Just when it seems like the CM Punk vs WWE situation is about to die down, something pops up which brings it back into the spotlight. But none of the snide comments, podcast jabs, and rumors compare to what happened Thursday, when a defamation of character lawsuit was brought against CM Punk and Colt Cabana by head WWE physician, Dr. Christopher Amann.
Robust details on the lead-up to the lawsuit can be found in the Chicago Sun-Times. Briefly, Punk appeared on Cabana’s popular podcast and alleged that WWE doctors ignored a staph infected cyst on his lower back, pumping him full of antibiotics as a default reaction to all health issues rather than dealing with the specifics of his cyst. The podcast was enormously popular when it was aired in November of last year, undoubtedly a contributing factor to Amann’s anger at the allegations.
WWE’s corporate office jumped into the situation with a vengeance on Friday. The home office fired off a terse press release, backing their physicians to the hilt. WWE isn’t precisely shy (they’re a wrestling company), but this statement on an impending lawsuit is extraordinarily open. Essentially, they’re tipping their hand on what they’re planning on presenting in court, something which they never did during past legal troubles. Even when they’ve dealt with media scrutiny rather than legal, WWE and Vince McMahon have always tended toward the no comment style, or deflected scrutiny with a carnival barker’s appeals to the spirit of showmanship.
It’s anyone’s guess as to how the actual lawsuit shakes out, but all of this strikes me as a major event in pro wrestling’s history. A few details strike me as being very strange about the way this is unfolding, as well.
The immediate impact is that this is almost certainly the end of any chance of CM Punk returning to WWE. The breakup has been particularly acrimonious even by the melodramatic standards of backstage pro wrestling politics. There’s been a sense, as well, that this is one of the few times that Vince McMahon’s “I’ll make up with anyone if it means more money” philosophy isn’t going to carry the day; I haven’t noticed such a sense of finality to a relationship since Jeff Jarrett split over a decade ago.
I’m also skeptical that AJ Lee, CM Punk’s wife and a near legendary wrestler in her own right at this point, can stick around after this. She seems to be in a precarious situation even without the lawsuit. With this news breaking, her situation will almost certainly become untenable. If a lower card diva dumps her in a vat of mud in the coming weeks, we’ll know that she’s leaving.
If rumors are to be believed, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, the heirs to the throne, feel very differently about CM Punk than the elder McMahon does. With Vince pushing 70 and the public bonfire nature of the split from WWE’s end, I can’t help but wonder if this is the first indication of how the company will be run in 10 years. If that’s the case, it’s liable to be a very different landscape for wrestlers going forward. There’s always the caveat that this is wrestling and anything can (and will) happen, but there’s a nagging sense that this really is different.
But more than any of that, this strikes me as an extraordinarily dangerous lawsuit for WWE to pursue. WWE will presumably open their medical records to scrutiny, particularly in the event of a countersuit which might bring in more wrestlers. Even if it’s just the medical records of a few—no way would they not invoke all manner of privacy rights to avoid a full accounting—there seems to be a risk of showing just how poorly wrestlers are treated.
Because let’s not make any mistake here: pro wrestlers are treated like garbage. They don’t receive medical insurance, despite the monumental risks to their health. Most are not particularly well-paid. The biggest employer of wrestlers in the world, WWE, considers them independent contractors. And not only that, but WWE has inserted almost certainly illegal restrictions on working for competitors given that status, secure in the knowledge that their near monopoly makes them immune to the dangers of a lawsuit; where are people going to go, the indies for half the pay and even flimsier protections?
So the notion that WWE would threaten a lawsuit (and it’s WWE’s lawsuit, even if it’s being filed by Amann) over what amounts to some trash-talking by a guy whose run at the top coincided with a fallow period for the industry seems like hubris. They don’t need to do it to “win”. They’ve already won. Indie legends are beating down their doors to get in. And I’d certainly never begrudge anyone for that; a steady paycheck and an outside shot at the big bucks, even if John Cena is still an independent contractor, is a better life for most than trying to eke out checks in the indies or second tier feds.
It’s not even that big a lawsuit, with the numbers ranging from 1-2 million dollars. Punk has, by all accounts, lived frugally and socked away a considerable nest egg. He can settle. He very well might settle. I highly doubt that he needs to settle. Lowballing the damages seems like an open invitation for this thing to go to court.
The question then becomes one of a countersuit, which would seem like a given considering Punk’s open antipathy toward WWE and pro wrestling, generally. The problem is that I doubt that there’s any way that wrestlers sign on for such a thing, even as witnesses sympathetic to Punk and Cabana. The pro wrestling game is deliberately set up to pit its workers against one another. The politicking and backstabbing among grapplers isn’t an unfortunate byproduct but the desired outcome. Nobody divides and conquers like wrestling promoters and Vince McMahon’s WWE got to the top by mastering that part of the game. For every person willing to call WWE out, there are ten Rybacks ready to throw them under the bus in the hopes of rising up the ladder for a few months.
If there’s any doubt, I hope Punk doesn’t settle. WWE’s stranglehold on the business in the United States is tightening, rather than loosening. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t great alternatives out there, but when you’ve got a one-two punch of labor abuses and the knowledge that everyone will eventually come your way, there are scant options to break the cycle.
Unionization is frankly not likely to happen at this point. That sounds pessimistic, but if it was going to happen it was going to be during a boom period with a big draw like Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin leading the charge. It’s important to place the drawing power of guys like John Cena and CM Punk in their historical contexts; all of the top names of today are more Diesel and Lex Luger than The Rock, the top stars at a time when the business is not all that popular or successful. Cena could lead a unionization effort tomorrow and McMahon would lose almost nothing by summarily firing him and daring him to go to TNA. The best possible thing for McMahon may actually be that the business has been in a down cycle for over a decade now.
So it’s left to lawsuits. This would be the highest profile lawsuit WWE has been involved in in quite some time, probably since the legal battles surrounding Owen Hart’s death. If the mainstream press is running with just the little hard info we have now, they’re going to be lining up at the courtroom doors once things get into full swing.
I’ve no idea how this shakes out. Punk is (and I say this as a huge fan) cantankerous, unpopular and prone enough to getting overemotional when he’s angry that I can absolutely believe that his claims may not be as true as he made them out to be. At the same time, there’s a behemoth bad guy in the form of WWE, whose current attempts at doing better by their employees’ health are only good when compared to pro wrestling’s disastrous history. Plus, if anything, they’re becoming worse on labor mobility by inserting draconian no compete clauses into their workers’ contracts.
The best we might end up with is a light shining on the darker corners of WWE’s current labor relations. That’s actually not such a small thing, given how reticent pro wrestling is to reveal the darker side of its nature. It’s just a shame that getting there is liable to be so ugly.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.