Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – The topic of workers’ compensation for athletes can be quite interesting; going from fascinating to equal parts dangerous and hazy when you consider that many athletes are technically independent contractors. Included are pro-wrestlers who work for the entertainment company World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
Since they are classified as independent contractors, WWE wrestlers who get hurt during a match are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. The WWE also does not have any responsibility to pay its wrestlers benefits, taxes or insurance. Most, if not all WWE Superstars pay for their own ring gear and all of their travel expenses.
With no 401K or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, many wonder what they will do once they hang up their boots. While it can be quite stressful transitioning into a traditional 9-to-5 job when you’ve been working a non-traditional job for most of your professional life, it may be 10-times harder if your body is banged up from the years of punishment that come with the job of entertaining fans. This is, however, is the reality for many pro-wrestlers, and for years the WWE has been under scrutiny for its classification of its wrestlers and business practices.
The WWE recently made headlines when talk show host John Oliver on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, described what he said were the horrible work conditions faced by WWE’s wrestlers. Oliver also did not hold back when he spoke about WWE’s owner and chairman Vince McMahon, saying “many fans legitimately hate him. While the WWE has made him a billionaire, many wrestlers say he’s treated them terribly.”
Oliver discussed what he said are the known pitfalls of the business model when it comes to its promotions, and what he said was the misclassification of WWE Superstars as independent contractors instead of regular employees. He also talked about wrestlers not having an off-season, as well as the absence of health insurance and the “disturbing trend” of these pro wrestlers dying at such a young age.
Oliver cited an actuarial study that suggested the average rate of death among WWE Superstars is in their early- to mid-50s, which is 20 percent higher than that of the general popular as well as NFL players.
WorkersCompensation.com reached out to WWE but did not hear back from its media inquiry department before the story went to press. Oliver is not the only person that feels that WWE is misclassifying its employers. Over the years, former WWE wrestlers have also spoken out against the organization.
Professional wrestling icon Jesse Ventura, who had tried to unionize professional wrestlers since WrestleMania 2 appeared on the Steve Austin Show in 2016, said that Vince McMahon is “lucky” that ‘The Body’ did not end up becoming a United States Senator.
“I would have started a senatorial investigation as to why pro wrestlers are called ‘independent contractors’ when they’re not, Ventura was quoted as saying. “You work for one company. They order you around, control your whole life. How are you possibly an independent contractor? Except, they don’t have to pay your social security. That’s why.”
He went on to say, “Vince is lucky that I never got to the Senate because I would have investigated that because, to me, look at the thousands of dollars it has cost all of us wrestlers to have to pay 15 percent or whatever it is as an independent contractor on our taxes. That’s a bee that has been under my saddle since I began wrestling. I thought, ‘we are not independent contractors – we can’t work for another promotion on Wednesday and work for you on Friday. It don’t work that way. How are we, independent contractors?'”
In a news release WWE did make a statement on the topic of its WWE Superstars being independent contractors, they wrote:
“WWE talent are highly skilled professionals who only perform and promote their appearances; unlike employees, they do not have any corporate responsibilities or duties, and thus are independent contractors. As independent contractors, WWE talent is able to negotiate all aspects of their contracts including the length of the agreement, compensation, time off, disability provisions and other benefits that would not be afforded to an employee.”
Other wrestling companies like ROH and Impact Wrestling have followed suit and continue to hire performers as independent contractors; but there’s a new organization on the horizon that’s looking to change that. Founded in 2019 All Elite Wrestling (AEW) is looking to form a revolution in the world of professional wrestling.
AEW is comprised of some well-known wrestlers, such as Kenny Omega, Adam Page, The Young Bucks, and Cody Rhodes to name a few. The company has partnered up with Jacksonville Jaguars’ Tony Khan and Shahid Khan and has already set itself up to be more progressive than WWE by vowing to offer its wrestlers not only health insurance but also equal pay between male and female pro wrestlers.
Another benefit that AEW is considering offering up to its roster is an offseason. Wrestlers for AEW would be given time off to rest, spend time with family, etc., which, advocates say, would be a game changer for the health of pro wrestlers and the industry as a whole.
At the ‘Double or Nothing’ rally held this month in Jacksonville, Fla., executives gave fans a preview of what’s to come in the upcoming professional wrestling pay-per-view (PPV) event in Las Vegas. They and the wrestlers spoke about the future of the company.
Rhodes said that while fans come, the AEW is making a vigorous commitment to its wrestlers. “Pro wrestlers are always the least-paid,” he said. “At AEW, we’re going to change that. We’re going to change the wrestling economy because you can offer somebody opportunity, but opportunity doesn’t pay the bills, money does.”
Following the rally, executives Tony Khan and the Young Bucks echoed these ideas, saying some wrestlers would have health insurance, – a foreign concept to an industry that largely ‘misclassifies its talent as independent contractors instead of regular employees.’
“Different people, depending on their level of responsibility within the company, will have different deals,” Khan said. “And I think that there’s a great opportunity for people to gain full-time employment in this company, not just as a wrestler, but also in the front office. We already have a lot of people involved, and we’ll definitely be taking care of our employees.”
Executive Vice President Matt Jackson almost expressed similar comments. “ So many times you hear stories from wrestlers past or legends where they don’t have anything left, and there’s nothing to show for it,” he said. “One thing that we’ve always wanted to do is, if we started a wrestling organization, we wanted to take care of the guys. So, that’s one thing we’re working on.”
It appears that the pro wrestling landscape will continue to become that much more interesting in 2019.