It is tough business being a fan of the WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. Most people see professional wrestling as a “fake sport” that displays hyper-masculinity and ultra-sexualized female figures. It promotes violence as a way to settle disputes—a detrimental message for young consumers. It is seen as a product that must be enjoyed only by the uneducated, those who do not grasp its backwardness.
This negative perception of the WWE has caused me to become a closeted fan since fifth grade. On several occasions, I’ve tried to forsake my love for the WWE by mocking its over-the-top, melodramatic ridiculousness. I realized that the harder I resisted it, the more I needed the WWE in my life. Its content was too gripping. The balance of soap-opera-like storylines, acrobatics, technical wrestling, and larger-than-life personalities fills me with a transcendental excitement I simply cannot let go.
Over the years, my obsession with the WWE has evolved. Not only do I continue to tune in to its flagship show, “WWE Raw,” every Monday night, but I have also become totally fascinated by the industry. How does one get into the business of professional wrestling? Why has it gained such global popularity and contempt?
Questions relating to worker rights and labor laws have most recently piqued my interest. Fervent criticisms of the company by former WWE wrestlers require us to 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 as employees is key to understanding the immense (and unjust) control the WWE is able to maintain over its talent.
WWE Raw is the longest running episodic series in the history of television. It has aired every single Monday night since its inception in January 1993. Like a travelling circus, the WWE moves from city to city each week—and sometimes, even country to country—where its performers (a.k.a. “Superstars”) are able to showcase their unique 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. For how much they travel over the course of a year, it would make sense if the company provided 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). For all intents and purposes, WWE superstars are 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, professional athletes engaging in individual sports (such as golf, tennis, and boxing), and artists are all examples of independent contractors. They are freelancers who sell their services to anyone that wishes 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 as if WWE performers would have a degree of power and agency as self-employers, the WWE has established an employer-worker relationship that places much of the authority in the company’s hands. When WWE CEO Vince McMahon purchased World Championship Wrestling in 2001, he monopolized the “sports entertainment” industry. The WWE became the promotion that every aspiring wrestler hoped to reach one day. Thousands of talented individuals strive for an opportunity to be a part of the wrestling juggernaut.
Realizing the expendability of its performers, the WWE has created an extremely competitive environment. Performers work tirelessly, often when they are “off the clock,” to get closer to achieving superstardom. Electing to miss work due to illnesses, 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 always show up for work regardless of their physical or mental states.
Furthermore, the WWE has been known to punish its workers. Complaining on Twitter about not getting enough opportunities to wrestle, “botching” moves, (failing to execute moves properly in the ring), or upsetting the company’s higher-ups often leads to punishment. The WWE will punish their superstars by having them lose several matches in a row or by removing them from television. Punished workers are restricted from engaging in high profile, high paying matches. The WWE can sabotage a worker’s career at any given moment, whether it is truly warranted or not.
Recently, one of the most talented WWE superstars named Dolph Ziggler was punished for booking a stand-up comedy gig because he did not inform the company of his plans. As a result, WWE had Ziggler lose his Intercontinental Championship, a prestigious belt in the WWE. Clearly, the WWE neither supports nor respects the “extracurricular” endeavors of their independently contracted superstars. Instead, the company carefully monitors and controls the actions of its workers, both in the ring and outside of it.
By attempting to control 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 rather than 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. The label “independent contractor” has been put into place as a way for McMahon to exploit his workers. Any form of resistance is unwise since it’s always met with 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. As 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 find a new job.