Monday, April 1, 2019

It Was Only A Matter of Time for WWE and #TimesUp to Smackdown

As a once fervently loyal WWE fan, who struggles with her love of wrestling versus its controversial state of affairs, I never thought I'd wake up to see John Oliver deliver a 23-minute hot-take about WWE’s abhorrent work conditions for its wrestlers. Even at the dawn of the #TimesUp movement, I often said to myself it was only a matter to time before someone put WWE owner's Vince McMahon's ego (or head) up on the chopping block. But this is where we are, it was only a matter of time before attention turned its spotlight on WWE.

For those not in the know, on a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the tv host and self-proclaimed wrestling fan revealed that the independent clauses wrestlers “sign up for” to work for WWE is nothing but unconscionable. Performing 200+ nights a year away from their families and traveling the world, their wrestlers work so tirelessly they barely have a life to save up for when they're not in the ring. Contracted as practically self-employed, wrestlers perform exclusively for WWE facing no annual leave, no pension plan, responsibility for their own expenses for company-initiated appearances, and possible termination if an injury prevents them from working for more than six weeks. In 2016, fifty-three lawsuit former wrestlers who sustained life-threatening injuries filed that WWE wrongly mishired them as independent contractors instead of employees, leaving them to miss the benefits of important employment laws. On an equally a heavily substantial note, Oliver connected the dots between McMahon's monopoly of the industry to wrestlers heightened death rate in comparison to the general population as well as other sports industries including NFL.

As briskly in-depth as Oliver’s editorial was for a half-hour show, he missed key details about WWE's other practices to help wrestlers. From booking to payment, their contracts for talent are much more in-depth than a few highlights to cherrypick and read. In terms of working with talent, their WWE Sponsored Rehab Program assists wrestlers into facilities, provides coverage for in-ring injuries, and the company reimburses talent for educational purposes. Despite Oliver's call for stronger healthcare within wrestling, there's controversy over how the insurance would work for wrestlers and if the talent wants a collective union (as obvious as it may sound).

Additionally, Oliver also misconstrues reporting deaths caused outside of an organization's control versus the result of a wrestling injury. As recent as June 2018, recorded that deaths stemming heart-related issues and cancer was 27.9% and 19.06%, respectively, while in-ring related injuries leading to death was 8.52%. Despite the statistics, medical experts still believe professional wrestlers suffer a higher mortality rate via cardiovascular disease due to non-stop physical activity and lifestyle habits such as substance abuse.

a great breakdown of Oliver's comments
As shocking as it is for the non-wrestling population to learn about the tragic downsides of wrestling life, nothing of what Oliver revealed is groundbreaking to fans or insiders – whether they work the smaller independent circuits or WWE. One only has to look at documentaries or the headlines of wrestlers who've passed away from heart attacks or drug abuse or listen to countless ex-WWE wrestlers’ podcasts to recognize the history of the industry and its treatment of wrestlers. Even a viewing of director Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, an unflinching fictionalized account of an 80s wrestler dealing with financial and physical repercussions in his post-hey-days, can open minds about the very real aftermath wrestlers experience. Career-ending injuries, entering “early retirement” in their forties, fans paying for their surgeries or funeral expenses, and enduring a life of in-ring appearances well into their sixties to keep some kind of money flowing is nothing new.

More than a decade ago, as a fifteen-year-old who worshiped wrestling so much she wanted to work for WWE as a ringside commentator, I quickly caught on to the harsh life it took to be a wrestler and it didn't sit right with me. Before endless access of blogs and news archives to Google, I was only armed with the dedication to know everything about wrestling and whatever I could get my hands on: autobiographies, old magazines, and scraps of documentaries or interviews that I had to watch as soon as they aired on tv (no DVRs then either). My passion squared off against a series of wake-up calls before eventually tapping out: a string of heartbreaking wrestler’s deaths, problematic characters, lack of female empowerment for divas, and Aronofsky's film as well as other documentaries I couldn't shake. Even though I knew full and well that wrestlers signed on the dotted line to live out their dreams out of their own agency, I started to feel the first questions of feeling complicit as these men and women gave their blood, sweat, and tears in exchange for our entertainment and adequate salaries. I eventually stopped watching WWE regularly for maybe eight years, it’s been so long I’ve lost count, only tuning in to see where the feuds are at and not long enough to feel those doubts overwhelm me again.

Me stopping to watch wrestling obviously didn’t have an effect on a billion dollar industry, and that’s not what I’m trying to allude here for other fans. Not ponying up the dough to WWE lies an innate feeling of betrayal for not supporting and respecting the entertainers and industry you cherish. As simple as it may seem from the outside, in the age of social media, “outrage and cancel culture”, and now Oliver’s call to action for fans to protest, it’s hard to question what the next move for the wrestling industry is and its worldwide fanbase. “If it’s not with our wallets than why not our voices” is a suitable suggestion. As necessary as Oliver presented a lot of facts about Vince McMahon’s empire, prompting fans to protest against the product is misleading across the board.

In an effort to highlight fans’ so-called influence of WWE’s creative decisions, Oliver pleaded fans to go to WWE’s biggest event Wrestlemania with signs and create chants that demand change. To show the “power” fans have, he pulled a brief clip of an eight-minute stream of fans ranting towards Roman Reigns on an episode WWE RAW, and the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag movement on social media. The former showcased intermittent heat on a wrestler who continues to be at the top of his game (excluding injuries and a temporary leave to address a recurring Leukemia diagnosis), and the latter overlooks the continuous stunted growth of female performers who earn headlining “pay-per-view” events but still struggle week-to-week with consistent feuds on Raw and Smackdown Live. Neither example equates the power that WWE still has over their own content – removing signs that show support for other organizations or fits their corporate image, ask fans to change attire if they’re in focus with the camera, and audibly alter chants as they hit the WWE Network and Youtube. Even WWE’s curt response to Oliver’s stance doesn’t invite much confidence for any kind of change.

Therein lies the problem: similar to major movie studios exerting power over minorities, women, children, and the LGBTQ community, the lower and middle tiers of wrestling’s hierarchy is aware of its own faults. #TimesUp was founded in 2018 in response to the Weinstein investigations to provide to aid anyone with legal assistance that faces sexual harassment at work. With veteran wrestlers like Jesse Ventura having attempted to unionize the industry in the 1980s but being stopped, and fans standing up for what they believe is right, it’s hopeful that change could start at WWE’s biggest night and weekly shows. There’s potential for the WWE Universe to drown out the official accounts with billion-plus followers and relentlessly demand more in person at live events. As fast as a referee can make a three-count, maybe #GiveThemHealthcare is the #TimesUp we need for the wrestlers whose livelihoods have fallen on deaf ears.

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