Even though 20 years have gone by since MVP completed his nine-and-a-half years in prison and later found worldwide fame in professional wrestling, he is still paying for past youthful transgressions in many ways. The former WWE superstar, real name Hassan Assad, spoke about his experiences in March as part of a thought-provoking TEDx event at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. His presentation, now available on YouTube, posed the question, "When do I stop being a criminal?"
"This particular time I wasn't telling my story to wrestling fans as much as I was using my story to make a point, a social commentary," MVP said of the opportunity. "Ultimately, in spite of the fact that I was able to achieve success in my professional wrestling career. At the end of the day I'm a convicted felon. I don't have my right to vote, and there are still certain things that aren't afforded to me because of a bad decision I made nearly 30 years ago."
For the South Florida native, there is a huge problem in the United States when it comes to recidivism. A pattern found within the criminal justice system of individuals repeating offenses. A vicious cycle that needs to be broken.
"There are thoughts on how to reduce recidivism," he said. "I think part of that has to do with how society views people who have done time. There is the proverbial Scarlet Letter becomes of being the 'ex-convict.' So until we can start changing and having a conversation with society to change minds about how we treat people who made mistakes or bad decisions, we're going to be stuck in this unfortunate set of circumstances.
"I'm MVP. You can Google me. I've got thousands of character references, but I couldn't rent an apartment or a house. So, what does that say for John Doe or Jane Doe, who just got out of prison trying to get their life back on track."
In addition to the TEDx Talk, MVP has visited prisons and juvenile detention centers in hopes of making a difference. Aside from a want to give back, he finds a sense of catharsis.
"It's something that is therapeutic to me," MVP said. "But I remember being in a juvenile detention center locked up not knowing when I was going to get out. I remember being in prison having all kinds of doubts what my future held. There were people who would come in, done time and got out and went on to be successful. They tried to present themselves as beacons of hope. I remember the boost I got. I remember thinking it wasn't hopeless because this guy got out and made a life for himself.
"Especially young men from the disadvantaged class, poor economic backgrounds, urban dwellers who grew up in very bad social circumstances can look at me knowing I came from the same general background and was able to make a way. Not everyone can be a professional wrestler, sing or dance, entertain. But I try to carry the message that if you seek out what you want to do and figure out what you want to do, work your ass off, don't take any shortcuts, you can find success. There is life after prison. It's not going to be easy. You're going to need some help along the way, but you got to do the work."
MVP's TEDx presentation struck a chord with those inside and outside the pro wrestling business. Michael Smerconish welcomed him to his POTUS Politics program on SiriusXM.
"I've heard a lot of people say, 'Wow, you brought up points I never considered. This is a conversation we need to have. How come people aren't talking about this?' I've had a lot of peers come up to say it was very powerful and poignant," MVP said. "Ultimately, the overwhelming feedback has been when someone does their time, why are we still punishing them?
"Of course, you have people taking another position saying, 'You don't deserve a second chance.' You get those people, but for the most part the response has been overwhelmingly positive. A lot of people are saying a lot of things I hope they would say. We need to talk about this. Let's figure out why we are doing this. I think if society as a whole can have this conversation. We can start improving the lives of people reducing recidivism rates, and in the process, improve society for everyone. Not just convicted felons."
Becoming a parent has only furthered the 45-year-old's motivations to help others. Much like those in his life who stepped in to mentor him, he is constantly looking for different occasions to pay it forward. MVP knows the impact how a simple interaction can change a life.
"My son is only four. He is just now understanding pro wrestling. He calls it daddy fight. This is daddy fight, which is adorable. One of the things I thought about with all I've been through and the life experiences that I've had. I'm pretty confident that my son will be okay," he said. "And that's because with me in his life he won't have the opportunities to hang out on a corner and get in trouble because I'll have him involved with sports and other things. This is a major issue for our youth who find their way into trouble because of their lack of activity. Instead of getting into gangs or fighting or getting into trouble doing things they shouldn't be doing, they need to have people in their lives to hold them accountable for their actions and whereabouts.
"These positive influences. It may sound cliché, but they need people to say, 'Don't do drugs at 11 o'clock. Instead you should be in bed to be ready for that football practice or to take that test. Instead of idolizing the neighborhood stars, let's try to imbue them with a sense of idolizing something bigger.
"Sometimes it sounds so hopeless to tell a kid who might not eat dinner and lives in the projects they can be a doctor. It's almost not realistic when the success they see around them is the drug-dealer or the hustler. When I can come up to say, 'Hey, I come from where you come from and can get past all that.' It can help. This is something socially we need to try to create more opportunities for inner-city kids and at-risk kids to be able to do positive things with their time."
My full interview with MVP will be available on an episode of our WINCLY podcast this week. You can check out past episodes of the WINCLY here. Subscribe to Wrestling Inc. Audio on iTunes or Google Play. Listen to the show via Spotify here or through TuneIn here.