WrestleMania could look and sound very different this year if fans heed John Oliver’s call to action.
On Sunday the Last Week Tonight host did a 23-minute takedown of WWE’s employment practices, calling for fans to make signs and chant during the biggest show of the year to put pressure on Vince McMahon to treat his superstars better by offering healthcare, benefits and take responsibility for the drastically increased mortality rate of former wrestlers.
This criticism isn’t new.
Oliver’s points were known long before the show. but his delivery on the topic is sure to make waves. For decades WWE has benefited from classifying its talent as “independent contractors,” rather than fully-fledged employees, despite wrestlers having absolutely no ability to operate outside the company independently. These superstars work under non-compete clauses, have to appear as WWE dictates, and even sign away any right to sue WWE, even if they’re injured as a result of “negligence” on the part of WWE — none of which fall under the IRS guidelines of what an “independent contractor” is supposed to be.
The topic of how WWE superstars have been classified has been an issue for over 30 years. In 1986 former governor of Minnesota and superstar Jesse Ventura attempted to form a labor union in the locker room, which leaked to McMahon where it was squashed. A 1987 lawsuit by Ventura against the company revealed that Hulk Hogan was the person who informed McMahon of Ventura’s effort, which in part protected Hogan’s place at the top of the company.
It’s an issue that’s becoming scarier for WWE.
WWE leveraged the “independent contractor” status of superstars in the 1980s and 1990s to avoid requiring mandatory drug testing. It wasn’t until after the death of Chris Benoit, who murdered his family before taking his life in 2007, that the company adopted the “WWE Wellness Policy,” which was designed to provide routine checkups and drug testing of superstars. While that policy has resulted in drug-based suspensions and helped some superstars, critics argue that it doesn’t go far enough to protect the health of talent. In addition, former wrestler C.M. Punk alleged performers were pressured by company doctors not to follow through with basic care following concussions in an attempt to have them return to the ring sooner.
One area that Oliver didn’t explore in his teardown of WWE is how the company is being pressured by new competitor AEW. It remains to be seen whether AEW can make a significant impact as its own promotion, but thus far AEW owners Shad and Tony Khan (owners of the Jacksonville Jaguars) have made their wrestlers salaried employees with benefits, rather than independent contractors like WWE. In addition its performers aren’t being asked to work the grueling schedule WWE superstars are, partly leading to AEW signing Kenny Omega from New Japan Pro Wrestling, arguably the most talented wrestler of the modern era.
Oliver understands that his show is a drop in the bucket and that McMahon has ignored criticisms of his labor practices over the years, but showed the precedent for fans being able to make an impact on the company’s decision making. WWE finds itself in a tenuous spot where they are trying to keep their house in order and prevent defections to AEW. Meanwhile fans are arriving at WWE events in AEW t-shirts, and allegedly being forced to remove them so they don’t appear on TV. Nothing scares WWE more than fans leaving, so Oliver issued a call to action.
“Here is where the potential opportunity is. Because remember, WrestleMania, the biggest event in the WWE’s calendar is next Sunday, and if fans in that arena want McMahon to help pay for wrestler’s long-term healthcare, or just to call them “employees,” they could say ... choose to make up chants about that. The event is live. The crowd is mic’d. They won’t be able to cut the chants out. I’m not saying fans should do that, or make signs, or make lots of signs. I’m just saying I really, really hope they make their voices heard on this. Because give that Business Hulk here [points to picture of McMahon] is a billionaire on the broken backs of his non-employees, the very least he can do is show the same dedication to wrestlers that they have shown to his company.”
“John Oliver is clearly a clever and humorous entertainer, however the subject matter covered in his WWE segment is no laughing matter. Prior to airing, WWE responded to his producers refuting every point in his one-sided presentation.
“John Oliver simply ignored the facts,” the statement continued. “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.”
WrestleMania will take place on Sunday, April 7.