mean, I am a racist, to a point, fucking n---ers. But then, when it comes to nice people and shit, and whatever.” (The story also quoted Hogan as saying, “I guess we’re all a little racist. Fucking n---ers.”)
On the same recording, the Enquirer reported, Hogan expressed frustration over his daughter, Brooke, dating rapper Yannique “Stack$” Barker, who is Black.
“I mean, I’d rather if she was going to fuck some n---er, I’d rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall n---er worth a hundred million dollars! Like a basketball player!” Curiously, Hogan made this comment in spite of Yannique being the heir to his father Cecile Barker, a billionaire former aerospace magnate who invested eight figures in Brooke’s singing career and various other Hogan-related business ventures. (While Hogan was making racist comments about the Barkers behind their backs and cracking wise about convincing Cecile to buy things for him, he had allegedly convinced the elder Barker that they were pals.) Nothing that Hogan said about using the N-word as a cordial greeting in his childhood—something vocally refuted by his old neighbors, by the way—had anything to do with the undeniably hateful way he had used the word on the recording.
The apology also ignored that the Enquirer story led to further scrutiny on Hogan, with Tampa’s Bay News 9 discovering further racist comments in the transcripts of jailhouse conversations he’d had with his son, Nick.
“You know that God gave you this vibe and this, this, energy that you and I are going to live forever, bro,” he told Nick. “I just hope we don’t come back as a couple, I don’t want to say it, blizz-ack gizz-uys, you know what I’m saying?” he added, using carny language to obscure that he was saying “Black guys.” Hogan does not appear to have ever addressed these specific comments, nor has he addressed or apologized for the homophobic comments he made in the more famous secret recording, which the Enquirer published in a follow-up story. The same goes for the targeting of the Barkers in his racist and generally inflammatory comments.
When myself and Maria Bustillos discovered partial audio of the original racist rant in unsealed court records for a report for Death and Taxes Magazine, SPIN’s now defunct politics and culture blog, several months later, it turned out that Hogan’s comments were actually worse than what was in the Enquirer report, which was based on a rough transcription. In particular, on the audio, the “racist to a point” line gains further meaning.
“So it gets to the point where… I dunno if Brooke was fucking the Black guy’s son, or they’ve been hanging out,” explained Hogan on the recording. “I caught them holding hands together on the tour. They were getting close to kind of [inaudible] the fucking [inaudible]. I’m not a double standard type of guy. I’m a racist to a point, y’know, ‘fucking n---ers,’ but then, when it comes to nice people…” The recording then gets interrupted by a FOIA redaction. Listening to the audio and hearing Hogan’s inflection, he sounds as if he’s putting air quotes around the phrase “fucking n---ers” to use it as an example of a comment he makes regularly that shows his racism “to a point.”
Though the audio coming out wasn’t as big of a news story as the initial Enquirer report, it was widely covered by numerous news outlets. The original upload has over 219,000 views on SoundCloud, the most popular YouTube upload has just under 200,000 more, and who knows how many people played back versions rehosted by various mainstream news outlets. If you want to hear the substance of what Hogan said, it’s out there, plenty of people have heard how he flat-out says he’s a racist while using the N-word scornfully. And yet he’s recovered just fine, it seems. How did this happen?
The first and most simple reason is also the silliest: There is a surprising amount of confusion over what Hogan actually said to get him in trouble. This all stems from the fact that there were rumblings online that Hogan was about to be fired because the Enquirer was going to report on him using the N-word going back to the night before the story dropped. “Tomorrow, The Scandal Breaks: WWE Will Sever All Ties with Hulk Hogan,” read the subject of a post by “Walt” on sports and hip-hop forum TheColi.com. “When the National Enquirer releases audio of the Hulkster dropping the N-word so liberally that insiders are saying there’s no coming back from this. There’s no link, there are about 100 people who know about this right now. But before you delete this thread... trust me. My rep on these boards is not for posting bullshyt.”
Just eight minutes later, TheColi user “Heelish” replied with the YouTube video of a 2012 interview that DJ Whoo Kid conducted with Hogan; there, the wrestler used the N-word in the context of quoting Black men who had used the word toward him. (Though the embedded video is no longer on YouTube, the interview is still available on DJ Whoo Kid’s official channel.)
This incorrect guess meant that when WWE spent the night scrubbing Hogan from their website—an order that came down “a few hours ago” as of veteran wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer’s tweet about the expurgation at 2:16 a.m. ET—a lot of news sites used it to fill the gap until the Enquirer story dropped. In a 24-hour news cycle, the 13 hours or so between the initial posts at TheColi and the posting of the Enquirer story were an eternity. While many of the stories would be updated to correct the mistake and aggregate the Enquirer story, many others didn’t, meaning that you can find uncorrected reports citing “a recently resurfaced 2012 radio interview” from massive mainstream news outlets like CBS News. Somehow, this persisted even after the Enquirer story dropped, including among outlets you’d expect to know better. Five weeks later, when Hogan appeared on Good Morning America, the coverage of the interview in Variety, for example, cited the DJ Whoo Kid interview as the catalyst with no mention of the actual tabloid story that got the legendary grappler fired. With coverage like this, it’s a lot easier to understand why some people think Hogan got a bad rap.
Oh, and thanks to Hogan largely avoiding mass media pushback for how incongruent the apology was with what he was actually supposed to be apologizing for? The DJ Whoo Kid-centric explanation for his banishment would make a lot more sense to anyone who mistakenly believed it, as it did fit the narrative of his empty apology and excuses for why he thought he could use the N-word.
There is one wrinkle, though, that ties the radio interview to the Enquirer story, which is that the DJ Whoo Kid interview took place on October 10, 2012. That’s just six days after Gawker posted a carefully edited “highlight reel” of a surreptitiously shot sex tape showing Hogan and Heather Clem, the then-wife of his best friend, Florida radio personality Todd “Bubba The Love Sponge” Clem. It’s also just two days before—according to court records unsealed in 2016—Hogan’s lawyer was informed by an attorney representing the person who owned the original copy of the sex tape that there were two other videos floating around as well, with one of them including the racist comments that the Enquirer would publish in 2015. With just slightly different timing, Hogan probably never would have said what he said in the radio interview. Not that it mattered, anyway.
The connection to the sex tapes, though, undoubtedly afforded Hogan a lot more sympathy than he would receive otherwise. Hogan would soon sue Gawker, and over time, though the media largely sided with Gawker, the general public would take up for Hogan. Throw in the racist comments coming on another sex tape, and you can at least trace the path of how someone might have prioritized Hogan’s privacy concerns.
WWE’s handling of all of this managed to also give Hogan some cover, going back to the day that the story broke, more by way of confusion than anything else. While Hogan being erased from WWE.com had the byproduct of removing him from the list of inductees to the WWE Hall of Fame, WWE ignored all media inquiries requesting clarification as to whether this meant that he was actually gone from the Hall of Fame—for three years.
Then, one day, that changed. “After a three-year suspension, Hulk Hogan has been reinstated into the WWE Hall of Fame,” WWE said in a statement released in July 2018. “This second chance follows Hogan’s numerous public apologies and volunteering to work with young people, where he is helping them learn from his mistake. These efforts led to a recent induction into the Boys & Girls Clubs of America Alumni Hall of Fame.” Of course, his public apologies had, as noted earlier, been hard to reconcile with what he actually needed to apologize for.
His subsequent attempt at a private apology, to the WWE locker room, didn’t go much better. “There were very mixed feelings with many not believing he was sincere,” reported Dave Meltzer in the July 23, 2018, issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. He added that many of the wrestlers present saw the speech as much more “I embarrassed the company because somebody filmed me when I didn’t know I was being filmed” than it was “under any circumstances, what I said was abhorrent.” It also didn’t help that, in introducing Hogan to the locker room, WWE executive Paul “Triple H” Levesque “told people about the dangers of being a celebrity on social media,” specifically saying that “you have to remember when you go out that people may record you with their phones without your knowledge.” Multiple Black wrestlers would soon confirm publicly that this was the gist of the speech and part of why they didn’t see it as a sincere apology.
“Unfortunately, I must echo the sentiment and dissatisfaction expressed by many of my fellow contemporaries concerning Mr. Bollea’s apology and its lack of true contrition, remorse and a desire to change,” wrote Hogan’s future 2021 WrestleMania co-host Thaddeus “Titus O'Neil” Bullard in a tweeted statement. “Mr. Bollea’s apology ‘that he didn’t know he was being recorded’ is not remorse for the hateful and violent utterances he made which reprise language that has caused violence against blacks and minorities for centuries.” The three-man tag team known as The New Day, consisting of Kofi Nahaje “Kofi Kingston” Sarkodie-Mensah, Austin “Xavier Woods” Watson, and Ettore “Big E” Ewen, would also tweet a statement on Sarkodie-Mensah’s @TrueKofi account. “On a personal level, when someone makes racist and hateful comments about any race or group of people, especially to the degree that Hogan made about our people, we find it difficult to simply forget, regardless of how long ago it was, or the situation in which those comments were made,” they wrote. “Perhaps if we see him make a genuine effort to change, then maybe our opinion will change with him. Time will tell.”
Bullard would, one week later, double down and go into further detail about what happened with Hogan and his thoughts on the matter in an interview with SiriusXM’s Busted Open Radio, even mentioning the insincerity of the 2015 Good Morning America interview.
“First of all, dude, you grew up in the ’60s,” Bullard explained. “I don’t know any Black man that would allow you to call him that in the ’60s. You grew up in South Tampa, you went to Robinson High School. I live in Tampa. Robinson High School was not a predominantly Black school in the time that he came to high school. Most of the guys, his counterparts that he wrestled with—Mike Graham, [Florida promoter] Eddie Graham’s kid, Steve Keirn—these guys all went to high school with him. So don’t tell me that that’s how you spoke in the ’60s. There’s no realistic way that you can even come close to telling me that that was OK with any Black man at that time. So again, the inconsistencies of the apology along with the lack of remorse and contrition with the apologies are the reason why I felt, and many others felt in that meeting, that this was a complete waste of our time.”
A few weeks later, Hogan would address the backlash in an interview conducted by longtime wrestling writer and photographer Bill Apter. There, if anything, he made the situation worse. “I just hope the brotherhood can get back to the way it was,” Hogan argued. “Because when you’re in the ring and somebody’s body-slamming somebody or piledriving somebody, you protect your brother and you make sure physically they’re safe. And outside the ring, you’re supposed to protect your brother. In this case, it’s a situation where 75, 80, 90 percent of the wrestlers are protecting me and they’re giving me another chance to move forward. There’s just a few wrestlers that kind of like don’t understand the bond and the brotherhood of wrestling, and hey, if someone makes a mistake, you need to forgive them and move on and try to let them prove themselves.”
Since then, Hogan has mostly treated his racist comments as a dead issue, with the one interview where he’s addressed it since being on a Houston-based radio show hosted by retired Black wrestler Robert “Booker T” Huffman in April 2019. There, he still framed the issue as being one of him using the N-word in a vacuum (“People can say a word or make a mistake and that doesn’t mean that’s who they are”) and not the context in which he used it—while self-identifying as a racist prone to exclaiming “fucking n---ers!” (He had, in all fairness, also given a private and ostensibly more heartfelt apology in person to the aforementioned Ettore “Big E” Ewen a few weeks earlier that Ewen made a point of thanking him for on Twitter.)
By any kind of reasonable standard, based on what’s in the public domain, Hulk Hogan has not done anything to warrant being welcomed back with open arms. He’s repeatedly refused to take responsibility for what he actually said, obfuscated what he actually said, and generally showed little to no awareness of what actually got him in trouble. The specific context of how what he said was directed at someone he had convinced was his best friend was largely ignored, which helped Hogan further evade consequences.
This wasn’t simply a white celebrity using the N-word while quoting someone and not realizing that no white person should ever use that word. It wasn’t even as simple as a white celebrity using the N-word in a hateful context, even though that’s certainly part of what he did. It was a white celebrity:
- Using the N-word in a hateful context.
- Implying that he used it regularly in similar contexts.
- Outright admitting he was a racist.
- Laughing with his white friends about how the “Black billionaire guy” he was pretending to be friends with was a gullible “n---er” who he could get to do his bidding.
- Treating the fortune of said “Black billionaire guy” as less than that of a fellow “n---er” who made a fortune playing basketball for reasons that can only be understood as the money not coming from a stereotypically “Black” source of wealth.
- Joking with his son about how they saw Black people as inherently less-than in a separate incident.
- “Apologizing” by dishonestly framing the controversy as being completely different from what it actually was while throwing his childhood friends and neighbors under the bus.
- Publicly chastising his Black colleagues who refused to accept his insincere apologies.
And yet, it’s like nothing ever happened. This weekend, in front of millions of viewers, Hulk Hogan will be palling around with the man who most prominently tore his insincere non-apology to shreds. Seemingly, Hogan is there as a way to bring lapsed wrestling fans to WrestleMania as WWE shifts its premium content to NBC’s Peacock streaming service in the United States—the same Peacock that’s making a point of editing out past WWE uses of blackface, the N-word, and the like before the company’s archival content ever appears on the service.
And we’re supposed to believe that “cancel culture” is real why, exactly?