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KELLER'S TAKE

KELLER: Latest amendments to WWE Wellness Policy render it potentially pointless (Feb. 28, 2008)

Mar 18, 2009 - 9:48:10 AM


By Wade Keller, PWTorch editor

This Week with Wade Keller
Headline: How big are the loopholes in WWE's policy?
Originally Published: February 28, 2008
PWTorch Newsletter #1013


WWE officials touted the company's Wellness Policy last year. They said it was evolving and being amended to make it stronger and to protect wrestlers. I wanted to see those amendments. I had the original policy, but I didn't know what those changes were. Recently, WWE put a link to the complete policy rather than the abridged "press release" version which contained just highlights that had been available on the main corporate webpage previously.

The policy has been amended four times since it was initially released. The first change, dated June 13, 2006, added a couple pharmaceutical drugs to the banned substance list.

The Second Amendment, dated Aug. 21, 2006, stated that talent that was suspended for either 30 or 60 days could be "required, in WWE's sole discretion, to work televised events and pay-per-views."

The Third Amendment, dated May 16, 2007, just over a month before the Benoit Family Tragedy put WWE's policy back on the media radar, added the following:

"In the event of an initial positive result for drugs prohibited by this Policy, the Talent shall be fined an amount equal to 30 days’ pay deducted from your downside guarantee on a weekly basis. The Company may, at its discretion, schedule the Talent to work selected televised events without pay, pay-per-views with pay, and non-televised live events with a $200 stipend per event during the 30 day suspension period."

In the case of a second offense, the same applied - adding a potential requirement to work house shows with a $200 stipend - plus noted that if an individual needed rehab, " the Talent shall not be assigned to work until the individual has successfully completed the drug rehabilitation program. However, regardless of the length of the program, the Talent’s fine shall be limited to 60 days’ pay."

The Fourth Amendment (the last to date) added marijuana to the list of substances that could be tested for, but excluded it from the standard suspensions, instead noting that talent would be fined $1,000 per failure, deducted from the talent's downside guarantee. There are no suspensions or potential termination tied to repeated failures. Previously marijuana was only tested for on a "reasonable cause" basis. Alcohol remains a "reasonable cause only" test.

Did you catch all of that? Basically, the drug policy boils down to this now: If you get caught taking banned substances three times, your contract will be terminated. Try not to let that happen. The first two times you fail, you may or may not be punished much; it's up to us.

There is almost nothing binding to the first two failures, and even the third failure requiring termination has one big loophole. Let's start with that.

If a talent fails three drug tests, their contract is terminated. Yeah. So? How long is it before that wrestler can be brought back? Two years? Six months? Two months? Two weeks? A day? Two hours? It doesn't say.

Just going by the wording of this policy, if a fictional wrestling organization adopted the same policy, and its owner felt drug testing was silly, steroids and supplements weren't that harmful, and nobody should be telling any adults what to do anyway, this policy would allow the owner - after terminating the contract of his top, massively muscular wrestler who was taking loads of steroids and failed the test three times - to rehire him after a two week vacation in Europe - with a raise!

How would anyone - media, fans, other wrestlers, stock holders, Congress - know whether that was happening? They wouldn't. There's nothing in the amendments to the policy or the policy itself stating that policy failures will be made public 100 percent of the time. WWE said they would do that last fall, but it's not in this policy, and for all we know WWE has or could in the future not reveal all suspensions. Without a public announcement of 100 percent of drug test failures, there's no way to be sure wrestlers aren't failing three times, having their contract terminated, and being rehired days or hours later with no one being the wiser.

Let's go back to the other amendments. WWE does not want drug test failures to get in the way of drawing money. They may argue it's to protect the fans from paying for one thing and receiving less. Either way, after a wrestler gets suspended the first or second time, they aren't really suspended at all. They can continue to work every single event they would have anyway - house shows, TV events, and PPV events. The Third Amendment granted them pay for working house shows. Just $200, which for all I know is to cover themselves legally should the wrestler get hurt while being forced to work for nothing during a suspension.

The Third Amendment also now allows suspended wrestlers to work a pay-per-view event with pay. So the punishment now for being suspended is working a few house shows for $200 instead of the usual range of roughly $500 to $5,000 per event, but otherwise no missed TV time to promote and develop their character, no missed PPVs which accounts in the cases of top acts for huge chunks of their annual aggregate pay, and no public (or even backstage among colleagues) knowledge of the suspension - per the written policy. That's soft. Very soft. Especially when taking into account how WWE pays it wrestlers.

WWE wrestlers aren't paid like NBA players. NBA players, as in other pro team sports, receive a guaranteed salary for the season, with some having incentives built in. When an athlete is suspended, it's for a certain number of games, and their salary is deducted based on 1/82nd of their pay in an 82 game season. There is no way for that athlete to make up that lost income. Because of salary caps, a team can't "overpay" a star athlete next year or with his next contract because that could damage the team's ability to sign players to keep them competitive, and thus hurt their attendance and TV ratings. A suspended player absolutely loses substantial salary, plus potentially endorsement deals and fan adulation.

In WWE's case, it's totally up to WWE management whether that wrestler ends up actually punished by the end of the year. WWE salaries aren't public. So if a wrestler was receiving on average over the course of a typical month $2,000 per house show for six house shows, and is paid instead $200 per house show for six house shows in a "suspension month," the following month - after the suspension - WWE could pay that wrestler $3,800 per house show for six house shows, making up for the lost income the previous month.

A promoter who wanted a paper policy for p.r. reasons, but didn't want to have to enforce any of the policy, especially among its coddled top stars, would like this policy. Especially since the policy now dictates that suspended wrestlers can be called upon to work a scheduled PPV match "with pay." Full pay. And they stay on TV. No chance of "losing their spot" to an emerging star or losing momentum in a feud. No chance of peer pressure discouraging drug use, either. If a suspended wrestler had to drop out of a lucrative, ratings-drawing storyline, his colleagues would be affected adversely as it could cost them money if business went down. That peer pressure could lead to self-policing before drug tests caught the wrestler. That incentive is gone under this set-up.

Their deduction in pay is even less than the above scenario in most cases. Most wrestlers earn more than their downside guarantee. The fines are only 30 days worth of their downside guarantee. So a wrestler with a $365,000 downside guarantee who was actually earning triple that in a good year would be fined not 30 days' pay, but the equivalent of 10 days' pay - which could be easily made up with the promoter arbitrarily paying a little more than he would have otherwise for the next handful of house shows or PPVs. WWE's pay is informal, based on a loose formula with substantial discretion by the promoter. If the promoter is upset with the wrestler for failing a test, the punishment can be more severe - 30 days downside lost, plus being pulled from a PPV and TV events (and future PPVs, actually), but forced to work house shows for a $200 stipend, with no make-good informal increases in pay later. But if the promoter liked the wrestler and felt the drug they tested positive for wasn't a big deal, but was on the policy for p.r. reasons, that wrestler could be put in a position to lose absolutely nothing.

On a third failure, the wrestler's contact can be terminated, but he could be rehired an hour later with a new contract. With a raise, even!

In other words, the policy means nothing. Absolutely nothing, at least as written. It's up to the promoter to enforce it honestly. But what's the need for a policy then, other than p.r.? All this policy does it give a promoter the right to terminate a contract of a wrestler after three failures and cut his pay in the mean time, or not. That's it. The rest is fluff if the promoter so chooses. It sounds good, but based on how WWE pays its talent, it means nothing. Adding PPVs with pay into the mix is a telling move.

It's the sports equivalent of an NFL star being suspended for two games, but being allowed to play those games, but without pay, except they can be "bonused" the pay they lost at the end of the season. If they fail three times, they contract is terminated, but the team reserves the right to rehire them the next day, perhaps with a raise, even!

Is anyone in the mainstream media or Congress, whom this policy is meant to impress, going to notice these loopholes? Probably not. If you know nothing about how WWE pays its talent, or how a loss of 30 or 60 days of TV time is more threatening to a lot of millionaire talents with egos and an addiction to fame than a deduction in pay, then this policy looks pretty strict, comparable to other sports. It could be, but it doesn't have to be. The leeway is incredible.

There's a simple answer to this. WWE could add a Fifth Amendment putting in writing that suspensions will be made public each and every time there is a failure. And add that talents who fail three times will have their contracts terminated AND not be rehired for a period of at least X amount of time, say, two years. That amounts to a two year suspension, and that may or may not be seen as enough, but at least it'd be something that could be compared to pro sports.

As far as wrestlers working while suspended, that should be changed. The fans know that an advertised star may miss an event. NHL fans know when they buy season tickets, a star player may be suspended that they wanted to see. That's part of the deal and everyone accepts it. The risk of disappointing fans is part of the teeth of any policy that deters an athlete from breaking the policy and deters the team from conducting business in a way that encourages the use of banned drugs.

The other way to fix these loopholes is to disclose all suspensions and all salaries to an independent third party, assigned by Congress, which would make sure the policy was enforced evenly across the board and that there weren't oddities in how talents were paid after suspensions compared to before. Without that, the policy is, for all intents and purposes, pointless. Any wrestler knows if he's in good standing with the promoter, he risks nothing. No lost TV time. No loss in aggregate pay. No public humiliation. Nothing.

WWE's drug testing policy is an honor system. The independent drug testing agency has nothing to do with how suspensions and fines are executed, so their "independence" is irrelevant beyond randomly testing people and reporting failures. It's all up to Vince McMahon how anyone is actually punished.

Lower card wrestlers may be suspended when they fail to be made an example of. Main event wrestlers, if they read this policy closely, can rest comfortably that if McMahon chooses to, he can protect them without technically violating the written policy in any substantive way.


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