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The exploitation of workers in professional wrestling
August 11, 2014 9:14 AM   Subscribe

"Kayfabe is a slinky thing, in what it masks: it’s sheer enough to let us marks in on some of the fun, yet supple enough to obscure most of the human cost." On the disposability of professional wrestlers, by Dan O'Sullivan, aka @Bro_Pair
posted by Greg Nog (40 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Professional wrestlers take a lot of pain and suffering. They get hurt and still have to wrestle. It is not for the weak.
posted by Orion Blastar at 9:49 AM on August 11


As a forty-something American dude, it's going to be really hard for me to let go of my Hulkamania, but I can't abide a management stool pigeon, Terry.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:03 AM on August 11 [7 favorites]


"Independent contractor" is one of the purest middle fingers that management extends to labor. There is no excuse for WWE to not employ its most visible employees.
posted by Etrigan at 10:04 AM on August 11 [11 favorites]


Articles like these are necessary, as there are many nagging issues the industry has been dragging for decades now (and isn't likely to fix, what with being a monopoly), but can't help to think the overall bleakness of it will only serve as fodder for certain people to say "see, not only it is stupid: it is also evil".

WWE is going through a painful transformation right now, where past grudges are being slowly forgiven and new management is starting to listen in earnest to their audience and taking gambles on young talent and technologies. Recent financial troubles threaten to derail this renaissance of sorts, however.

Interesting they only use old creepy black and white grappling pictures and not any current images of young charismatic athletes. There are many, many good things about pro-wrestling, and even after reading this article you have to take away that it is, above all, a work of love for the performers. A better treatment for them is long overdue.

PD: There are also a lot of small inaccuracies (Benoit wasn't going to be crowned WHC the night he snapped, he was up for a less important title), but better to focus on the big picture, where it hits very valid points.
posted by infinitelives at 10:06 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


As a forty-something American dude, it's going to be really hard for me to let go of my Hulkamania, but I can't abide a management stool pigeon, Terry.

Hulk Hogan is terrible for so many reasons that his betrayal of the nascent unionization movement (which led to Jesse Ventura being blackballed from the industry) is really just one layer of awfulness on a giant shit-cake.
posted by mightygodking at 10:08 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Interesting they only use old creepy black and white grappling pictures and not any current images of young charismatic athletes.

Using current pictures would probably require paying WWE for usage under copyright law. And, I kind of doubt WWE would allow that, given the tenor of the article.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:09 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


How is this the first time someone has thought to use the "rasslin" tag? I'm disappointed in you, Metafilter.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:10 AM on August 11


Interesting they only use old creepy black and white grappling pictures and not any current images of young charismatic athletes

And they are all photos taken by Stanley Kubrick, omg!
posted by Theta States at 10:14 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


It wouldn't even need to be WWE wrestlers in the pictures. I bet they could've even gotten some ROH era pictures of Bryan Danielson or CM Punk.

They deliberately went for "Eraserhead" with those pics.
posted by infinitelives at 10:21 AM on August 11


How is this the first time someone has thought to use the "rasslin" tag? I'm disappointed in you, Metafilter

Just went and fixed that for you; here.
posted by TedW at 10:26 AM on August 11


I loved Owen Hart so much, and it only hit me reading this that his death wasn't some kind of act of god but was because of deliberate decisions made by folks answering to Vince McMahon.

The article stretched in a few places, like, I don't know how wrestling and being a commentator somehow caused Bobby Heenan's throat cancer, but I'm really glad for having read it and it forcing me to think about the ugly side of something I spent so much time following as a teenager.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:31 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


“Before he started making movies, Stanley Kubrick was a star photojournalist. In the summer of 1949, Look magazine sent him to Chicago to shoot pictures for a story called 'Chicago City of Contrasts.'”
posted by koeselitz at 10:33 AM on August 11


Soo. It would seem there are some mefite pro wrestling fans?
posted by notreally at 10:43 AM on August 11


which led to Jesse Ventura being blackballed from the industry

Wait, was he pro or anti union? I assumed anti but then I read (ok, skimmed) his wiki page and he seems to be in favour of a lot of good things?
posted by elizardbits at 10:48 AM on August 11


I'm curious as to specifically what this means:
a mortality rate on par with day one of Antietam.
Surely it doesn't mean "On their first day of wrestling, wrestlers die at a rate similar to that of soldiers at the first day of Antietam."

I'm guessing it means something like "As large a percentage of wrestlers die within n years as did soldiers within the first day", which, though I don't doubt it's a horrible rate, seems like a poor comparison.

Or maybe it means something more like "At death, as large a percentage of wrestlers were judged to have died of wrestling-related causes as the percentage of soldiers of soldiers at Antietam who died on the first day". That would be less misleading, but still the summary "a mortality rate on par with day one of Antietam" seems like a not-so-great summary.

Does anyone know what the author is referring to, specifically?
posted by Flunkie at 10:58 AM on August 11


Does anyone know what the author is referring to, specifically?

A rhetorical flourish to indicate that professional wrestlers die early in astounding numbers. The actual mortality rate at Antietam (which was a one-day battle, in point of fact) was only a bit over 3 percent.
posted by Etrigan at 11:07 AM on August 11


This is really sad. I am now wondering if any wrestlers turn to acting to get a SAG card. Stop wrestling, The Rock, Bautista, all of you, stop!
posted by nicebookrack at 11:07 AM on August 11


Beat me to it! I saw this article this morning but didn't get to read it until my lunch break, and I didn't feel like it would be right to post before I digested the whole thing.

The performers, if they're not going to become true employees, desperately need a union. I was thinking as I was reading this about parallels to other contracted employees. Athletes? They have a union. Actors? They have a union.

If McMahon and other head honchos want to make the argument to regulators that professional wrestling is entertainment, not a sport, then fine: All the performers should join SAG and SAG should start negotiating on their behalf. This lack of decent pay and covered expenses and health insurance is appalling.
posted by misskaz at 11:08 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


which led to Jesse Ventura being blackballed from the industry

Wait, was he pro or anti union?


He was the instigator whom Hogan narced out.
posted by Etrigan at 11:08 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Fivethirtyeight took a look at the rates as which pro wrestlers die, compared to other major sports, and found pretty staggering results.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:10 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Right, thanks, I know that wrestlers tend to die young, but I'm asking about what the author meant specifically by the specific reference to Antietam.
posted by Flunkie at 11:15 AM on August 11


This article felt a little disjointed to me, probably the inevitable result of trying to cover over a century of wrestling history in a relatively short piece. Many of the stories covered in this article felt like they were given the "Cliff's Notes" treatment. Also, as mentioned upthread, the author irresponsibly conflated the premature deaths of wrestlers which can arguably be laid at the feet of the business (illegal drug and painkiller overdoses, stunts gone wrong, brain damage due to repeated concussions, heart damage due to steroid abuse) with other deaths/illnesses that had nothing to do with wrestling (Heenan's throat cancer, Andre the Giant's acromegaly, Dino Bravo being shot in a mafia hit related to his involvement in the illegal cigarette trade after his retirement from wrestling). But I think it was successful in getting over just how sleazy an industry it can be at times.

I've mentioned on Metafilter before that pro wrestling went from being far and away my most passionate hobby from early childhood up through my late 20s, to something that for the last decade I maybe watch a few minutes of once of twice a year. My loss of interest mainly has to do with the modern product bearing very little resemblance in presentation and style to the product I fell in love with as a kid. But I also reached the point where too many of my childhood heroes were dead or destitute, so following wrestling started to transition from a fun escape from reality to something I felt guilty enabling.
posted by The Gooch at 11:26 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


Antietam was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. To compare something to Antietam is to say that the casualties are exceedingly high. That's all there is to the reference. It's not an especially common metaphor, but this isn't the first time I've seen a reference to Antietam used that way.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 11:40 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


Fivethirtyeight took a look at the rates as which pro wrestlers die, compared to other major sports, and found pretty staggering results.

The problem with this study is that, although it's mostly based on fair data, the landscape in professional wrestling has shifted dramatically over the past decade with respect to professional wrestlers' health.

Important disclaimer: none of this should be considered an argument for wrestlers having decent labour rights. They don't. But:

The overwhelming majority of pro wrestlers who died early deaths are wrestlers who were active in the 1984-1994 WWF expansion era, the "Rock N' Wrestling"/dawn-of-the-modern-WWF/WWE era. At this time, steroid use was rampant, sports science was still basically a mystery so many wrestlers self-medicated with painkillers (or illegal drugs), nobody yet realized how dangerous concussions were, and the art of wrestling itself incorporated many maneuvers that were extremely dangerous and yet quite commonly used (e.g. the piledriver). And there was definitely a hard drinking, drug-using party atmosphere.

Starting in the mid-2000s, the WWE - and for all intents and purposes what safety standards the WWE sets are generally the standards adopted throughout wrestling - gradually revamped their product to make it safer for the wrestlers. (This was probably in response to the deaths of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit.)

Shoulder bumps have been greatly de-emphasized, and neck/head bumps all but banned outright. (The last time a piledriver happened on WWE television was in a CM Punk/John Cena match in February 2013 - and they decided to do it themselves without clearing it with management first.) The WWE is now vigilant about concussions (which, thanks to the decrease in head/neck bumps, have also become much less frequent), refuses to let wrestlers perform when they are concussed, and makes sure any concussed wrestler gets proper recovery time. Steroid use is officially banned and unofficially frowned upon; the company now prefers "healthy" bodybuilding. Yoga has become a primary pain management tool for wrestlers, in large part thanks to Diamond Dallas Page's DDP Yoga program (which he gives away free to all wrestlers). And the atmosphere has changed, not least because many modern wrestlers are kids who themselves wanted to be wrestlers when they were kids (rather than ex-football players, which was the usual entry point for wrestlers in the old days) - nowadays young wrestlers are, for the most part, wrestling nerds themselves and more likely to be video gamers or movie buffs than your standard hard partiers.

However, none of this is reflected in the data, since this generation's wrestlers haven't started dying off yet. So it looks worse than it presently is.
posted by mightygodking at 12:37 PM on August 11 [9 favorites]


Hulk Hogan is terrible for so many reasons that his betrayal of the nascent unionization movement (which led to Jesse Ventura being blackballed from the industry) is really just one layer of awfulness on a giant shit-cake.

I'd like to read more about this if you've got a link.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:15 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


About Hogan's terribleness, or about his stooging out Ventura to McMahon? If the latter, see The Masked Man's excellent piece on labor in wrestling.
posted by Etrigan at 1:17 PM on August 11


About Hogan being terrible.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:21 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Here's a primer on Hogan's terribleness. Basically, he's a vainglorious power-grubbing tyrant who's considered himself bigger than the business, even years after his glory days are well and truly over.

And he's one of the biggest fabulists in wrestling -- that's right, in an industry that owes its very existence to lying, Hulk Hogan is a notable liar. My personal favorite of his tales is the one about how Elvis used to come watch him wrestle in Memphis. Hogan had exactly one match before Elvis died, and the match was in Tampa.
posted by Etrigan at 1:47 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Etrigan: “Here's a primer on Hogan's terribleness.”
Thanks. I drifted away from wrestling as an adult, as you do. So I only remembered loving Hogan from when I was a kid and teenager. I probably should have started disliking him ages ago, but I just don't keep up with it.

The worst part is it probably means he never did fetch beer for Andre. Although in my heart, Andre will always have drunk 16 bottles of wine in four hours and then wrestled two regular matches and a 20-man battle royale.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:19 PM on August 11


Most (all?) of Hogan's fabulism is about how awesome he was, so I'm more willing to believe a story that doesn't make him look good. Plus, any story about Andre's drinking is not only likely true, but probably could end with "and then he drank another case after we had all passed out."
posted by Etrigan at 2:38 PM on August 11 [3 favorites]


I missed this when it was posted, and just found it through Deadspin. For most fans, a good amount of this is pretty much common knowledge, but there were some bits in there that I'd never heard of, too. The wrestlers are pretty clearly being exploited, but the WWE is a past master at finding was to deal with that. With TNAs accelerated circling of the drain, talent will have fewer options than ever. That, combined with the cost-cutting going on, it's not just the wrestlers getting taken advantage of. Tour buses were cut, and production team members now have to pay their own way from event to event.

I love wrestling, but, like football with the concussions, it's harder to watch it. As for the increased attempts at safety, they're also undercutting it. Just look at Dolph Ziggler, who suffered a severe concussion (due to walking botch, Jack Swagger) at the peak of a push. Due to the severity of the concussion, evidently (yeah, this is from dirt sheets) WWE doesn't want to push him anymore because they consider him too big of an injury risk. How many wrestlers see that, and do their best to avoid reporting any kind of head injury, fearing that it will ultimately end their careers?

Also, all stories of Andre the Giant are true. Every damn one of them. Drinking or no.

Andre mark for life
posted by Ghidorah at 8:31 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Of course none of this is new to those of us who pour over the 'autobiographies' of aged and retired grapplers, but I am am really glad that these issues are getting mainstream attention. I also appreciate the nice way the author described the unreality of the business detracting from the reality of the lived experiences of the wrestlers. McMahon and his progeny seem to really be able to play both sides of this coin exceptionally well.

It is really continuously shocking to me, as a person who exists in the United States, how when wrestler working issues come up people seem blind to just how unfair some of the contract provisions are. For example: wrestlers are 'independent contractors', yet their contracts contain non-compete clauses both during and AFTER the contract expires. Wrestlers can be 'released from their contracts' by the WWE at any time, yet it seems like there are negative financial consequences if a wrestler decides to terminate the contract.

It just seems so crazy that wrestlers, who are not allowed to work anywhere else during their contracts and for some period after they end, are not employees of the WWE. I cannot imagine how it could possibly hold up if challenged.

Ghidorah - not that I have EVER watched Total Divas - but this exact issue comes up when Nikki Bella discovers she has a fracture in her shin. She doesn't want to tell the WWE about it.
posted by goneill at 7:36 AM on August 12


goneill, I'd like to say I believe you about Total Divas, I really would...

As for the contract thing, evidently (damn, I honestly feel at this point that admitting to reading dirt screens is more embarrassing than watching Divas) after the remarks Punk made recently, they might be moving towards suing him for breach of contract. WWE can, and will, fire wrestlers at a moments notice (say, Alberto Del Rio), but if a wrestler decides to walk away on their own terms? As for the non-competes, I wonder if they would stand up, but then again, I can't imagine an active wrestler (not like Kanyon years after the fact) standing up to it. Money-wise, WWE is the only game in town, and suing them over the contract status probably a very quick way to never get employed by them again, which is ridiculous.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:28 AM on August 12


As for the contract thing, evidently (damn, I honestly feel at this point that admitting to reading dirt screens is more embarrassing than watching Divas) after the remarks Punk made recently, they might be moving towards suing him for breach of contract.

Suing him gets them nothing but bad press. He likely wasn't getting paid when he didn't show up anyway. And if they do sue him, it's a good reason for him to show up on TNA, or at least never to show up in the WWE again. Why burn that bridge?
posted by Etrigan at 9:33 AM on August 12


I love wrestling, but, like football with the concussions, it's harder to watch it

This is pretty much exactly how I feel. I'm really looking forward to watching Lesnar and Cena pound the tar out of each other on Sunday, but the general state of the product and working conditions really squick me out. I took an extended break a couple of years ago and I'm probably headed there again after Summerslam.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:35 AM on August 12


Etrigan, from what I read, it had to do with McMahon being personally offended by Punks comments and tone. If anyone has a history of letting personal feelings get in the way of what's "best for business" I imagine it's him.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:50 AM on August 12


(oh my god are they called dirt SCREENS now???)

Fantasy booking: I hope Vince decides to sue him, and he hires a lawyer and the entire independent contractor/monopoly/non-compete is blown to smithereens, and he gets a nice settlement, and his attorneys get their nice attorneys fees.

It's a tough double-edged sword; if they don't sue him, people will think they can 'walk out on their contracts' (which they may be able to); if they do sue him, they could lose and then people will know they can walk out on their contracts. Probably they will sue him, he will counter-claim, and the WWE will pay him off to make it look like he lost, a large sum of money in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement. The goal is to keep everyone from knowing their rights and understanding the contracts they are signing. (Not that I have seen WWE contracts or know anything about contract law!)

I agree though with Ghidorah - Vince is a petty petty man. What were the comments and/or tone?
posted by goneill at 12:45 PM on August 12


if they don't sue him, people will think they can 'walk out on their contracts' (which they may be able to)

The thing with CM Punk's case that I think will keep WWE from suing him is that he didn't even hint at going anywhere else. Sure, Vince wasn't making any money off him, but neither was anyone else -- even by him "innocently" being seen near a TNA taping. Dude was just done.

Plus suing him would tell the world that WWE suffers when a wrestler leaves. Vince is spiteful, but he also believes that no one is bigger than the business -- even himself, because he is the business.
posted by Etrigan at 1:03 PM on August 12


I think Etrigan, that what you are saying would make it impossible for them to sue. What would the damages be? How much money did WWE lose by Punk walking out? Did they lose money on Punk T-shirt sales, on pay-per-view buy rates? Did the people they replaced him with get paid more than he did? These are the questions that would have to go into this calculation. When you breach a contract it is the damages that matter, not the fact that you've breached it.

I have no idea what Vince really thinks - he seems really petty to me. It seems like he vindictively ruins people's lives based on far smaller affronts than this, but I am not sitting in the conference room with these people and have no idea what really goes on behind the scenes.

I do think they would have trouble trying to sue Punk, but I'm not sure that the fact that he didn't go anywhere else would really be the issue here. It would be the issue over the non-compete, but not over a breach-of-contract claim.
posted by goneill at 2:25 PM on August 12


Dan O'Sullivan interviewed on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show.

Please, someone record him saying "My purchases."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:35 AM on August 23


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