WWE’s stable of performers are on the road more than 200 nights a year, told when and where to perform, and sign exclusive contracts that bar them from appearing on any other wrestling company’s programming. In spite of all that, they aren’t granted full-time-employee status by Vince McMahon’s publicly traded company — rather, they’re independent contractors who must provide their own health insurance.
That — and the overall well-being of WWE wrestlers, a startling number of whom have died early — was the subject of a deep dive on last night’s episode of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” Oliver pulled no punches during the 23-minute segment, beginning with this opening salvo: “While the character Vince [McMahon] is an asshole, it’s important to know that the real Vince is also an asshole,” he said, “and many fans legitimately hate him because, while the WWE has made him a billionaire, many wrestlers say he’s treated them terribly.”
The segment was occasioned in part by WrestleMania, by far WWE’s biggest show of the year, which takes place this Sunday, April 7 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
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“The shocking thing about McMahon and his company is the extent to which he’s shielded himself from responsibility for his wrestlers’ welfare — and the main way he’s done this is actually pretty simple,” Oliver continued. “Because while you might reasonably think that the wrestlers employed by him are his employees, they’re actually not. They’re merely independent contractors.”
According to wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura, he himself tried to form a union when he was employed by the then-WWF in the 1980s — an effort stymied by Hulk Hogan, who told McMahon of the ill-fated attempt to organize.
“Maybe when wrestlers might work years ago for multiple, different organizations, it made sense to call them contractors,” Oliver said. “But now that WWE has a chokehold on this industry, it makes just as much sense to call them that as it does to call Jimmy Carter a ‘panty-dropping fuck machine.’ It’s just clearly not true…anymore.”
To keep things humorous, Oliver interspersed these facts about McMahon’s practices with clips of his character taking abuse in the ring; he also clarified more than once that he actually likes wrestling, at one point calling it “better than the things you like” because of its over-the-top theatricality.
Some of the performers who died at a young age are Eddie Guerrero (38), Chyna (46), Macho Man Randy Savage (58), Rick Rude (40), Lance Cade (29), the British Bulldog (39), Crash Holly (32), Owen Hart (34), Chris Kanyon (40), Yokozuna (34), Brian Pillman (35), Umaga (36), Andrew “Test” Martin (33), among many others.
“Even the NFL, for all its massive faults, now offers players health reimbursement accounts and has established a legacy fund for older players who may be dealing with health issues,” Oliver said. “And when you have lost the moral high ground to the fucking NFL, you are morally subterranean.” Watch the full segment below.
Update: WWE has responded to Oliver, saying he “simply ignored the facts” and inviting him to WrestleMania this weekend:
“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.”