On Sunday night’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the host dedicated most of the show to WWE’s treatment of their talent and examining many blemishes throughout its history. Because of the HBO platform, this segment should receive a lot of attention and discussion. The subjects broached are not revelations to those following the industry but presented as a case study, it was a harsh portrayal of the company. It positioned Vince McMahon as a heartless owner that treats its performers as easily replaceable assembly line workers.
I felt the piece was well-researched for a mainstream outlet that was able to understand the makeup of the industry. They dug into the WWE’s past with unflattering segments including Vince McMahon’s use the n-word to John Cena in 2005, Trish Stratus barking like a dog in 2001, Hornswoggle being hit by McMahon, and Bret Hart’s description of how McMahon treats its talents from the “Wrestling with Shadows” documentary. There have been complaints that HBO chose to use such old clips, but the segments were painting a picture and there isn’t a statute of limitations for tasteless and offensive content the company has produced.
The WWE portion lasted 23 minutes and attempted to summarize their past and then pivot over to the talent’s labeling as independent contractors. This has been debated for decades and has become an issue within MMA with the argument of whether a union or an association could happen. When you go through the list of what constitutes an independent contractor there are many examples that would contradict the definition when applying it to a WWE wrestler. Beyond benefits and pensions, another central issue lacking is collective bargaining.
With both the WWE and UFC negotiating enormous television and streaming deals, the wrestlers and fighters remain without a piece of that pie. The idea is that there will be a trickle-down effect, but that is completely at the discretion of the company. This topic was raised by CM Punk when the WWE Network launched where the talent was not figured into digital revenue as they moved away from traditional pay-per-view.
The top-end UFC stars are about to enter this same issue with the move from traditional pay-per-view to ESPN+ in the United States. A fighter like Conor McGregor made his biggest money by being cut into a percentage of the pay-per-view and both sides sharing in its success. The UFC 229 card involving McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov accounted for approximately 44% of the UFC’s pay-per-view revenue in 2018. Today, the UFC will receive an unknown annual guarantee from ESPN+ based on past revenues, thereby allowing the UFC to have a high basement regardless of how their shows perform.
They cited a 2010 contract the show got a hold of and what liabilities the talent assume by signing, including death. They aired a clip of CM Punk from the Art of Wrestling podcast, which is a more modern indictment of the WWE’s medical staff as we’re talking about Punk’s experiences from 2013. They did not bring up Punk and Cabana’s case by Dr. Chris Amann, which is an interesting topic on its own.
Vince McMahon comes off poorly in the segment as the source of Oliver’s jokes along with a series of interview appearances he did with Bob Costas in 2001 and Armen Keteyian in 2003. In both, McMahon reverts to his on-air persona that wrestling fans chuckled at but the real-world viewed him as a maniac. In the case of Costas, I felt McMahon had a begrudging respect for him and returned to his show while I never had that impression with Keteyan as McMahon appeared to just bully the interviewer. The 2003 piece was the same “Real Sports” feature with Roddy Piper predicting his mortality rate and the problems within the industry. It was taped prior to Piper’s return to the WWE in March 2003 and after the segment aired, Piper was not used by the company again until the Hall of Fame in April 2005.
Some were turned off by Oliver making a joke about Roman Reigns with his wet hair resembling a pedophile. I would have been put off if he made a cancer joke, which he didn’t. In watching this segment, it didn’t appear Oliver was even aware of that issue Reigns recently overcame. The crux of the argument appeared to be Oliver citing the voice the fans have in rejecting a performer, although today that is not the case. The show’s premise is serious issues presented with a heavy comedic accent and you could be equally upset over a joke about Jimmy Carter from the same segment.
He concluded the segment by praising fan-based initiatives from crowdfunding for wrestlers’ surgeries, rejecting performers the company pushed, bringing up the backlash to the Saudi Arabia deal (which Oliver was the most prominent media personality to cover last October) and rallied wrestling fans to make signs and chant about these issues at WrestleMania.
When discussing the health and well-being of performers, which was the focus of the segment, I did feel a big omission was not acknowledging the company offering rehab to all present and past talent. Everyone is going to have different experiences with rehab but that is a notable gesture and it has helped several lives, including Kurt Angle, who states he’s been clean since entering rehab in 2013 even when he was under contract to TNA at the time. (CORRECTION: Oliver did state during the piece that, “the company says it pays for addiction treatment for former wrestlers but that doesn’t really address the underlying issues that get them hooked on pain medication in the first place.”)
The company is certainly more cautious when it comes to clearing performers to return and taking concussions way more seriously. That said, you also have examples like Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton at SummerSlam 2016 and Kevin Owens headbutting Vince McMahon months after Katsuyori Shibata’s career ended the same way.
I’ve never held my breath expecting an association or union to be formed. In terms of the practicality of assembling such an alliance, I would defer to lawyers that could better breakdown the realities of what that would entail. However, I have no doubt that as live sports rights continue to escalate and the WWE enjoys unprecedented revenue, talent is going to look back at this era and question how they didn’t have a cut of these enormous profits. As other sports leagues have benefited from this rights boom, so have the players. The WWE and UFC have been able to retain everything and will continue to do so if they go unchallenged.