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Why is WWE still making wrestlers perform during the pandemic?

Wrestlers are now ‘essential media’ so they can keep working.

Washington Capitals v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

In terms of job stability, professional wrestlers are among the most vulnerable athletes dealing with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Canceled dates are eating through what little money many independent wrestlers have stashed away while corporate wrestling organizations have attempted to pre-record matches in an effort to produce consistent programming and fulfill broadcast agreements.

There seemed to be a working system in place, at least at the corporate level — then, WWE made the decision Friday to have its talent return to work. Despite numerous public health officials cautioning against a forced return, WWE is insisting on producing live programming out of its performance center in Orlando. Its three premier shows: RAW, Smackdown and NXT, will all continue to broadcast live without spectators, as the company did earlier in the pandemic.

A statement WWE issued to ESPN outlined the company’s thinking on the matter:

“We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times,” the statement said. “We are producing content on a closed set with only essential personnel in attendance following appropriate guidelines while taking additional precautions to ensure the health and wellness of our performers and staff. As a brand that has been woven into the fabric of society, WWE and its Superstars bring families together and deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance.”

Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful reports CEO Vince McMahon held a conference call with wrestlers Friday to explain the company’s decision to go against Florida’s stay-at-home orders. Many wrestlers were unhappy with the decision, according to the report. Talent have been given letters to show to law enforcement which allegedly label WWE talent as “essential media.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued stay-at-home rules for the state until April 30 with guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security on who would be considered “essential” media employees.

“Workers who support radio, television, and media service, including, but not limited to front-line news reporters, studio, and technicians for newsgathering, and reporting, and publishing news.”

It’s a rather broad description, which WWE is undoubtedly used to its advantage. However, the spirit of the order is obvious: Media members who are directly contributing to public knowledge and news-gathering are allowed to continue their work in the field for the betterment of society. There’s very little justification that professional athletes performing staged wrestling on TV meet those standards.

Linda McMahon, former head of the Small Business Administration who now runs a pro-Trump Super PAC made a huge donation in campaign financing in Florida, the same day DeSantis declared WWE as an “essential business.”

WWE’s primary competitor, All Elite Wrestling, has taken a different tact. The company elected to pre-shoot as much of their TV show as possible, pending stay-at-home orders in Georgia, and giving its talent overtime pay to do it. AEW performers are now at home, where they will remain until officials deem it safe to return to work. It’s unclear what prompted WWE officials to return to live broadcasts and put its talent at risk by having them ignore stay-at-home orders during the pandemic.

One theory is WWE executives feared how existing broadcast deals could be affected by pre-taping shows. Veteran wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer said there are stipulations in WWE’s contracts with NBC Universal (RAW and NXT) and Fox (Smackdown), which prevents the company from airing more than a few pre-recorded shows each year. By continuing to air pre-recorded shows, networks might want to restructure their TV deals with WWE, which would be a major blow with ad revenue already sinking due to the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, current WWE wrestlers have been quiet about the decision, but some former WWE stars and independent wrestlers aren’t happy, especially considering at least one WWE employee tested positive for Covid-19 last week.

Simply limiting the number of people gathered in a location is not enough to prevent the spread of the virus. By forcing employees into close proximity to perform together, WWE is putting its talent at risk to protect its bottom line. There is unquestionably a need for the escapism wrestling provides, but not at the expense of the people who make it possible.