Update: WWE reached out to Paste with the following statement. It claims to have refuted “every point” in Oliver’s segment before it aired, but that Last Week Tonight didn’t use any of that on TV. Oh, WWE also invited John Oliver to WrestleMania.
Here’s the company’s statement in full:
John Oliver is clearly a clever and humorous entertainer, however the subject matter covered in his WWE segment is no laughing matter. Prior to airing, WWE responded to his producers refuting every point in his one-sided presentation. John Oliver simply ignored the facts.
The health and wellness of our performers is the single most important aspect of our business, and we have a comprehensive, longstanding Talent Wellness program.
We invite John Oliver to attend WrestleMania this Sunday to learn more about our company.
Paste asked WWE if they could share the information that refutes Oliver’s points; we’re waiting on a response.
Anybody who’s even slightly familiar with the wrestling business realizes that WWE’s contracts are absolute bullshit. Despite working exclusively for WWE and traveling hundreds of days a year to work at multiple shows a week, wrestlers have somehow always been classified as “independent contractors” by WWE. WWE tells them what to say and what to do—who to be, even—and generally rules over their career with an iron hand, and yet somehow the company is able to get away with saying they’re not actually full employees. They can’t work for other companies, sometimes even for weeks after their WWE contracts have ended, and despite working for WWE full-time, they don’t get basic health insurance and have to largely cover their own travel costs. WWE views its wrestlers as disposable, interchangeable parts, demanding all of a wrestler’s time and energy while showing no loyalty in return. Despite what their contracts might say, they’re clearly full-time employees, and the fact that WWE can get away with calling them “independent contractors” would be mind-boggling if there weren’t already countless other ridiculous injustices endemic to American society.
One reason WWE has been able to pull this off for so long is that nobody takes the wrestling industry seriously. The mainstream media treats it as a sideshow worthy of a few winking chuckles, and the companies that pay millions of dollars a year for TV rights don’t care what WWE does as long as it brings in the ratings and avoids controversy. The government didn’t care even before Donald Trump, a friend of WWE’s owner and unchallenged dictator Vince McMahon, became president and appointed McMahon’s wife Linda to his cabinet. Old-school wrestling fans used to complain about McMahon turning wrestling into a cartoon during the then-WWF’s 1980s heyday, and somehow McMahon has convinced most of the world that the real-life men and women destroying their bodies every week to fill his bank account actually are cartoons who don’t really exist outside of the television.
John Oliver’s trying to change that. The host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight has taken on WWE before, joining the wrestling media, Paste and almost any other outlet that legitimately covers wrestling in bringing attention to WWE’s indefensible deal to run shows in Saudi Arabia. Last night Oliver devoted his main segment to examining WWE’s labor situation, and did a thorough job of pointing out how terribly McMahon and his company treats its wrestlers. The show smartly saved this segment for the episode right before WrestleMania, which happens on Sunday, insuring that it’ll hit with maximum impact.
It’s still unlikely that anything will change anytime soon, no matter how many TV shows cover this; the only way things will improve is from the inside, if wrestlers start to demand the right to be treated fairly by the largest company in the business. The upstart promotion All Elite Wrestling might be able to nudge the industry in the right direction, if it treats its exclusive performers as actual full-time employees. AEWs core talent all have office jobs that include traditional full-time benefits and protections, and indications are that other contracted wrestlers who don’t have those perks will be able to work for other companies as their schedules permit, which more closely fits the “independent contractor” definition than WWE’s contracts.
That’s the kind of thing that’ll need to happen for WWE to finally treat its employees properly. The pressure will need to be applied from within, as it’s unlikely the wider world will ever care about what happens to pro wrestlers. As great as Oliver’s segment is—and you can see it for yourself below—it would take regular and consistent attention from far more media outlets for WWE to feel any need to change how it works. Barring an airplane full of WWE wrestlers mysteriously disappearing, that’ll probably never happen.
WrestleMania airs on the WWE Network on Sunday, April 7. We’ll have more about that—and the dozens of other great wrestling shows happening in the days before WrestleMania—later this week.