Standing at 6'7" and 375 lbs, it's hard to imagine that anyone would find it in them to bully WWE superstar Brodus Clay. As school-aged kids across the United States are learning, though, Clay fell victim to bullying during his childhood. "I'm bi-racial and was a big kid who moved around a lot. I was poor growing up, so I didn't have Nike's and things like that. I got into a lot of fights and was easily provoked," Clay said.
In third grade, Clay grew beyond bullying through the help of a teacher who reached out to the budding wrestling star. "A teacher who I initially couldn't stand worked with me about expressing my feelings and taught me how to use skills in those situations. I was lucky that I had someone who took the time to teach me how to relax," Clay noted.
These days, WWE has given Clay the chance to pay the lesson his third grade teacher taught him forward. Two years ago, WWE partnered with The Creative Coalition to launch the "Be a STAR" program, where "STAR" stands for "show tolerance and respect."
Through the program, WWE provides a free anti-bullying curriculum to teachers nationwide. Additionally, WWE superstars and divas travel the country hosting numerous anti-bullying speaking events at schools throughout the year. Clay points out that hearing an anti-bullying message from the wrestlers they look up to is an important tool in getting kids to stop bullying one another. "In most of the WWE stories I saw growing up, the villains would bully the good guy. Eventually, though, the good guy would win. WWE was important to me as a kid, because it was there every week with those messages. WWE always preached the message of standing up and being accountable."
WWE's "Be a STAR" program is just one of the many philanthropic efforts the professional wrestling promotion company engages in. Throughout his tenure as WWE CEO, Vince McMahon has made charitable giving and philanthropic projects cornerstones of the WWE business model. "Giving back to the community has always been part of the company's DNA. Since we're in different cities 52 weeks out of the year, Vince wanted to give back. We see it not just about giving back, but about making our fans feel stronger about causes that matter to them," said WWE's chief marketing officer, Michelle Wilson.
Over the years, WWE has invested over millions of dollars in charitable projects. Today, its charitable mission focuses upon four areas: diversity and inclusion; education; the military and providing hope, wishes and dreams. In choosing the areas to focus upon, the McMahon's weigh their interests equally with those of the millions of WWE fans. "The McMahon's initially had an interest in education as a priority and making that part of their community outreach. However, Vince weighs in on anything our fans are interested in," Wilson said.
Personal and fan motivation led McMahon and WWE to launch the "Be a STAR" program. According to Wilson, "When we look at community outreach, we talk to our fans to see what issues are top of mind for them. Because 40 percent of our audience is women and 25 percent are kids under the age of 17, bullying came up as a global epidemic that parents and kids are struggling over what they can do to stop it." Wilson then pitched the idea of using WWE as a intermediary to ending bullying. "A light bulb went off for me and I realized that bullying is an issue we can get around. With WWE, we have a global entertainment platform we can get the message out with and athletes kids really look up to. If we develop the right kind of program with partners, I thought we could really make a difference in ending bullying. Taking the idea to McMahon, Wilson was pleased with the result. "Vince has six grandchildren now. When I told him the statistics about bullying, he thought we had to do something about it," Wilson explained.
As WWE hosts WrestleMania 29, its commitment is stronger than ever. While charitable events have been held every WrestleMania weekend since WrestleMania 1, the breadth of events has grown significantly. This year's events includes not only "Be a STAR" rallies, but also hospital visits, reading celebrations, special recognition of military professionals, a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy relief, and the granting of wishes for twenty Make-A-Wish families. For WWE and its superstars, these events define their existence. "I think it's a responsibility of any role model to give back," Clay said.
Alicia Jessop is a Colorado-based attorney and the founder of the sports law website RulingSports.com. Follow her @RulingSports and at AliciaJessop.com.