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The very day last week that Capitals owner Ted Leonsis appeared on the Washington Post’s front page for dropping the gloves with a sign-wielding hockey patron, the MCI Center hosted Vince McMahon and his WWE. The NHL should have made Leonsis return to the scene of his crime to sit ringside at the Smackdown taping.

Leonsis forever pile-drove his reputation as the fan-friendliest owner in all of professional sports—and earned a week’s suspension from the league—by getting into some sort of rasslin’ match with 20-year-old Jason Hammer after a game with the Philadelphia Flyers. Leonsis reportedly didn’t like the kid’s placard, which read “Caps Hockey, AOL Stock—See a Connection?”

Were Leonsis more familiar with pro-wrestling culture and the way it trickles down to the mainstream, he’d never have become a well-heeled heel just because of a sign.

It’s getting hard to overestimate McMahon’s influence on the sporting world. The impossible camera angles and utter absence of decorum in this year’s Super Bowl telecast, for example, were staples of McMahon’s broadcasts long ago. (Forget Janet Jackson’s flash: What about those Cialis commercials that spoke of “erections of more than four hours”? Where have you gone, post-nasal drip?)

Signs like the one that set Leonsis off also come with McMahon’s territory.

“In wrestling, fans are much more involved than they are in mainstream sports, and audience participation is encouraged, and that’s manifested in the signs,” says Will Dunham, founder and co-host of Inside the Squared Circle, a weekly wrestling show now in its 12th year of being narrowcast on local cable systems. “There are signs in other sports, but in wrestling, it’s another category—more creative, probably more raunchy. If you go to a game at Camden Yards, it’s highly unlikely you’d see signs with foul language. But wrestling fans are a unique breed, in that the business itself encourages a certain amount of over-the-top behavior and twisted thinking, and I would argue that there’s nothing wrong with that. So when the cameras show up at a wrestling event, the signs come out in heavy numbers, like toadstools after a heavy rain. They’re a big part of the show in wrestling.”

Occasionally, the signs can be too big a part of the show for promoters to handle. Anything alleging that wrestlers use steroids, for example, is verboten. But pretty much everything else is on the table at wrestling events. (A personal fave: “I Steal Cable!,” seen at a pay-per-view event at the MCI Center several year ago.) The signage of one particular wrestling fanatic in Philadelphia was so brutal to promoters when they came through town that Paul Heyman, a former promoter who now works for McMahon, wrote up a wrestling character to fight back. That wrestler, known as Sign Guy Dudley, would bring his own magic marker and cardboard into the ring and draw up signs abusing the fans.

A sizable portion of the crowd of 10,000 or so that came to MCI Center for the Smackdown taping brought along crudely conceived and sometimes just plain crude placards. Before the show started, an MC asked the crowd to hold up signs for an opening shot, and for several seconds the lower bowl of the arena looked like a halftime show at the Orange Bowl.

“That’s an old trick at wrestling shows,” says Pat McNeill, a Northern Virginia lawyer and longtime author of an online wrestling column, “The Pro Wrestling Torch.” “Twenty minutes before the show they come out and say, ‘Hey, everybody raise up your signs!’ Then, security goes around and pulls all the ones that the promoter didn’t like, either because they’re too offensive or, more likely, because they’re critical of the promotion.”

That tactic might serve Leonsis well—if he’d spotted and removed Hammer’s sign before the puck dropped in the Flyers game, he wouldn’t be serving a suspension. Then again, everybody else’s night would have been duller. But Dunham, who in his nonwrestling life covers the Department of Defense for Reuters, says such gimmickry no longer works on WWE fans.

“The smart ones know now you hold your good stuff for until the taping actually starts,” he says.

A lot of folks apparently just wanted to show that they can conjugate “to suck”: “Vince Sucks!” “Hey Brock [Lesnar] U Suck” and a generic “The Guy Sux!” were examples. Others came to praise: “Vince Is God!”and “[John] Cena 3:16” among them. (Hard-core wrestling fans tired of the biblical 3:16 references on signs long ago, to the degree that a sign bearing “No More 3:16 Signs 3:16!”

began showing up

on taping nights.)

The goal isn’t always to enlighten or annoy those in the house.The real target market is often Smackdown’s international television audience. That explains the scads of self-referential signs that simply had a name—“Amy,” “Pam,” “Matt,” and “Jay”—and an arrow pointing down so viewers could identify the sign-holder.

A row of nine Navy midshipmen sitting in the corner of the arena got so caught up in the mood that they took a marker and drew a collective

S-M-A-C-K-D-O-W-N sign on their dress hats.

One guy in the arena’s second tier held up a big lime green sign that said “The People / Can’t,” which made no sense until his buddy in the next seat got up with an equally large and loud placard that said “Behind Us / See!” So from the ring it read, “The People Behind Us/Can’t See.”Even Dick Cavett would chuckle at this bit of lowbrow ingenuity.

But ringside, Sam Olsen, a nose-ringed 21-year-old from Baltimore, carried an armload of homemade placards. Some praised his hero, John Cena; another ragged on the hirsute grappler known as A-Train: “Shave your back!”

“I just want to represent and get on TV,” Olsen says, when asked why he put so much work in. But of all the signs in Olsen’s cache, the one he most hoped would be beamed worldwide had nothing to do with wrestling. Olsen said he had drawn it up only hours before the show, just after learning that the girlfriend of his best buddy, Randy, was pregnant.

The sign? “Oh no, Randy!” —Dave McKenna