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TJR React: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” Critical of WWE for “Independent Contractor” Label, Vince McMahon’s Behavior and More

There was a 22-minute segment on the HBO show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on Sunday evening where they talked about WWE. The show is known for tackling some serious subjects while adding in some jokes since Oliver is a comedian. This is part recap, part my opinion especially in the “Final Thoughts” part and there’s a lot to cover, so let’s get to it.

Oliver came off as a fan of the company that had some knowledge of what WWE was about. Oliver made it clear that he enjoys some of the ridiculous things about WWE like guys going through tables and the over the top nature of the product. They also used the segment to cover the issue of WWE labeling their Superstars as “independent contractors” instead of calling them employees. As most WWE fans know, WWE superstars don’t get healthcare benefits from WWE. They sign contracts as independent contractors and by signing those contracts, the WWE superstars agree to those terms. Healthcare is up to the individual to get. It’s been that way for the nearly 40 years that Vince McMahon has been in charge of the company. There’s also no union in WWE. Other pro sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL have player unions that lead to healthcare, benefits in retirement and have had them for decades. In WWE, it’s a different world.

They played a lot of clips from WWE history. One of the clips was from Edge vs. Mick Foley at WrestleMania 22 in 2006 when Edge speared Mick Foley through a flaming table. Oliver enjoyed it. They also played the clip of Shane McMahon’s crazy leap at WrestleMania 32 in 2016 when he jumped off Hell in a Cell about 20 feet down and went crashing through a table.

There were also clips of wrestlers that have passed away: Eddie Guerrero, Randy Savage, Chyna and King Kong Bundy. The Bundy death was recent and he was 61 years old. As we all know, they could have played clips of many more wrestlers dying young because that has been a problem in pro wrestling for many years. What they didn’t mention is that after Eddie’s death, WWE also started drug testing (known as the Wellness Policy), which is a good thing. I’m not here to defend WWE. I’m just saying more information could have been provided.

Oliver showed a graph about the death rate of wrestlers being way more than normal, which led to some jokes from Oliver.

After about five minutes, Oliver focused his attention on WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon. I thought the magazine photo edit was pretty funny when they labeled it “Scary Grandpa Who Looks Like A Big, Bumpy Hot Dog Quarterly.” That’s the main image I used for this article.

When talking about Vince, they showed clips of the Mr. McMahon character, who has been a regular part of WWE programming since about 1998. A clip they played was Vince McMahon saying “my nigga” to John Cena at Survivor Series 2005 when Booker T showed up, so it was a very awkward situation. They did not show Booker T’s “tell me he did not just say that” line. A lot of fans remember that well because it was so awkward. I remember when WWE launched WWE Network in 2014, one of the first clips people thought about was that one to see if WWE would remove it. Nope. It is still there. That led to Oliver ripping on Vince for choosing to say the “n” word when Vince has full control over what’s on the show. It’s a good point by Oliver because it was dumb for Vince to do that even though Vince likely thought it was harmless because it was in a comedic tone. Frankly, I thought it was stupid by Vince to do it.

This line from Oliver was hilarious: “While the character of Vince is an asshole, it’s important to know that the real Vince is also an asshole.” That drew laughs from the audience.

There was a clip of Bret Hart complaining about Vince McMahon in 1998 from the “Wrestling With Shadows” documentary with Bret talking about Vince treating wrestlers like circus animals. I love Bret as much anybody, but he also signed a more lucrative deal with WCW in late 1997 and they didn’t treat wrestlers any differently. In addition to that, this is the same week where Bret is going into the WWE HOF for the second time this Saturday night. You can’t play a clip of Bret whining about WWE (from 21 years ago) and then ignore facts that Bret is a rare two-time WWE HOFer too. To Oliver’s credit, they were right to correctly point out that Bret’s brother Owen died in a WWE ring. That’s the worst thing WWE has ever done because it was a completely unnecessary comedy stunt gone wrong.

The main point of the show was to attack WWE for labeling their superstars as “independent contractors.” They played a clip from Jesse Ventura from the Howard Stern Show in 2010.

Ventura: “How are they self-employed when they are signed exclusively? You can’t work for anybody else. They tell you when and where you’ll work, they’ll tell you who you’ll work – they can totally control your life. And yet they call you an independent contractor. How has the government allowed them to get away with that for 35 to 40 years?”

Jesse makes a great point as Oliver said and I agree with Jesse. He asked good questions that unfortunately will probably never be answered. Oliver correctly pointed out that wrestlers don’t get paid annual leave, retirement pensions and health insurance.

Oliver went deeper into WWE labeling their superstars as independent contractors by using some IRS information about the term. For example, the IRS said that independent contractors should be free to work when and for whom they decide, yet in WWE, Vince’s wrestlers sign exclusive contracts, so “that’s complete bullshit” as Oliver pointed out.

The topic of Ventura trying to start a wrestler’s union in 1986 was mentioned, but McMahon “stamped it out hard” and then they showed a clip of Shawn Michaels hitting Vince with a superkick from about 20 years ago. Oliver talked about wrestler contracts while noting the unique verbiage. (It’s worth pointing out also that Ventura worked for WWE for several more years after he failed to start a wrestler’s union, which again showed how people in wrestling have willingly been okay with working for WWE as “independent contractors.”)

They mentioned CM Punk on the Colt Cabana podcast in November 2014 when he complained about WWE’s doctors treating him poorly when he was injured by giving him Z-Packs that made Punk feel even worse. Punk had a quote on the podcast about actually shitting his pants on Smackdown due to his poor health at the time. Oliver showed the tweet Punk did on December 3, 2013 about the shit. WWE made him take the tweet down, but here it is.

Punk ended up quitting WWE in late January 2014, so it was less than two months after that tweet.

Speaking of CM Punk, he tweeted this on Monday morning.

A clip aired of Vince McMahon being interviewed on Real Sports on HBO in 2003. Vince said he would accept no responsibility for wrestler’s untimely death. When the reporter mentioned these wrestlers worked for Vince, the reaction from Vince was to mock the reporter and shove the papers into his hands. Oliver was right to mock Vince for a response where Vince told the reporter to “ask himself that question” in reply to Vince being asked why he doesn’t feel responsible for wrestler deaths. That was a terrible reply from Vince.

Oliver spoke about WWE’s Wellness Policy, but mentioned that sometimes wrestlers have to go back to WWE since they have no other option. They played a clip of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in 2003 talking about going back in the ring for WWE at age 49 and Piper said he wasn’t going to make it to 65 years old. Piper died in 2015 at age 61, so he was right about that.

What Oliver didn’t mention is that WWE fired Piper after he made those comments on the “Real Sports” show in 2003. It was pretty ridiculous to fire somebody for being honest like that, but Vince did it. I would have mentioned it if I was Oliver because it helps tell this story even better.

Oliver continued the laughs by showing a clip of Vince McMahon receiving a Stinkface from Rikishi on Smackdown (with The Rock pushing Vince’s face into Rikishi’s ass) from 2001. Oliver joked that you can fake about being kicked in the face or being hit in the head with a bedpan, but there is no faking that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dcmh1pJcIEg

The last few minutes focused on WWE fans making their voices heard. They played a clip from the Raw after WrestleMania in 2017 when the fans chanted “fuck you Roman” and “Roman sucks” among other things at Reigns on the night after he beat The Undertaker at WrestleMania 33. Oliver also had some funny remarks about Roman’s long, wet hair. There was no mention of Roman beating leukemia to return to WWE recently.

Jake Roberts was the next topic when they showed a clip of Jake Robert’s 2015 documentary talking about how wrestling fans raised money for a surgery for Roberts. Oliver’s point was that the fans cared about the wrestlers and it was great that they helped Jake (and other wrestlers that have needed surgeries), but Oliver correctly pointed out that fans shouldn’t be the ones responsible for that. It should be WWE that takes care of these wrestlers when they can’t compete anymore. He’s right with that point too, at least to some degree.

Oliver talked about how the NFL has health reimbursements and a legacy fund for older players. Oliver said WWE is “morally subterranean” for losing the moral high ground to the “fucking” NFL. It’s worth pointing out here that the NFL has a players union and was also sued by former players before recently reaching a deal to help compensate them with over $500 million.

Oliver suggested that fans should chant things and make signs at WrestleMania this Sunday although he did it in a comedic way. It was one of those “I’m not telling you to do it” bits even though that’s exactly what he was doing. Oliver said that he hopes fans make their voices heard.

A video package aired talking about everything they covered and it was done in a way where it was narrated by a guy using a “wrestler voice,” so that was pretty funny too.

(If you’re outside the US like me and the above video doesn’t work for you, try this one. It might get taken down.)

https://youtu.be/ekLara5ir5o

According to a WWE statement issued today, Oliver ignored facts:

John Oliver Ignores Facts

John Oliver is clearly a clever and humorous entertainer, however the subject matter covered in his WWE segment is no laughing matter. Prior to airing, WWE responded to his producers refuting every point in his one-sided presentation. John Oliver simply ignored the facts.

The health and wellness of our performers is the single most important aspect of our business, and we have a comprehensive, longstanding Talent Wellness program.

We invite John Oliver to attend WrestleMania this Sunday to learn more about our company.

There are also plenty of comments from former WWE stars as well, so check that out here.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Let me start by saying that I am glad that this topic has been addressed on a television show that is pretty popular. I hope that one day there is better healthcare for WWE superstars, I wish they took better care of former WWE superstars and if there was ever a union, that could really change the business for the better.

With that said, most WWE superstars are compensated well and it’s not like they are complaining publicly about the lack of health care or benefits. When the likes of Cena, Orton, Lesnar, etc. complain about how WWE treats people then maybe something will change. However, those guys are millionaires many times over, so they won’t be talking about it. If you follow WWE superstars on Instagram for example, you’ll find that a lot of people in WWE drive fancy cars, have really nice houses and are doing a lot better than the average person, which was not mentioned by Oliver at all.

The possibility of better healthcare in wrestling is possible. All Elite Wrestling has talked about potentially having healthcare and doing other things to take care of their talent, so that’s something that could really change the wrestling business for the better. If a WWE superstar has a contract that expires and they have the choice to go to AEW to get paid a similar amount of money, having a healthcare plan could help them decide to go to AEW. If there were several WWE superstars that left for AEW in part for that reason, then perhaps WWE will consider having a healthcare plan and better benefits for their superstars.

Regarding Vince McMahon himself, any time people in the media try to come after him, he just laughs it off and says he is simply playing a character on TV. However, that interview in 2003 and with Bob Costas on HBO a few years earlier were both awful representations of McMahon. It’s not a surprise that he has avoided doing major interviews like that because he probably realized that they did not shine a good light on him.

It would be interesting to get Triple H’s opinion on this subject. After all, he wrestled full time for WWE for nearly 20 years before he became an office guy that only wrestles part-time. He could have an interesting perspective on this unlike anybody else. Of course, when people in the media ask him questions, they never mention stuff like this and generally just use the opportunity to promote WWE.

The most shocking thing about this show is that Oliver didn’t mention Chris Benoit’s double murder-suicide in 2007 when he killed his wife Nancy, son Daniel and himself. That’s the worst thing that has ever happened by somebody that was working for WWE, yet there was no mention of it. I was surprised by that. Benoit’s mental health was likely a major factor, yet it wasn’t addressed at all.

There was a brief mention about WWE running two shows per year in Saudi Arabia, but that’s also a topic Oliver covered last year too. It’s just interesting that a show that spent 22 minutes ripping into WWE would fail to mention that last November, top guys like John Cena and Daniel Bryan refused to wrestle at Crown Jewel. If I was putting this piece together with Oliver, I would mention that as an example of what WWE superstars could do with regards to a union one day. If the likes of Cena and Bryan said no to going to Saudi Arabia then what would happen if guys of that stature fought for better benefits for the company? It’s an interesting thought.

I don’t know if WWE will respond to any of this or if they should. My assumption is that they would say that WWE Superstars know what they sign up for when they are hired by WWE. I think WWE would also say that it’s up to an individual to get their own healthcare and that WWE pays them well enough that they can afford it, as well as other luxuries in life. Should WWE pay their healthcare? I say yes because WWE is currently valued at $7 billion, so obviously they can obviously afford to support the men/women that put their bodies on the line, but it may never happen. It’s sad to write that. It’s true, though.

This segment by Last Week Tonight could make an impact if fans were to reach out to WWE’s sponsors with some of these complaints, which could then lead to WWE wanting to make some changes to appease other companies they do business. For example, Snickers is the main sponsor for WrestleMania and if Snickers were to say that they don’t want to support WWE anymore due to the lack of benefits for WWE superstars, then maybe some change might happen.

I believe that a lot of WWE fans simply enjoy professional wrestling for the fun of it, so they have no interest in arguing stuff behind the scenes. Some fans are content with spending three or five hours of their week watching WWE and forgetting about it. They don’t read about it online or talking about it much. It’s just entertainment to them because it’s a way to escape what we go through in everyday life.

Unless there are WWE superstars that speak up about healthcare, no union and not having a lot of benefits, I doubt anything is going to change. The only thing that could make a difference would be if big names stood with their fellow superstars and took part in a strike where they refused to work unless things change. I can’t see that happening anytime soon because if you’re WWE, you could just fire wrestlers for breach of contract and find new ones. Like I said earlier, I don’t see the bigger names complaining about their pay or lifestyle. To WWE, a lot of wrestlers are irreplaceable. I’m not saying that’s what I believe, but that’s what prevents people in wrestling from going on strike or trying to stand up to the company in protest.

I’ll end it with this question: If you watched this show, did you really learn anything you didn’t already know as a WWE fan? The answer likely is no. Most WWE fans know all of this stuff. We watch because we like the art of pro wrestling, the ridiculousness of it and mostly we watch to support the people in the ring. Things could be better for WWE superstars just like most of us at our regular jobs too.

Let me know what you think about this topic in the comments below or message me on Twitter @johnreport to talk about it as well. It will be interesting to see if this gets more mainstream attention due to being on Last Week Tonight or if it’s something WWE simply ignores during their busiest week of the year with WrestleMania taking place this Sunday night.