I just read an incredible article by Dan O’Sullivan in Jacobin magazine about the abuse of wrestlers by their promoters, and in particular, by Vince McMahon and the WWE, (World Wrestling Entertainment.) I recently wrote about the film The Wrestler as a depiction of how wrestling performs the abuse of workers outside the ring by amplifying it to the point of absurdity. The film shows the parallels between the treatment Randy receives while wrestling and the treatment he receives while working in a supermarket at the deli counter. What I didn’t know at the time was the extent to which his poverty and illness in the film are accurate depictions of conditions real wrestlers suffer because of exploitative labor practices by their promoters. In that light, I now downgrade my opinion of the film for not showing that aspect of the wrestling business, though I still like it. The choice not to do so may have been motivated by the film’s subsequent promotion and embrace by the industry it depicts, as well as by the usual limits on what is up for criticism in a Hollywood film.
There are many ways that promoters abuse and exploit wrestlers, but one among them fits the theme of this series about corporate welfare. Like the other corporations in this series, the WWE will go to any lengths to avoid paying taxes, shifting the burden onto labor. The article explains that the WWE uses the distinction between true competitive sports and their pre-scripted matches to avoid regulations that are applied to most sports leagues. They do not pay social security taxes, unemployment insurance, health insurance or pensions. They pay no taxes on their lucrative television contracts. They claim their wrestlers are independent contractors who must pay for these things themselves. The wrestlers also are responsible for paying state taxes in every state they wrestle in, as well as self-employment taxes. The WWE doesn’t even have to submit to basic health and safety inspections by state gaming commissions, leading to multiple instances of death and injury among the ranks of its wrestlers. A large number of these deaths and traumas are described in painful detail in this article.
All of this reminded me something a lawyer once explained to me about the record industry. When I asked Richard Grabel why Interscope records struck down a clause in a contract he had proposed that provided health and dental insurance for my partner and myself, he told me that their motivations did not primarily have to do with the cost of the health insurance itself. “Once they give you health insurance, they’re acknowledging from a legal perspective that you are an employee. Record companies are scared to death of doing that. Why? They are trying to avoid having to pay social security taxes. Can you imagine how much money they save by not having to pay social security taxes for someone like Madonna? Millions of dollars. That’s why they make sure to designate musicians as independent contractors by denying them health insurance.” Richard knew the score…
Despite their so-called independent contractor status, wrestlers can be fired by the promoters at any time, and what’s more, are blacklisted out of work if they try to organize a union for collective bargaining purposes. This has been going on for years, the article tells us, long before the rise of McMahon:
“Professional wrestling’s success was shepherded throughout the mid-twentieth century by the National Wrestling Alliance, a viciously anti-labor cartel comprised of the country’s leading promoters. Colluding to control wages, stifle competition, and crush any resistant wrestlers, the NWA survived a federal antitrust investigation to dominate pro wrestling well into the seventies.”
Indeed, the most recognizable pro wrestler, Hulk Hogan, furthered his career in 1986 by ratting out on a unionization drive among his fellow wrestlers prior to the staging of Wrestlemania II.
Unless I’m mistaken, the next Mountain Goats record is about wrestling. (Or it could be John’s next novel? He told me but I forget which.) Looking forward to that one!