An Unbearable Descent Into Hell: WWE As An Essential Business

I want to start by going back to 2018, when World Wrestling Entertainment was last the center of national and international scorn. You may remember 2018’s Crown Jewel event, broadcast live from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia exactly one month after the state carried out the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. This was early on in WWE’s 10 year deal with the country, signed as one of many initiatives meant to soften Saudi Arabia’s reputation with the rest of the world at large. After the Greatest Royal Rumble, a propaganda-laden spectacle largely remembered for Titus O’Neil’s slip and fall accident on his way to the ring, it was pretty clear that WWE would do whatever they were asked by the country, but this was different—an assassination carried out on foreign soil. And yet, WWE ran the show.

Why is it important to go back to 2018 to discuss the company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

For one, it’s the last time I can recall that major news media covered the company’s decision-making. John Oliver, having already eviscerated the company’s classification of performers as independent contractors, returned to the issue when covering Saudi Arabia. The BBC, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, Fox Business, The New York Times and dozens of other outlets linked WWE’s name and reputation to the assassination of Khashoggi, both in the immediate aftermath and in the year and a half since. Members of Congress asked them to reconsider running the show. None of it mattered. They went to Saudi Arabia, took the heat, absorbed the momentary dip in their stock valuation, and continued on, the Saudi shows as valuable to their bottom line as WrestleMania.

WWE is back in mainstream news this week with the announcement by Florida governor Ron DeSantis that the company is an essential business, its workers essential employees, and their shows, most of them live and in living color, an essential service. This is, in a word, bullshit. We’ll deal with DeSantis’ statement in a moment. But what’s important to establish first is this: World Wrestling Entertainment is running live wrestling because it thinks it can weather the onslaught of media scrutiny and public scorn. Given their past history—the Khashoggi assassination, the Benoit murders/suicide, Owen Hart’s death, the early deaths of dozens of in-ring performers, the 1994 steroid trial, the 1992 ring boy scandal, and plenty more—they’re probably right.

But this—continuing to run shows during a pandemic that has shut down sports leagues larger and more ingrained into the broad collective consciousness—is something else. It’s an encapsulation of everything that’s ever been wrong with the WWE, from its labor issues to its political ties to its utter inability to read the room. Enjoying professional wrestling involves making some hazy moral decisions—that’s true of every sport where an athlete risks life-shortening damage on the field—but now WWE has brought the “It’s unquestionably wrong to watch this” vibe of its Saudi Arabia megacards to each of its four weekly shows. To paraphrase Uproxx regular and Fanfyte contributor Emily Pratt, the question wrestling fans should ask themselves is no longer “is this good,” but “is this worth somebody maybe dying to produce?”

More Pro Wrestling:

What is essential labor? What is an essential business?

One of the phrases you may have heard during this pandemic is “workers on the front lines.” Those people are all over the map, so far as salary and perceived value of labor is concerned, from doctors to grocery clerks, factory workers to custodial staff. It’s pretty easy to figure out what an essential business is, and thus what essential labor looks like right now: Imagine your local hospital shutting down, every grocery store closing, the Post Office running out of money. Life, both locally and nationally, would be altered on an almost inconceivable scale.

There’s a lot of gray area in what is and isn’t essential, and that’s where things get complicated. Is a book store essential? Is an office supply store essential? Is GameStop essential? There are people—largely business owners and executives—who would say yes. It’s no different with WWE. The gray area is this: Gov. DeSantis’ Safer At Home order follows the recommendations of the Department of Homeland Security, and in doing so grants leeway to “workers who support radio, television, and media service.” The guideline further specifies people who are important to the ecosystem of gathering and broadcasting news, but it explicitly excludes nobody in the field of “media,” and even at its worst that is what wrestling is.

That’s probably the most charitable read of this situation possible, but it’s not even the one DeSantis reached for. At turns he tried tying it to allowing gardeners to work the grounds at Walt Disney World and America’s insatiable hunger for live content, noting that people are “chomping at the bit” for sports that didn’t happen in the past. Maybe that’s true. Maybe that’s why ideas like empty arena NBA games, an MLB season run entirely in two states from hotels and spring training facilities, and UFC running Mortal Kombat style from a private island have circulated and in some instances been pursued. But if you listed a thousand ways an average American has found themselves inconvenienced by this crisis, “lack of sports” is down around “didn’t like Tiger King, afraid to admit it.” There are real, horrifying issues facing the governors of every state, and that one of them would take time away from something like the business of securing N-95 masks and ventilators for hospitals so that he can grant a wrestling promotion license to run shows that are dangerous to the people working them is horrific. It’s a bad look for DeSantis, but worse, both for him and for WWE, is how easy it is to speculate as to whether or not the decision was made as a political favor to the McMahon family.

Linda McMahon, former WWE CEO, two-time failed candidate for Senate, and head of the Small Business Administration in Donald Trump’s cabinet, is currently the chairman of American First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC that pledged to spend $18.5M on advertisements in the state of Florida shortly before DeSantis (a close Trump ally) declared WWE an essential business. The coincidence of McMahon’s proximity to a powerful governmental figure that would give her husband’s company the green light to run a show despite controversy and outcry is not new. In 2018, when she was still acting as head of the SBA, the statement released by President Trump about the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi supported Saudi Arabia, a country whose leaders he’d done tens of millions of dollars of business with.

How much McMahon’s presence on Trump’s cabinet has to do with the millions of dollars the McMahons and WWE have funneled to Trump in the way of appearance fees, donations to the Trump Foundation, and contributions to Trump’s election campaign is unknown, but releasing a vague statement about an assassination that is mutually beneficial to two parties with whom he’d done business is a small string to pull, the same as declaring a company essential after an organization with a connection to that company pledges to put $18.5M into the state economy. It’s only an issue if someone sees the string. Right now it’s all anyone can see, though it’s not for lack of missteps on the WWE’s part.

How can one company handle this so poorly?

Until this week, WWE was reticent to mention the pandemic by name, largely choosing the corporate doublespeak route of calling what we’re all collectively up against “uncertain times.” It’s a nice turn of phrase, particularly when you’re engaged in something dangerous. When your mission, stated over and over again, is to “put smiles on faces,” the rubric for the success of that mission is much easier in “uncertain times” than it is during “a global pandemic that’s killing people by the thousands.” So of course the company would try to get in on a social media trend and post a quarantine house meme.

Not to read too deeply into otherwise meaningless memes, but between NXT talent who didn’t get a Saturday TakeOver and main roster talent whose WrestleMania plans were altered by the show, I’m counting twelve WWE Superstars kept from performing on what is traditionally the most lucrative weekend of the year. Strangely not in any of the quarantine houses are Rey Mysterio and the Miz, two extremely well known, long-tenured WWE performers who were not on the WrestleMania card due to their being ill. Strangely in the meme is another WrestleMania absence, someone who will likely remain unseen until the business of professional wrestling is back to normal: Roman Reigns.

Reigns, who is immunocompromised due to prior treatment for leukemia, was scheduled to wrestle Goldberg for the WWE Universal Championship at WrestleMania, and had appeared on television in the weeks prior to promote it. Immunocompromised people being one of the more at-risk segments of the population, Reigns shouldn’t have been allowed into the empty WWE Performance Center to begin with, but rather than make that call for him, the company foisted the decision off onto one of its biggest stars, and the match was changed. Without a live audience to appease, there was no real storyline explaining how the match became Goldberg vs. Braun Strowman, same as there was no real explanation for Dana Brooke missing the SmackDown Women’s Championship match or a three way tag team ladder match becoming a three way singles ladder match.

There’s no way WWE could have released official statements on their websites as to why these wrestlers were pulling out of WrestleMania without facing a ton of scrutiny, so they didn’t. There’s no release on WWE’s corporate site explaining their absence, the last piece of news on Roman Reigns’ superstar page is the announcement of his match against Goldberg, and the news item about Goldberg vs. Strowman doesn’t even mention Reigns—despite the iron clad nature of fake contract signings in professional wrestling. Reigns is the biggest full-time wrestler in the company, and the company made it look like he ghosted on WrestleMania.

It’s a good thing, too, because shortly after WrestleMania tapings concluded, an unnamed WWE employee tested positive for coronavirus. According to WWE, that employee’s exposure happened after taping had concluded and they’ve since made a full post-quarantine recovery, but the manner in which they were exposed—having dinner with friends who work in health care—should highlight the risk in this particular undertaking. Without creating an actual bubble around the Performance Center where every member of the roster and staff is 100% catered to with zero contact from the outside world, there exists the risk of exposure. That bubble is, as other sports organizations are finding, a logistic impossibility. Therefore, there is always going to be risk, but don’t worry, here’s WWE Superstars Drew McIntyre, Kofi Kingston, and Charlotte Flair with some helpful tips on how to stop the spread.

Why is this still happening?

I wish I knew. General speculation online has it that WWE is fulfilling its requirements to its television broadcast partners, but beyond FOX and USA Network, other channels relying on live sports broadcasts have gone on without them. TNT, which airs All Elite Wrestling’s Dynamite (now pre-taped, though the company plans to run its Double or Nothing event live), no longer has its flagship NBA broadcasts. ESPN, who reached an agreement with WWE to air encores of WrestleMania to fill airtime, pressured Dana White to postpone UFC 249. These things are both bigger than the WWE, and while the nature of television production means that major broadcast and cable networks will soon be scrambling to fill previously accounted for airtime, the current lack of those things means an extra showing of Thor: Ragnarok or Pain & Gain in their place.

Despite Gov. DeSantis’ assertion that people crave Live Sports Content, Raw ratings have tanked, drawing fewer than 2M viewers for this week’s episode, crushed by ongoing cable news coverage of the pandemic. The idea that people need escapist fare in a crisis may be true, but fewer and fewer people are choosing to escape the reality of this pandemic with one of popular culture’s most crushing reminders of the absoluteness with which it has pervaded society. So why is this still happening?

The only answer, the obvious answer, is capitalism. Wrestling has always been one of the easier metaphors of the rot of this economic system, the literal destruction of labor to enrich executives and shareholders, but WWE’s really only been this obvious about it once before, when Owen Hart died at Over the Edge 1999 and the show kept going. That decision has hung over WWE like an albatross for over 20 years now, but if you look at it from a pure business standpoint, continuing the show means you don’t have to refund the 14,000 fans there, the 400,000 or so fans who purchased the show on the PPV, and that you don’t have to cancel Raw the following night. That episode of Raw, a heartfelt tribute to a beloved wrestler that feels like a funeral held in front of 14,000 drunks, is one of the highest rated episodes in the history of the show.

WWE has never let tragedy or circumstance stand in the way of making a dollar, but what’s different in 2020 is that they’re a live event promoter that can’t run live events. Effectively cut off from their main source of revenue, without a WrestleMania to bolster its quarterly earnings or a Saudi Arabia show in the near future to offset its losses, the company is left relying on the WWE Network, merchandise, and television revenue from FOX, USA, and other channels around the world with whom they have contracts. Why these shows have to run live instead of taping a few weeks at a time is something only Vince McMahon can say, but there is a difference in the perceived worthiness of live and pre-taped wrestling, largely based on the damage done by leaked spoilers.

If you think this is being done for the benefit of WWE’s employees, wrestlers or otherwise, you couldn’t be more wrong. The company is more than aware of the risks posed by COVID-19—it cancelled its April 16th annual shareholders meeting despite the existence of Zoom and other video conferencing clients. Imagine that call, WWE stock stumbling in a rut, dozens of wrestlers and crewmembers risking their health for a product fans aren’t watching, and a chairman who is historically terrible when asked about worker safety. Worried about coronavirus, indeed.

No, this isn’t about the workers, not when WWE today announced that they have half a billion dollars of capital to work through the coming months with but will be furloughing employees regardless, saving them an estimated $4M a month. And because wrestlers aren’t employees, the release also states that they’ll be cutting talent costs. What that means isn’t clear, as one would assume that talent not on television right now is making their downside guarantee, basically their negotiated minimum wage. In the hours since that release was posted, the WWE have released the following talent:

    • Kurt Angle
    • Rusev
    • Sarah Logan
    • Heath Slater
    • Karl Anderson
    • Luke Gallows
    • Lio Rush
    • Mike Chioda
    • Drake Maverick
    • Curt Hawkins
    • Aiden English
    • Eric Young
    • EC3
    • Zack Ryder
    • Rowan
    • No Way Jose
    • Mike Kanellis
    • Maria Kanellis
    • Primo Colon
    • Epico Colon
    • Deonna Purrazzo
    • Josiah Williams
    • MJ Jenkins
    • Aleksandar Jaksic

This is a bad situation that’s rapidly growing worse, something that could be a catastrophe for the entire industry that we’re being asked to take solace in. It’s been a wild ride already, and major media outlets are only just starting to take an interest. For once, that interest comes before something in wrestling turns tragic and macabre, but it’s hard to say how much that matters. A virus, like steroid trials and attempts to unionize, is just another thing for Vince McMahon to beat. It’s going to take more than The New York Times or a connection between his wife’s super PAC and the state of Florida to stop him from trying.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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