It’s tough business being a fan of the WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. Most people see professional wrestling as a “fake sport” that shamelessly displays hyper-masculinity and the ultra-sexualized female figure. It promotes violence as a way to settle disputes—a detrimental message for young consumers. It’s seen as a product that must be enjoyed only by those who do not fully grasp its backwardness.
The overwhelmingly negative perception of the WWE has caused me to become a closeted fan since fifth grade. Everyone trashes it, so acknowledging my fandom would be “social suicide” (as so accurately phrased in Mean Girls). On several occasions, I’ve tried to forsake my love for the WWE by mocking its over-the-top, melodramatic ridiculousness. I realized, however, that the harder I resisted it, the more I needed the WWE. The balance of soap opera-esque storylines, acrobatics, technical wrestling, and larger-than-life personalities continues to fill me with a transcendental excitement that I simply can’t let go.
Over the years, my obsession with the WWE has evolved. Not only do I continue to tune into its flagship show WWE Raw every Monday night, but I have also become fascinated by the industry. How does one get into the business of professional wrestling? Why has it gained such global popularity and contempt?
Questions related to worker rights and labor laws, however, have most recently piqued my interest. Fervent criticisms of the company by former WWE wrestlers bring issues like employee mistreatment to the forefront. Does the WWE exploit the entertainers it employs? Examining the wrestlers’ status as independent contractors rather than employees is key to understanding the immense control the WWE is able to maintain over its talent.
WWE Raw is the longest running episodic series in the history of television. It is a live show that has aired every single Monday night since its inception in 1993. Like a travelling circus, the WWE moves from city to city—and sometimes country to country—where its performers (a.k.a. “Superstars”) showcase their amazing in-ring abilities. Live events, which are televised four times per week, occur daily. The Superstars are expected to work at least 300 days a year, most of which are away from home.
Due to the workers’ rigorous travel schedule, you’d think the company would offer necessities like transportation. Most superstars, however, must drive themselves to the different arenas across the country, and pay for food and gas along the way. Because the company defines its workers as independent contractors rather than employees, the WWE sheds many responsibilities of a typical employer. The WWE is not required to cover their workers’ transportation, food, lodging, and training expenses, nor are they forced to provide various forms of insurance (i.e. health care, social security, and unemployment). This forces WWE Superstars to be completely self-reliant.
The lack of support WWE offers its performers is astonishing—especially given their physically taxing line of work—but we must remember that independent contractors are technically their own bosses. As such, they must access essential resources themselves. Hollywood actors, individual sport athletes (i.e. golfers, boxers, etc.), and artists are all examples of independent contractors. They are freelancers who sell their services to anyone willing to hire them. Independent contractors are not confined to specific working hours, wages, or locations, which in theory allows for freedom and mobility.
While it seems WWE performers would have a degree of power and agency as self-employers, the WWE has fostered an employer-worker relationship that places much of the authority in the company’s hands. When WWE CEO Vince McMahon purchased World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in 2001, he monopolized the “sports-entertainment” industry. Since it stood as the only popular and potentially well-paying wrestling company after WCW’s purchase, the WWE became the promotion that every aspiring wrestler hoped to reach. Today, thousands of athletically gifted individuals strive for an opportunity to be apart of the wrestling juggernaut.
Realizing the expendability of its performers, the WWE has been able to establish an extremely competitive environment. The performers work tirelessly to get closer to making a decent living (and if they’re lucky, to eventually achieve superstardom). Electing to miss work due to illness, injury, fatigue, or other prior engagements jeopardizes a worker’s standing. His or her spot in a match will be given to the next able person. The cutthroat workplace, where no one’s position is protected, incentivizes performers to show up for work regardless of their physical or mental states.
Moreover, the WWE has been known to “punish” its workers. Complaining on Twitter about not getting enough opportunities to wrestle, “botching” moves, (failing to execute maneuvers properly in the ring), or upsetting the company’s higher-ups often leads to punishment. Since matches are scripted—meaning their outcomes are pre-determined—the WWE is able to punish their superstars by booking them to lose several matches in a row. Punished workers may also be relegated to comedic (often humiliating) roles, or not called in to work at all. They are restricted from engaging in high profile, high paying matches. WWE executives wield a tremendous (and terrifying) level of power because they can sabotage a worker’s career at any moment, whether it is truly warranted or not.
Recently, one of the most popular and underutilized WWE superstars Dolph Ziggler was punished for booking a stand-up comedy gig. His offense: not informing the company of his plans. As a result, the WWE had Ziggler lose his Intercontinental Championship, a prestigious belt in the wrestling world. Clearly, the WWE neither supports, nor respects “extracurricular” endeavors of their independently contracted superstars. Instead, the company carefully monitors and attempts to control the actions of its workers, both in the ring and out of it.
By controlling what services are performed, as well as how they are executed, the WWE treats its workers like employees rather than independent contractors. Creative license and the freedom to pursue other professional opportunities—rights that come with being an independent contractor—are denied by the WWE.
Wouldn’t it make more sense for the WWE to consider its workers as employees instead of independent contractors? You’d think so. Billionaire CEO Vince McMahon chooses to treat his workers as independent contractors so that he doesn’t have to provide them with any employee benefits or compensation. McMahon defines his workers as independent contractors so that he can exploit them. Any form of resistance is unwise with the ubiquitous threat of punishment. Past unionization attempts have failed, in large part due to workers’ fears of opposing WWE management. Superstars are merely spokes on a wheel, and replacement parts are readily available.
Ex-WWE star and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura stated, “You’re a piece of meat” as a WWE worker. Whoever is unhappy with the status quo must either suck it up or start looking for a new job.