POLLOCK'S REVIEW: HBO's Last Week Tonight on WWE's business

Originally published at https://www.postwrestling.com/2019/04/01/pollocks-review-hbos-last-week-tonight-on-wwes-business/

On Sunday night’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the host dedicated most of the show to WWE’s treatment of their talent and examining many blemishes throughout its history. Because of the HBO platform, this segment should receive a lot of attention and discussion. The subjects broached are not revelations to those following the industry but presented as a case study, it was a harsh portrayal of the company. It positioned Vince McMahon as a heartless owner that treats its performers as easily replaceable assembly line workers.

I felt the piece was well-researched for a mainstream outlet that was able to understand the makeup of the industry. They dug into the WWE’s past with unflattering segments including Vince McMahon’s use the n-word to John Cena in 2005, Trish Stratus barking like a dog in 2001, Hornswoggle being hit by McMahon, and Bret Hart’s description of how McMahon treats its talents from the “Wrestling with Shadows” documentary. There have been complaints that HBO chose to use such old clips, but the segments were painting a picture and there isn’t a statute of limitations for tasteless and offensive content the company has produced.

The WWE portion lasted 23 minutes and attempted to summarize their past and then pivot over to the talent’s labeling as independent contractors. This has been debated for decades and has become an issue within MMA with the argument of whether a union or an association could happen. When you go through the list of what constitutes an independent contractor there are many examples that would contradict the definition when applying it to a WWE wrestler. Beyond benefits and pensions, another central issue lacking is collective bargaining.

With both the WWE and UFC negotiating enormous television and streaming deals, the wrestlers and fighters remain without a piece of that pie. The idea is that there will be a trickle-down effect, but that is completely at the discretion of the company. This topic was raised by CM Punk when the WWE Network launched where the talent was not figured into digital revenue as they moved away from traditional pay-per-view.

The top-end UFC stars are about to enter this same issue with the move from traditional pay-per-view to ESPN+ in the United States. A fighter like Conor McGregor made his biggest money by being cut into a percentage of the pay-per-view and both sides sharing in its success. The UFC 229 card involving McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov accounted for approximately 44% of the UFC’s pay-per-view revenue in 2018. Today, the UFC will receive an unknown annual guarantee from ESPN+ based on past revenues, thereby allowing the UFC to have a high basement regardless of how their shows perform.

They cited a 2010 contract the show got a hold of and what liabilities the talent assume by signing, including death. They aired a clip of CM Punk from the Art of Wrestling podcast, which is a more modern indictment of the WWE’s medical staff as we’re talking about Punk’s experiences from 2013. They did not bring up Punk and Cabana’s case by Dr. Chris Amann, which is an interesting topic on its own.

Vince McMahon comes off poorly in the segment as the source of Oliver’s jokes along with a series of interview appearances he did with Bob Costas in 2001 and Armen Keteyian in 2003. In both, McMahon reverts to his on-air persona that wrestling fans chuckled at but the real-world viewed him as a maniac. In the case of Costas, I felt McMahon had a begrudging respect for him and returned to his show while I never had that impression with Keteyan as McMahon appeared to just bully the interviewer. The 2003 piece was the same “Real Sports” feature with Roddy Piper predicting his mortality rate and the problems within the industry. It was taped prior to Piper’s return to the WWE in March 2003 and after the segment aired, Piper was not used by the company again until the Hall of Fame in April 2005.

Some were turned off by Oliver making a joke about Roman Reigns with his wet hair resembling a pedophile. I would have been put off if he made a cancer joke, which he didn’t. In watching this segment, it didn’t appear Oliver was even aware of that issue Reigns recently overcame. The crux of the argument appeared to be Oliver citing the voice the fans have in rejecting a performer, although today that is not the case. The show’s premise is serious issues presented with a heavy comedic accent and you could be equally upset over a joke about Jimmy Carter from the same segment.

He concluded the segment by praising fan-based initiatives from crowdfunding for wrestlers’ surgeries, rejecting performers the company pushed, bringing up the backlash to the Saudi Arabia deal (which Oliver was the most prominent media personality to cover last October) and rallied wrestling fans to make signs and chant about these issues at WrestleMania.

When discussing the health and well-being of performers, which was the focus of the segment, I did feel a big omission was not acknowledging the company offering rehab to all present and past talent. Everyone is going to have different experiences with rehab but that is a notable gesture and it has helped several lives, including Kurt Angle, who states he’s been clean since entering rehab in 2013 even when he was under contract to TNA at the time. (CORRECTION: Oliver did state during the piece that, “the company says it pays for addiction treatment for former wrestlers but that doesn’t really address the underlying issues that get them hooked on pain medication in the first place.”)

The company is certainly more cautious when it comes to clearing performers to return and taking concussions way more seriously. That said, you also have examples like Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton at SummerSlam 2016 and Kevin Owens headbutting Vince McMahon months after Katsuyori Shibata’s career ended the same way.

I’ve never held my breath expecting an association or union to be formed. In terms of the practicality of assembling such an alliance, I would defer to lawyers that could better breakdown the realities of what that would entail. However, I have no doubt that as live sports rights continue to escalate and the WWE enjoys unprecedented revenue, talent is going to look back at this era and question how they didn’t have a cut of these enormous profits. As other sports leagues have benefited from this rights boom, so have the players. The WWE and UFC have been able to retain everything and will continue to do so if they go unchallenged.


Excellent overall review. Of course while they probably did a lot of research into this topic, as I said on the General thread, they only had 20-25 minutes to work this in. A longer run time might have benefited this, but as well you have to remember they also throw in some jokes to liven the subject a little bit (I thought the Jimmy Carter one was…odd.) This is a topic that really, until we see some substantial change in the future, will still be discussed. And as John pointed out, more might leave us prematurely in the meantime.

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Agree to disagree on this. If by well researched you mean using clips from the 90s or wrestlers with gripes from years ago I guess it had evidence to support the claims. This felt like a one sided hit piece to paint Vince in the worst light.

My displeasure in all of this becomes when a serious matter that has a rightful place in a debate - like wrestlers benefits - is boiled down to the simplest of denominators which in this case was Vince is a bad guy.

They neglect any developments in the last few years such as an advanced concussion protocol that saw a top star sidelined for years (Bryan). The fact WWE has a far more rigid concussion protocol than the NFL and yet John tried to paint WWE as less moral was simply not true or fair.

They talk about Jake without mentioning the offer to pay for rehab to any former talent, and they compare the NFLs attempt to create a pension (something that’s a complete fares and being fought by the NFL owners) to WWE’s lack of one, when in fairness, Legends deals provide cash flow to retired performers in a benefit similar to a pension (not to mention retired performers would not be eligible for any pension distribution as there was none back then, at least with Legends deals they get something).

Anytime a serious issue or topic can be easily dismissed by those in the know as being half-true or misrepresentation of facts, it kills the real matter at hand. Unfortunately I cannot see anyone at WWE or within wrestling taking this serious as too many points made by Oliver are so easily dismissible, as I just did with three of them here.

Not to mention the employment law side of this which is a whole separate can of worms that if opened may not benefit talent at all and while they may get health benefits they may also lose a lot of leverage in compensation and wind up worse off.

The idea of a CBA like other sports is a serious topic to discuss and consider but Oliver didn’t seem to want to go that route and I wish he did as that’s something that should be pushed.

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To try to call the Legends deals a pension plan is the complete farce. WWE has hundreds of thousands of hours of its library of hundreds of wrestlers. The legends deals may help a few dozen talents that are in WWE’s good graces but they also come with a lot of stipulations. Honkey Tonk man previously talked about the limitations of the Legends or Hall of Fame deals on the LAW in the past and that he could make more doing comic con appearances which is just sad.

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He did mention that they now pay for substance abuse treatment for former and present roster members.

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Okay, you are right. Let’s give those guys nothing. :man_shrugging:
I would never confuse it with a pension plan but pension plans are only eligible to those who participated and since one did not exist back then all those guys would get nothing. The fact the WWE opts to give those guys anything when they do not need to is worth mentioning oppose to comparing it the the NFLs program which literally only exists as a PR stunt.

Neither organization does a good job.

If he mentioned the payment for rehab then I missed it between his cheap pops with attitude era footage in 2019. I guess he should get credit for that.

Now WWE has issued a statement to news outlets, addressing wrestler health but not their independent contractor status.

"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."

I want to see wrestlers address this on their own. If they are so mistreated and victimized then how about they speak up about wanting to be employees? Oh wait, they don’t. That’s what nobody seems to understand. It’s not all peaches and cream when you are converted to an employee.

Of course they don’t speak up, they fear to lose their job. There is always someone standing back in line waiting to take over. Thank god AEW appeared and hopefully they will be able to make the situation for the wrestlers better.


If you’re job scared with the amount of places to work outside this company…you are not worth the paper these contracts are printed on.

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Well now is the most interesting time. Shouldn’t they want to be released if the market is hot for talent right now?
And if this impacted everyone wouldn’t the top stars who command the leverage be speaking up?

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Cornette has sorta weighed in. Idk, does he still have bad blood with the WWE?

Well it’s Cornette, so it was either going to be the “absolute best” or the “absolute worst” in his opinion.

That’s true.

There are reactions from a few other independent guys and ex WWE employees. I doubt we will hear anything from current contracted talent one way or another.

I am not sure if this “Independent Contractor” idea is a WWE only thing or does it happen in other promotions?

I had assumed that AEW would pile on, maybe get a little mainstream attention but I am not sure they are ready for that just yet.

Other companies don’t exercise as much control over the wrestlers as WWE does, which is what blurs the line between employee and independent contractor.

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This “independant contractor” thing is a old as pro wrestling is. It just that now people are taking notice of it because it’s wwe and they are the biggest wrestling company in the world.