WWE: Contract Null & Void

Over nearly the past decade, WWE has made strides in improving the health and well-being of its performers with the implementation of its Wellness Policy and most recently, its performance center to help cultivate talent and prepare them for a potential move to the main roster.  WWE has also instituted the ImPACT Concussion Testing Policy to diagnose and treat talent that may be suffering from head trauma.  While these are certainly steps in the right direction to make WWE a safer work environment, there is still one glaring issue that remains prevalent in professional wrestling and will remain as such until someone decides that enough is enough and it’s time for a change.

In-ring performers for WWE are not labeled as employees by the company.  They are labeled as independent contractors and negotiate a deal with the company for a given amount of dates to work over a given period of time.  While WWE has conducted business this way in its talent/employer relationship, it is certainly an archaic business practice that must be put to an end for the sake of the talent and their well-being.  But what exactly constitutes an independent contractor?

As defined by the IRS website, ”The general rule is that an individual is an independent contractor if the payer has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done.”

 This is seemingly how WWE is able to get away with the independent contractor status since they contract their talent to perform the services asked of them (wrestle).  It would be the equivalent of hiring a plumber to perform a job.  The customer can tell the plumber what is required of the job, but they cannot micro-manage the plumber and dictate how the process will take place.

The IRS website also defines an employee as, “…if you perform services that can be controlled by an employer (what will be done and how it will be done). This applies even if you are given freedom of action. What matters is that the employer has the legal right to control the details of how the services are performed.

 WWE has complete control over their product and will set guidelines on matches, promos and everything in-between for its contracted talent.  The independent contractor relationship is clearly in question by these definitions provided by IRS.gov, but what is this important?

By labeling their talent as independent contractors, WWE is not required to pay employment taxes including worker’s compensation, medicare, and unemployment taxes.  This is a misuse of the independent contractor status, just so this global empire of a company is able to save some money in the long run.  This practice may have worked out for the benefit of a smaller company, but a publically traded company like WWE should always have its employees in its best interests, however that is not the case with this particular company.

If the classification of WWE’s talent was to change from independent contractor to employee, then professional wrestlers would be entitled to health and retirement benefits as well.  These are standard practice in the modern working world and wrestlers that are putting their bodies on the line week in and week out should be entitled to those same rights that millions of other workers are privileged with. 

According to former WWE spokesman, Robert Zimmerman, WWE covers 100 percent of all costs associated with any in-ring related injuries and rehabilitation.”

 While this gives WWE a clear conscience for their troubles and is done so in good faith, this doesn’t resolve the issue at hand.  Former TNA talent Jesse Sorenson was released from his contract and acknowledged TNA failed to pay his medical bills, thus he is responsible to pay for his own treatment.  While TNA has no legal obligation to pay for said treatment, it is the right thing to do from a moral standpoint.  These companies are making money off the hard work and sacrifice of the talent and talent deserves to have a form of security towards their future health.

While Zimmerman’s statement suggests they pay for rehab, it doesn’t state they pay for any treatment once the talent is no longer with the company.  It’s foolish to think that injuries that occurred during someone’s tenure in WWE won’t show up later in life, from WWE’s perspective it’s simply an out of sight, out of mind mentality.  Sure, they’ll pay for someone to go rehab after they’ve become an addict, but where is the physical therapy for someone once they are no longer with the company to treat injuries that may be exacerbated long after their time with WWE?  It’s quite convenient for WWE to be the hero in the eye of the casual fan by sending former wrestlers to rehab for addiction, but where is the preventative care to make sure this doesn’t happen to begin with?

An independent contractor has the right to work on behalf of other companies and any sort of exclusivity clause is not valid, much like the ninety-day no complete clauses that are standard on WWE contracts.  Why is WWE able to get away with such clauses in contracts?  Simple, they own a monopoly on the sports entertainment business.

TNA cannot and should not be considered healthy competition for WWE during this discussion.  WWE holds all the cards, the performers want to work for WWE, it’s their lifelong dream.  This is how WWE is able to put together contracts that if challenged, would not be supported by the legal system in this country.  So why hasn’t anyone challenged WWE yet?  Some have attempted yet failed to take WWE to court.

Scott Levy, also known as Raven, along with Chris Kanyon and Mike Sanders attempted to sue WWE for this exact reason, that they were cheated out of health care and other benefits in 2009.  Unfortunately, according to a federal judge, the statute of limitations had run out and therefore the case was dismissed.  Of course nobody under WWE contract will attempt to sue the company while working for them.  A right-minded person wouldn’t want to burn that bridge, so then why hasn’t anyone who was released by WWE stepped up to the plate and made a more concerted effort to change the game.

Quite simply, no talent has the resources behind them like WWE does and their legal department.  Again, the challenge is in WWE’s favor as they have enough money to throw around to make sure that any sort of challenge would either be settled out of court if possible or otherwise dismissed.  So what’s a professional wrestler to do to protect their own interests while at the same time being able to proliferate a healthy work environment?

How is it healthy for talent to be required to provide their own liability insurance?  While this is standard practice for most independent contracts, the premiums for professional wrestlers are astronomical.  The risk of injury is far greater than most professions, so they must pay out of their own pocket.  This according to Mr. Levy’s contract from 2000 which states, “WRESTLER shall be responsible for his own commercial general liability insurance, worker’s compensation insurance, professional liability insurance, as well as any excess liability insurance…” Before talent are able to make their way to the ring, they have out of pocket costs that a responsible company should be fitting the bill for, not stiffing their workers as if they don’t feel responsible for their health care (that is until they’re injured).

Unlike most other independent contractor groups, WWE’s talent is not unionized much like MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL players are.  They are able to have a seat at the negotiating table and create a reasonable contract that both parties are able to agree on.  Though some have suggested WWE’s talent should do the same and form a union, it’s clearly not an option.

All other sports organizations have an offseason available to them for negotiating new collective bargaining agreements, and even then that time off isn’t enough to negotiate that new agreement and we as fans are forced to watch unions strike.  In the case of WWE, there is no offseason and thus the talent would have far too much leverage on the table when discussing any sort of bargaining agreement.  The television show is the epicenter of WWE and any damage to that would hurt the stock of the company and would do more harm than good. 

Also unlike professional athletes, talent do not own their own intellectual property unless it was created before they signed with WWE.  CM Punk would be a perfect example, as that name was created and used on the independents before he signed with WWE, therefore they have no stake in maintaining that intellectual property once he leaves the company.  They do, however, own his name while he is with WWE as they use it to promote merchandise, bookings, appearances, etc;.  This is why WWE always wants talent to change their name upon entering WWE.  They want to own as much of that talent as possible, thus further undercutting the earning power of said talent.

Also, when professional athletes are asked to promote a product via commercial or radio appearance, they do not need to seek the permission of the NFL before doing so.  WWE controls any attempt at talent profiting for themselves outside of WWE by requiring talent to gain permission before making appearances or promoting any product.  It’s understandable that WWE has an image to protect, but so do other sports organizations.  It’s in the best interest of the talent to promote themselves as properly as possible.  The idea that someone would promote a product that’s not in line with their own image or that of WWE would simply be shooting themselves in the foot.

When a talent signs a contract, they are generally given a number of days to work.  At no point in the contract does it state exactly which days a talent is obligated to work, and rightfully so.  If they wished, they could go work for TNA and fulfill contract obligations there at the same time they were working for WWE.  Again, no talent would be willing to do this because they would then no longer be promoted by WWE and would more than likely be released from their contract for violating the terms of the agreement; terms that which should not exist as a company cannot prevent someone from earning a living.  If WWE were to map out the days they wanted talent to work and explicitly state said dates (as tedious as that may be) then they could state their case in terms of working expectations, but that’s not what they are doing.  But the question remains, in a dog eat dog world that is professional wrestling, who is going to be the one to stick their neck out and demand the system change its ways?

Until that happens, I fear the business will remain the same.  This isn’t an issue for the likes of John Cena or CM Punk.  They have made it to the top of the mountain and will be just fine from the money they’ve made over their careers.  But for every John Cena, there’s dozens if not hundreds of professional wrestlers who will never see that kind of success in the ring and will be forced to spend more of their hard-earned money than they should not be required to.

It’s 2013 and this policy is still enacted by WWE.  This issue is one of the last pieces of the puzzle for WWE to come full circle and change its policies for the better.  The only way things can change is if fans stand up on behalf of WWE and its talent.  So if you’re reading this, I implore you to share this with your fellow wrestling fans, let them know that this practice can no longer be accepted and that we want to see real change in WWE.  Tweet this to your followers, share it on Facebook, spread the word that we want to see pro wrestlers given the basic employment rights they are entitled to and to stop this questionable practice that is outdated and downright shameful to even exist to this day.