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On Sunday night, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” that covers current events with biting commentary mixed with sarcastic humor featured a 23 minute segment focused on WWE’s treatment of wrestlers over the decades. The following is a chronological summary of the key points:
-About six minutes into the show, Oliver turned to the main story of the program. He called pro wrestling “the only good excuse to wear a onesie.” He ripped on babies for wearing onesies.
-He joked about the WWF losing their “F” to the World Wildlife Fund. He then praised WWE for being genuinely entertaining. He showed Jake Roberts putting his snake on Randy Savage’s arm when it bit down, Big Show breaking the ring on a suplex, Steve Austin spraying the ring with beer and Kurt Angle spraying the ring with milk, and Mick Foley bumping through a flaming table. “Everything about that is fantastic!” exclaimed Oliver.
-He said it’s worth talking about WWE for multiple reasons this week. He touted how popular it is on cable, all of their divisions including the movie studio, their social media following, and the value of WrestleMania as a sports brand ranking higher than the World Series. He said WrestleMania’s value is no surprise considering Shane McMahon “exploded through a table.” Footage aired of Shane’s leap off the top of the cage through the table below.
-Then the story shifted to being critical and darker, listing Eddie Guerrero, Randy Savage, Chyna, and King Kong Bundy dying young. There was a clip of a “Fox and Friends” host Brian Kilmeade saying, regarding Bundy dying at age 61, “these wrestlers [are] dying early.” Oliver cited a FiveThirtyEight.com tracking the death rate among former WWE wrestlers compared to former NFL players, and it was “shockingly high,” Oliver said.
-Oliver said with that in mind, they wanted to take a look at how WWE does business and how it treats wrestlers. He shifted to a photo of Vince McMahon shirtless and muscular for a magazine cover. He joked the magazine is called: “Scary Grandpa Who Looks Like a Big Bumpy Hot Dog Quarterly.”
-Oliver briefly recapped the territorial system of pro wrestling in the early 1980s, with clips of various introductions to wrestling shows. He joked about Jim Ross wearing a tuxedo on a UWF TV show. He said McMahon eventually took over by eliminating or absorbing his competitors. “It’s impossible to overstate just how involved Vince is.” He said his choices of how to present the fictionalized version of himself are sometimes questionable. Clips aired of Vince forcing female wrestlers to strip, whooping Hornswoggle with a whip, or dropping the “n-word” to John Cena and then walking past Booker T and Sharmell who gave him a dirty looks.” Oliver said Vince is in complete control of his scripts and he’s not being forced to say that. He said even though he is portraying a heel, Darth Vader never dropped the n-word.
-“While the character Vince is an asshole, it’s important to note that the real Vince is also an asshole,” he said. Then Olivers said a lot of fans hate him and it’s in part because of how wrestlers talk about how he treats them. They aired a clip of Bret Hart over 210 years ago in the “Wrestling With Shadows” documentary saying that WWE “treats wrestlers like circus animals” and uses up wrestlers and then takes them out back and puts a slug in them in the end. Oliver said Bret has “good reason to be angry” because his brother Owen “died wrestling for Vince.” He didn’t go into any details on how.
-Oliver then got into the heart of the piece, which was wrestlers being classified as “independent contractors” instead of “employees.” They aired a clip of Jesse Ventura on Howard Stern in 2010 saying WWE tells wrestlers when and where they work and can totally control your life, yet they call you independent contractors. “How has the government allowed them to get away with that for 35 to 40 years.” Oliver said McMahon stomped out Ventura’s attempt to unionize wrestlers in the 1980s. Oliver noted that wrestlers don’t get paid leave, health insurance, or pensions. He said “it’s a complete joke” that WWE wrestlers are classified as independent contracts based on the I.R.S. definition. He used WWE’s own wording against them, including stating that they have “approximately 215 Superstars under exclusive contracts.” He said in the territory days it might have made sense, but not anymore since WWE “has a chokehold” on the industry.
-Oliver then went into the schedule, noting that unlike major sports league, WWE has no offseason and works wrestlers year-round on multiple events per week. He said big stars can command big dollars for that, but not every wrestler is a big star. He showed snippets of wrestler contracts from 2007 and 2010 that exempted WWE from responsibility for mishaps and injuries. Throughout they included clips of Vince McMahon being physically abused on TV (plus random digs at Dr. Oz).
-Oliver said: “When you take all of this together with wrestlers working as independent contractors in a monopolized industry largely largely free of meaningful oversight and able to fired at anytime, you end up with an environment with huge potential for unsafe conduct.” He then talked about Garrison Cade/Lance Cade who said, “Everybody knows that if you get hurt, you work through it because you’ll lose your spot.” They then aired clips of C.M. Punk on the “Art of Wrestling” podcast hosted by Colt Cabana talking about his medical treatment in WWE and how he was just physically breaking down. Oliver said the best tweet ever written was by Punk after he soiled himself during a match on Smackdown. “Just shit my britches on Smackdown. Please RT,” wrote Punk.
-Oliver said wrestlers undergo general wear and tear which is cumulative and can last a lifetime, but WWE doesn’t offer health insurance for anything other than injuries that occur inside the ring. He aired a clip of McMahon on “Real Sports” on HBO in 2003 losing his cool when he was asked about whether he accepts responsibility for wrestler untimely deaths. It led to him snapping and slapping the papers out of the hosts hands. Oliver made fun of Vince’s dodging of the questions as “certifiably insane.”
-Oliver said WWE has introduced concussion protocol and banned chairshots to the head. He said other policies are underwhelming such as annual physicals being required. He said offering drug treatment “it doesn’t really address the underlying issues that get them hooked on pain medication in the first place.”
-Oliver said some wrestlers “have reluctantly had to drag their bodies back to WWE because they don’t have other financial options.” They aired a clip of Roddy Piper back in 2003 on HBO “Real Sports” saying pro wrestling has a great “entrance plan,” but “no exist plan.” It included Piper saying he won’t make it to 65 to take out from his pension plan. Oliver noted he died at age 61.
-Oliver then encouraged fans to let their voices be heard. He cited the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag to reframe how they promote women. He noted that WrestleMania this weekend will be headlined by women. He said fans express themselves and don’t just go along with what the company tells them to cheer and boo. He said WWE tried for “literally years” to make Roman Reigns a “superstar hero” on the level of The Rock, but the fans just didn’t like him. He showed a clip of fans chanting “F– You Roman!” and booing him and chanting “Asshole! Asshole!” and “Roman Sucks!” and “Go Away!” Oliver said that went on for eight minutes, but it’s “the only rationale response to someone with permanently wet hair.”
-They aired clips of Jake Roberts raising money on Indie GoGo for surgery he needed. DDP was shown saying it showed Jake how much the fans really cared. Oliver said fans want wrestlers to be taken care of, and there have been multiple “Go Fund Me” campaigns for wrestlers. “But frankly, fans shouldn’t be the ones shouldering that responsibility.” He said the NFL is now doing more for older players including a legacy fund for older players with health issues. “When you’ve lost the moral high ground to the f—ing NFL, you are morally sub terrain,” he said.
-Oliver encouraged fans to voice their opinion with chants live at WrestleMania on Sunday. “They won’t be able to cut the chants out. I’m not saying fans should do that – or make signs, or make lots of signs – but I really hope they make their voices heard.”
-Oliver on McMahon: “Given that business hulk is a billionaire on the broken backs of his non-employees, the very least he can do is show the same dedication to wrestlers that they have shown to his company.”
-They aired a patronizing non-applicable spoof of pro wrestling commercials with a “monster truck” style voiceover (which pro wrestling has never really utilized) that summarized the points the story made about changes WWE could make and in the end encouraging fans to chant at WrestleMania their wish for wrestlers to become employees.
WWE issued this response:
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.
If you watched the story critical of #WWE on "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" on HBO this week, how fair was the feature to WWE when it comes to treatment of wrestlers historically and today?
— Pro Wrestling Torch (@PWTorch) April 2, 2019