Last night, Sasha Banks and Naomi, the WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions, walked out of the Norfolk Scope before the start of Raw after disagreeing with Vince McMahon and other WWE agents about the creative direction of their tag team, most immediately a scheduled six pack challenge to determine the number one contender to the Raw Women’s Championship held by Bianca Belair.
This piece isn’t about the conflict between Banks, Naomi, and WWE creative. It isn’t about the press release that WWE sent out during Raw and what it insinuated about the two and their opinions of their coworkers. It’s not about what’s next or the bad creative that proceeded the bad creative that led to this situation or Johnny Ace or Vince McMahon or any one of dozens of angles one can take on what is immediately the most important story in professional wrestling except this:
It is good when labor is empowered to walk off the job.
I could end the article there — that is, basically, my final opinion on whether Sasha Banks and Naomi were in the right to drop their titles on John Laurinaitis’ desk and leave — but this is professional wrestling and, as such, what should be a fairly simple, matter of fact discussion about what happened and why is instead a maelstrom of verdicts as to the character of Banks and Naomi. If you’re at all familiar with the way WWE’s most devoted fans talk about those they deem enemies, you can imagine how this has played out on Twitter since the news broke.
So that’s something I want to pick at a little, the way some wrestling fans — some very loud wrestling fans — feel entitled to the lives and wellbeing of performers for the sake of their entertainment.
More Professional Wrestling
- WWE’s Behavior of Refusing to Let Wrestlers Quit Their Jobs has a Long, Storied History
- 70 Years Ago, Verne Gagne and Hans Schmidt Had a Timeless Classic
- The Light Goes On: Mustafa Ali Returns to Raw
It starts with WWE, who are anti-labor to the point of having produced commercials about how, unlike sports like baseball, they never go on strike. They produce video packages, DVDs, on-air segments, and press releases, the purpose of which is to drive a wedge between the performers and the WWE Universe. In 2002, when Steve Austin walked out on WWE over his creative direction, the phrase they used to drive this wedge was that Austin “took his ball and went home.”
The idea behind that kind of language, and the dramatic image of Sasha Banks and Naomi leaving their titles on John Laurinaitis’ desk, is to make it appear that it is not the company being harmed, but the fans themselves, and with intent. It is selfish to deny the consumer their product.
And a lot of fans agree because they do feel as if they’ve been cheated, even if the substitution they get (like a Becky Lynch/Asuka main event) is better than what they were promised. Wrestling is a weird medium which really does straddle the line between sports and entertainment. Some people come for the performative aspect of it and some people come for the personalities. A lot of people pay or tune in to see Sasha Banks and Naomi, and having been 10-years-old once and hearing that Kevin Nash would not be at the house show I went to for my birthday, I can empathize with children who see wrestlers as they’re intended to be seen, as surface-level avatars for power fantasies without much in the way of inner lives.
Adults, on the other hand, need to grow the fuck up.
WWE is a business. Vince McMahon, Nick Khan, John Laurinaitis, and others are bosses. Sasha Banks and Naomi work for that business and report to those bosses. They’re classed as “independent labor,” a lot of people call them “employees,” but let’s call them “labor” for the sake of not splitting hairs, and because in either case it is usually the right of the laborer to leave a job they no longer want to do. You don’t need to give two weeks’ notice, wait for the job to hire or train your replacement — most of the things we’re told are the polite thing to do when leaving a job are just traditions installed to benefit an employer you no longer with to be employed by.
That’s different with wrestlers, whose contracts are a labyrinth of seemingly unenforceable but somehow ironclad language presenting labor from straight-up quitting at will, but the option to ask for a release, quit putting in effort, or simply walk out are always there; nobody can force you to do more or physically be somewhere you don’t want to be.
More Professional Wrestling
- Malcolm Bivens and Dakota Kai’s Releases Show How NXT 2.0 Has Changed
- CM Punk and Kevin Owens Aren’t Ruled By Their Big Dreams
- We Obtained a “Bid Book” That WWE Sends to Potential WrestleMania Host Cities
But all of this is contingent upon the performer, which is why it’s easy for a company with decades of experience in battling individual performers to craft the narrative that the performer simply isn’t grateful for what they had under their employer’s roof. Straddling the line between sports and entertainment again, athletes and celebrities are two classes of labor people love to tag as ungrateful, whether it’s for their lack of patriotism, their insistence on being paid more, their leaving to play elsewhere, their not liking Marvel movies, or their speaking out for or being part of a marginalized community. And we are encouraged by the companies that control and make the most money from the sports and entertainment industries to have and broadcast the wildest, most absurd beliefs and opinions on these strangers for the sake of engagement, which is meant to shame labor while creating more revenue through clicks and video views.
Sports fans identify with teams because of their proximity to the city they live in. Fans of various media franchises often do so because they identify with characters. WWE fans identify with WWE because the company had two decades of unquestioned dominance in its industry, during which they devoted a lot of time and money into the project of creating nostalgia for its brand. Lost in all of this are the people actually responsible for creating the product we consume. It is easy to turn fans against performers. It’s a common negotiation tactic, it’s a common strikebreaking tactic, and it’s a common public relations tactic.
All WWE had to do was release a press release, and Twitter went to work, comparing Sasha Banks and Naomi unfavorably to all manner of WWE legends, inventing wild metrics for success, biting hard on WWE’s definition of “unprofessional,” speculating on whether or not this is a work, leaning hard on misogyny and racism, and acting as if they or Vince McMahon are owed something by them. Team WWE isn’t who I’d want standing up for me, but WWE values the noise as much as their supporters relish the opportunity to make it. Everybody on that side gets to feel good about the work they put in while everybody else waits on the slow trickle of details we’ve gotten since yesterday. Fill that void with enough people decrying the lack of professionalism exhibited by two people they know from the television and you have a good head start.
But towards what? What is WWE’s end game here, to shame Banks and Naomi back into the fold? That’s worked in the past, and they’ve cut and resigned wrestlers they’ve had issues with before. In those cases there was a lot of pressure from fans, for or against the performer, for the “right thing” to be done, the right thing usually being a return to WWE.
But that’s a tired narrative, one that ultimately casts WWE as the good guys and labor like children who’ve learned a lesson. Banks and Naomi may resolve their issues with WWE and return, but that’s not as important as the fact that, in a WWE that does its best to undermine the confidence of its labor, they believed in themselves enough to leave when the same faith wasn’t shown in return.
Is this the beginning of a trend? Time will tell, but it is good enough for this to be the prerogative of Sasha Banks and Naomi. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that wrestlers are not as powerless to the whims of WWE as we may believe.