I’m going to let you know right here and now that this week’s column talks about one very specific subject, and that is the ‘sport’ of professional wrestling. To be even more specific, the number one company in the world when it comes to this fun pastime, World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE.
There, I’ve given you the proverbial heads up in case you want to bow out gracefully and turn to something else because you don’t care for “that lousy fake stuff on TV”. Fair enough, hope I’ll grab your attention more next week. But if you stick around, you may be interested to know about some of the alleged business practices that WWE has been allowed to get away with on its way to building its billion-dollar empire.
Pro wrestling, to me, is the purest form of escapism. It’s two people in a ring who mimic a fight, and in the end, there is one winner and one loser. In a world of entertainment that is increasingly becoming more and more politically-influenced, this is something that the world of pro wrestling has largely avoided to give its audience what they want.
I like to call it ‘athletic theatre’.
And no, it’s not real. It’s scripted. They’re trained athletes who “know how to land”, and they don’t really hate each other.
But that kinda sounds like everything else on TV these days, doesn’t it? I’ve seen reality shows that were faker than pro wrestling, and even the daily news headlines have a portion of society screaming “FAKE!”. Isn’t that right, Trump supporters?
I don’t care that pro wrestling isn’t real for the same reason I don’t care that my favorite action movie isn’t real either. It’s entertainment. Divisive entertainment depending on who you ask, but entertainment, nonetheless.
It’s also not going away anytime soon. In case you’re unaware of just how huge pro wrestling has become since the days of Stampede Wrestling and “the wrasslin’ matches” held in smoky bingo halls and armories, here’s a little refresher.
Hulk Hogan’s rise in the 1980’s put WWE on the map (WWF back then) on a national basis, amassing millions of dollars and mainstream acceptance as far as a top entertainment choice. In the 1990’s, it was ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin who largely picked up where Hogan left off as the top dog, taking the WWF to even greater heights in popularity and financial heaven. In 2001, the WWF’s premier pay-per-view showcase known as WrestleMania garnered more than one million pay-per-view buys, a shocking number for the pro wrestling industry at the time.
In 2000, the WWF went public, ultimately making owner Vince McMahon a billionaire.
By 2006, WWE had established a movie studio.
By 2014, WWE had launched its own live streaming service known as the WWE Network, which carries all their pay-per-view events.
Last year, WWE signed a TV rights deal with major network FOX worth $2 billion to carry one of its primetime weekly shows on Friday nights.
Add to this the fact that WWE has accrued over a billion social media followers, and raked in $930 million in revenue in 2018, and yeah, you can see how “that fake wrassling stuff” has most definitely changed over the years.
One thing that seemingly hasn’t changed though is Vince McMahon’s business practices, ones that have helped him keep an iron grip on the industry and propelled him to the top of his mountains of money.
This past Sunday night, a news talk show on HBO called ‘Last Week Tonight’ lit up the wrestling world when it took WWE to task in a big way over the mistreatment of its wrestling talent over the years, including the absence of any medical health insurance, as well as the absolutely insane contract rhetoric that classifies WWE wrestlers as ‘independent contractors’….while holding them to exclusive contracts that basically own them for their professional lives.
That last part is the big one with a lot of wrestling fans. The men and women who do this for a living are apparently ‘independent contractors’, but they’re signed exclusively to one company, which technically designates them as employees, but they receive virtually none of the employee benefits.
Isn’t that kinda like trying to sign a plumber or an electrician to become *your* plumber or electrician? To be there to perform any job or task at your beck and call?
Not only that, but WWE’s talent contracts state that by signing on the dotted line, the company is released from all liability in the event of permanent injury or death, even if caused by the company’s own negligence.
That last one sure has to hit close to home for the infamous Hart Family of Calgary, which is synonymous with pro wrestling in Canada. In 1999, Owen Hart was killed when an elaborate ring entrance stunt went wrong, as the release clip of the harness he was strapped to gave way and he plummeted almost 80 feet to his death during a live pay-per-view event. In the ensuing drama of the court case, Owen’s family was eventually awarded $18 million by the then-WWF.
How the United States government has allowed Vince McMahon and WWE to get away with these kind of business practices for almost 40 years is nothing short of ridiculous.
The show also brought up the troubling statistics to do with the untimely deaths of wrestlers, both current and retired. These deaths are routinely tied to heart disease and other conditions, but they’re more often than not linked back to the rigors of the ring, including the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids, as well as painkillers and other substances.
The usage of such substances can be linked back to the schedule that McMahon’s wrestlers have had to keep for decades. There’s no “off season” in WWE; these men and women hit the road week in and week out throughout the whole year, missing holidays and, more importantly, any substantial time to heal from injuries that routinely come up in this “fake” sport.
For people who don’t follow the wrestling world, the talk show segment raised a lot of eyebrows. For people who follow the world closely like yours truly, it was the kind of “corporate skewering” that has been long overdue in a business that desperately needs more change at the top of the hierarchy.
WWE has had controversy follow it around for decades, but it’s high time that something significant is done to ensure that its shady and shaky past remains just there.
For this week, that’s been the Ruttle Report.