On Sunday night, comedian John Oliver featured WWE on his famous Last Week Tonight show, talking about the health and safety of WWE superstars.
It brought to the surface a very touchy subject for the WWE, as this has long been an issue for the company. Whether it’s steroid abuse, injuries or even early deaths, WWE has seen it all. The biggest reason for it being this way is down to one man – Vince McMahon.
McMahon shot the WWE into the public eye back in 1985 with WrestleMania, and the 35th “Showcase of the Immortals” will be live next Sunday, so you can see how well he’s done from making that move. However it wasn’t before long that Vince himself was embroiled in a scandal that had his performers’ safety at its core.
McMahon was linked to a steroid case that featured several notable stars from the WWE such as Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Roddy Piper and even McMahon himself. Dr. George Zahorian stated that he shipped packages of drugs and painkillers to coliseums around the country, superstars’ homes and even WWE headquarters. The Justice Department also found documentation indicating Zahorian had sold steroid to 43 professional wrestlers, 37 of which were under contract to McMahon’s WWE.
He stated “that’s the way it was in the Wild West”, yet superstars, to this day, get told that they’re not big enough to be featured in independent shows around the world, so McMahon’s land of the giants stereotype has clearly spread beyond his own company. If a wrestler is told they are not muscular enough and that they cannot get work, what is the quickest fix they can have for that? This is the environment that McMahon has largely endorsed, and it goes to show how much power his influence has over the entire industry to this day.
McMahon was acquitted from his trial back in 1993, but only because it mirrored WWE in how convoluted everything became. It didn’t have reliable witnesses and a lot of evidence had been shredded. If McMahon had have been convicted he could have been sentenced to eight years in prison, a sentence that would have surely doomed the WWE through the Monday Night Wars.
Nevertheless, WWE are now sole survivors throughout all of the scandals and issues. As sole survivors, they have built their monopoly so that the main aim for any wrestler is to reach the lofty goals of having a career within the WWE which is the company that pays the best. Makes sense, right?
When superstars reach that pinnacle of their career, they are hit with a big realisation – even though they’re solely contracted to the WWE and the WWE alone, they’re still branded as “individual contractors”. What would you brand as an individual contractor? Would it be that they are free to work when and for whom they choose? That sounds about right to the IRS. But WWE superstars cannot work for any other promotions, so they shouldn’t be classed as “individual contractors”. The IRS also states they are not an independent contractor if success or continuation of a business depends to an appreciable degree on the performance of certain services. WWE have expressed on their own website that “WWE performers are the company’s greatest asset – without our performers, WWE would not exist.”
The WWE has a lot to gain from their employees being individual contractors. WWE superstars get no paid annual leave, no retirement pension and no health insurance. This might be okay if everybody was on the same type of money as John Cena or Brock Lesnar, but a lot of WWE Superstars earn less than you might think. Before bonuses, many WWE superstars earn less than $500,000 a year. The New Day members are all reportedly on that sum, as are Cesaro and Sami Zayn, whereas the likes of Shinsuke Nakamura, Braun Strowman and The Usos are all on considerably less.
That’s before you include the women in this statistic. Only four women in the company earn more than Bo Dallas- a wrestler very rarely featured on television who makes $300k with the WWE – Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair, Nikki Bella and Alexa Bliss. Bella has just retired as well, so make that three active women. Becky Lynch, Asuka, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Naomi and Nia Jax all earn less than Bo Dallas before any bonuses are allocated.
So with no retirement plan, and no pension, along with no health insurance, Superstars are not only walking a tight line between earning money and not; they are encouraged by the business to stay in for as long as they can, or not earn any money.
If you think about the damage that a body goes through in a TLC or Hell in a Cell match, and then think about the fact that they have no insurance and no coverage for surgeries other than their savings, you might realise why Dean Ambrose works pretty much every single night of the year and is fed up with doing so. Back in the mid-1980s, Jesse “The Body” Ventura tried to
“When I sued Vince, we had to depose him. On the way out, I told my lawyer the story and in deposition, you can bring up anything. And I said, ‘if you can, David [Olsen], find out who ratted me [out].’ I said, ‘find out who ratted me [out] that day because it was one of the boys because there were no agents there. And so, when we got in there Vince, and my attorney was great. He said, ‘Mr. McMahon,’ he said, ‘has there ever been a union in wrestling?’ Vince [replies], ‘no.’ [The lawyer asks] ‘Anyone ever try to form one?’ Vince sat a minute, he says, ‘well, yeah, as a matter of fact, Jesse Ventura spouted his mouth off about it once years ago.’ And my attorney goes, ‘well, how do you know that? Did you hear him? No? Well, how did you know he spouted his mouth off?’ He didn’t even hesitate. ‘Hulk Hogan told me’…It was like someone punched me in the face. This was my friend and I thought, ‘Hogan betrayed me? Hogan called Vince and ratted me [out], was an office stooge?’ In my day, that’s what they were called. That was a lowlife, somebody who reports to the office in the old days. And it stunned me, stunned me. I sat there in the chair and I couldn’t even think that it was Hogan. And then Vince admitted it on Larry King too. And there’s no reason for him to lie. He’s under sworn oath. And then, Hogan continued to lie about it and say he didn’t do it and I’ve never spoken to him since and I don’t care to because in my opinion, Hogan sold me out. Then I found out in the trial why. Well, in the trial, we got the [financial] records of WrestleMania 3, the big one, him and Andre [The Giant], well, Hogan made more money than all of us combined, including Andre. If you took the payoffs of Andre and the whole rest of the card, Hogan made more than we did. So, naturally, he didn’t want a union. That could even out the money a little bit more and I saw that he made more than Andre and all of us combined, then, the picture was crystal clear to me, that he sold us out because he was getting taken care of and he didn’t want nobody else horning in on the good deal he had.”
WWE contracts have had instances of stating that if the superstar who signs is out with an injury for six weeks or more and cannot compete, WWE can terminate said contract. There was also a clause in one contract made public that the signee would release the promoter from all liability that resulted in permanent injury or even in a wrestler’s death, even if the promoter was at fault.
Which leads us to the sad passing of Owen Hart, who was a fantastic talent that died at the age of just 34 years old after a planned stunt went horribly wrong. Hart was due to descend to the ring from the roof using a harness but due to a previous instance of Hart doing this and getting stuck whilst trying to remove it, they elected to use a quick release lever so that he could drop it a lot smoother when he reached the ring. However instead of descending, the harness malfunctioned and Owen fell 78 feet directly onto the ring ropes, tragically ending his life.
As this was directly down to the WWE’s disregard for his safety you’d think they’d accept responsibility, but no. Owen’s wife Martha sued the company and it took WWE over a year and a half to settle out of court. This was a direct instance where entertainment led to the death of one of their so-called “independent contractors”, and WWE tried everything they could to shirk the blame.
Unsurprisingly, Vince McMahon has stated on TV in a 2003 interview that he would not accept responsibility of any kind in regards to wrestler’s dying younger than most other athletes. Granted, he was mainly talking about the 1980s and the link to steroids to an early grave, but his denial of any responsibility shows what kind of character the chairman of the WWE has towards his employees.
Bret Hart stated in Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows that Vince can treat the performers like circus animals, and he routinely does. This is because he owns the biggest company in the world and he knows for every superstar he loses, he can gain another one to replace them. It’s a never ending revolving door and unless you really make yourself stand out, it will revolve you right back out again.
The link between wrestling with the WWE and finding yourself in an early grave is undeniable. Look at the list of wrestlers who died before their 50th birthday:
- Andre the Giant
- Chris Candido
- British Bulldog
- Sensational Sherri Martel
- Miss Elizabeth
- Crash Holly
- Lance Cade
- Brian Pillman
- Balls Mahoney
- Mr Perfect
- Bam Bam Bigelow
- Rick Rude
- Big Boss Man
- Eddie Guerrero
- Chris Benoit
The Chris Benoit story is arguably the most important to increase health and safety for wrestlers. Sad as it is, in today’s society there usually needs to be a tragedy before things get better. For those of you who have lived under a rock since 2007, Benoit murdered both his wife Nancy and his youngest child, Daniel, before committing suicide himself.
Benoit had developed Chronic Traumatic Encophalopathy, also common in American Football, with several former players committing suicide as well. It’s a degenerative brain disease found most commonly in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. It is important to reference the fact that it’s definitely arguable that there was a direct link between brain trauma and Benoit’s WWE style – one of his signature moves was the diving headbutt off of the top rope. Upon his death at age 40, reports state that he had the brain of an 80 year old with very severe Alzheimer’s disease.
After such a severe tragedy, WWE looked to increase their standing in the public eye. They put new medical measures in place, the same ones that stopped Daniel Bryan from wrestling for two years; but the fact that Bryan was still performing that same diving headbutt is a concern. However, since leaving the company in 2014 CM Punk has made his stories public, such as the time he told WWE doctor Chris Amann he had obtained a concussion and was probed by the doctor to see if Punk could still go on a European tour the next day. Punk acquiesced and went on the tour, which he took the blame for, but at the end of the day if he didn’t, he wouldn’t get paid. Unlike in the UK, going to a hospital to help with his concussion would have meant medical bills. He was then treated with antibiotics by WWE doctors, but was given so many to deal with his concussion that he famously lost control of his bowels on a SmackDown show.
Wrestlers typically have a career until their mid-40s before their bodies start to slow down, but the sad realisation is that there are very few paths to go down once a wrestler retires from their in-ring activity. Many superstars wrestle well beyond the time they should, and there are over 40 wrestlers who have competed into their 70s. Wrestling has a very rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – always on the road, adoration from the fans, lots of stories of wild parties – and that can be very difficult to leave behind, especially if you haven’t been good with money throughout the years. Roddy Piper famously had an interview where he said he had to wrestle as a means to survive, and he couldn’t access his pension until he was 65. He knew he wouldn’t reach 65.
For a company who made a revenue of over $900m in 2018, WWE can definitely do more to improve their wrestlers’ quality of life outside of the ring. They could have an off-season so performers don’t get so banged up with injuries; they could give health insurance, or better yet, they can stop classing their workers as individual contractors and give them all the benefits of full-time employees.
As John Oliver stated in his show, there may be potential for us to once again use our voices as wrestling fans. Fans breathe life into the fictional world of the WWE, and just like #GiveDivasAChance, social media could be used for the greater good once again. Outside of that, chanting in the arenas for live events could also work.
WWE actually responded to Oliver, refuting all of his claims. This was the statement they released:
“John Oliver is clearly a clever and humorous entertainer,
The health and wellness of our performers is the single most important aspect of our business, and we have a comprehensive, longstanding Talent Wellness program.
We invite John Oliver to attend WrestleMania this Sunday to learn more about our company.”
However, several former WWE talents such as Paul London and Jim Cornette have backed Oliver’s claims on Twitter, which leaves WWE in a very sticky position.
Believe it or not, we have the largest voice of any network television show in the world. Whether we lend our voice to the cause, or disengage from the show until our demands are met, we can go a long way to helping the people who deliver such fantastic entertainment to our television screens and local arenas night after night.
If you are attending Monday Night Raw