With the jury having been chosen last week in a lengthy and at times highly amusing process, today the trial between Hulk Hogan and Gawker.com officially started, which saw Terry Bollea, the man behind the larger than life wrestling persona, take the stand to testify to the humiliation caused by the website's publication of excerpts from a secretly taped sex video with Heather Cole, the then wife of Bubba The Love Sponge.
The tone for the day's legal proceedings was set by Shane Vogt, one of Hogan's lawyers, in his opening arguments, where he claimed that Gawker had invaded his client's privacy by publishing the explicit material with complete disregard for the embarrassment it would cause him and did so for their own financial gain:
"For those six months, this man stood there naked, and exposed, to the world. This was a pornographic video that was secretly recorded without Mr. Bollea's consent, and they knew it."
Vogt even went so far as to show a slide entitled "Humiliation" listing all the pornographic websites the video had been subsequently uploaded to.
In his response, Gawker attorney Michael Berry claimed that they published the story in question because their journalists were after the truth and that they had actually gone to great lengths to publish as little of the sex as possible. To back up his argument that the publication was not financially driven, Berry pointed out that posts like this one which have to be labeled as NSFW (not safe for work) did not include any advertising or messages from sponsors. Simply put, the Hogan exposé was in the public interest (or, more accurately, was of interest to the public).
It should be noted that Hogan's other senior lawyer, David Houston, gave the following statement to the media in reaction to their opponent's opening statement:
"After listening to Gawker's opening it is clear they will attempt to use the same retread of their excuse for violating Mr Bollea's rights. To this day they have no concern or shame as to their conduct but rather offer the weakest of justifications as it surrounds what amounts to pandering to the very issues that cause us to be present in court. Our goal will be to reveal what Gawker is, does and for what they stand."
After lunch, they played a short videotape of Heather Cole's deposition from January 2015, which made for fairly harrowing viewing. Clearly mortified, she detailed her ex-husband's controlling nature and claimed that as far as she knew Bubba had never told his friend that he was being filmed in their bedroom:
Heather Clem (now Heather Cole) is asked what her first impression was of Bubba the Love Sponge. "He was rude" she says. #hulkvsgawk— Anna Phillips (@annamphillips) March 7, 2016
"He would continuously berate you until you did what he wanted. Whether it was in the privacy of your own home, or publicly." #hulkvsgawk— Anna Phillips (@annamphillips) March 7, 2016
Heather says she knew there was a security camera in the bedroom. Says it was placed there at lawyer's advice. #hulkvsgawk— Anna Phillips (@annamphillips) March 7, 2016
Heather is asked if Bubba ever told Hogan he was being filmed. "I’m not aware of any conversation" she says. #hulkvsgawk— Anna Phillips (@annamphillips) March 7, 2016
Of course, the main event of the day was Terry Bollea testifying in the trial. I use his real name here, because he went to great lengths to emphasise that although he is Hulk Hogan in most public settings, in private he is a very different man.
For a complete overview of Hogan's testimony, I recommend reading David Bixenspan's excellent live blog coverage. I will concentrate here on summarising the most newsworthy developments.
In an effort to humanise Hogan to the jury, his lawyer spent a long time asking him questions about his family background, his wrestling career, the injuries he suffered as a wrestler, his life as a celebrity and his divorce in 2007. This served a double purpose, as Hogan explained insider wrestling terminology like babyface, heel and kayfabe, admitted that pro wrestling was fixed and talked about how his reality TV series Hogan Knows Best was scripted, proving his honesty. Long time fans might spot errors in this portion of his testimony, but I'd chalk that up to a faulty memory rather than intentionally trying to mislead the jury, because what would be the point?
In particular, one can quibble his claim that pro wrestling really became popular when it stopped insulting the intelligence of fans by pretending the matches were real in the 1980s:
"So we told everybody, look, wrestling is an exhibition. We know who's going to win or lose. That's when it really took off, when we stopped trying to insult the public's intelligence."
In fact, it wasn't until 1989, well into Hogan's drawing peak, that Vince McMahon confessed to the New Jersey State Senate that professional wrestling was indeed scripted entertainment and he only did so to escape regulation and pay lower taxes, rather than it being a promotional move to boost the art form's popularity. But these myths have been told for so long that I'm sure Hogan believes it to be true today.
Speaking of humanising, Bollea claimed that he wears a bandanna even when he isn't being Hulk Hogan because he was insecure about his baldness, partly because his first wife Linda used to mock him for it. He characterised it as a "self-confidence thing."
He also explained to the jury the difference between Terry Bollea and Hulk Hogan:
"Terry Bollea's a normal person. Wrestling is my job. It's what Terry Bollea does for a living. I don't argue. I'm not loud. Pretty soft spoken to a fault. Don't know how really to say no, even though I'm learning how to say no to my kids."
The conversation then segued into the matter at hand, the circumstances behind the sex tape and Gawker's publication of it. Hogan claimed after he got divorced that it became a running joke by Bubba that his wife Heather wanted to sleep with him. Eventually, he let his guard down and had sex with Heather three or four times, because he trusted Bubba so much and when he asked whether Bubba had filmed their first encounter, his friend angrily denied the accusation.
In an amusing tangent, TNA came up because he was on a publicity tour for the company when he found out about the sex tapes / the Gawker article. Hogan categorised TNA as "a very small company". The schadenfreude continued when his lawyer, perhaps worried about the initials, followed up with this amazing question: "Could you explain to the jury what TNA is or was? Are they even still in business?"
Bollea / Hogan then discussed how the Gawker post had made him feeling "completely humiliated" and how it had hurt him both as a private person and as a public persona:
"I was embarrassed by what it did to me as a person, but it was even embarrassing as a character. Hulk Hogan was embarrassed."
When he learnt about his best friend Bubba The Love Sponge's betrayal, that he had bragged at the end of the tape that this footage could earn him a fortune, Hogan claimed he was left "violently shaking."
With direct examination concluded, the day ended with Gawker's attorney Michael Sullivan cross examining Hogan, who pointed towards alleged holes in The Hulkster's story. With Hogan having testified that he didn't realise he was being recorded by the Clems, Sullivan wondered why, if he indeed had no idea that he was being taped, why he could be heard asking Bubba about cameras on the sex tape. Hogan explained this apparent anomaly by indicating that he just had a gut feeling that something wasn't on the level: "Just being there, knowing I shouldn't be there, everything felt weird. It was just my gut feeling. It came out." Hogan went on to admit that he knew there were security cameras in Bubba's home, but he didn’t know there was one in his bedroom, facing the bed.
That wasn't the only inconsistency Sullivan pointed out. In his deposition Bollea claimed he had never seen the video clips Gawker had published, but Sullivan had found two media interviews where Hogan suggested that he had actually watched the footage. Bollea explained that those interviews were done in character and thus weren't truthful:
"That statement is not truthful. I was probably in the Hulk Hogan mode, trying to get through the day. It gives you artistic liberty when you're Hulk Hogan to be a character."
The day concluded with Hogan being questioned about Bubba's swingers lifestyle and an objection being raised when he was asked if Bubba had ever told him about videos of Heather sleeping with other men.
In the remainder of this trial expect Gawker to continue to attempt to demonstrate that Hogan isn't a credible witness or a sympathetic figure, whilst Hogan's lawyers will also try to portray Gawker in the most unpleasant manner possible. Whomever wins this particular battle and eventually the war, it may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for them.