Academic journal article Labor Law Journal

Wrestling with Employment Classifications: Are WWE Wrestlers Independent Contractors?

Academic journal article Labor Law Journal

Wrestling with Employment Classifications: Are WWE Wrestlers Independent Contractors?

Article excerpt

On March 31, 2019, HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver aired a twenty-three-minute segment that addressed how the wrestlers working for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) are independent contractors but should be classified as employees.1 The video was also uploaded to YouTube and has been viewed over seven million times. It sparked a conversation on the issue that resulted in a response from the WWE claiming that John Oliver "simply ignored the facts."2 This article provides a background of the work WWE wrestlers perform, introduces relevant case law and legal standards for determining worker classification, and concludes by making a determination as to whether WWE wrestlers are independent contractors or employees.

There are well over 100 professional wrestlers under contract for the WWE, which is by far the most successful wrestling promotion. Professional wrestlers working for WWE have been classified as independent contractors since the company was founded in 1979.3 Annual base salaries of the top ten wrestlers range from $2 to $10 million.4 Additionally, wrestlers may also receive a share of merchandizing, ticket sales, and pay-per-view purchases.5 While professional wrestling is certainly not a career known for its longevity, it fares pretty well when compared to other athletic careers. The average age for the top ten earning wrestlers is 39.5 years, which is significantly higher than the average NFL player age of 26.6 Naturally, most professional wrestlers never make it to top ten status. Some only make $100,000 a year, and wrestlers in WWE's developmental league, NXT, make even less.7 As a percent of team revenue, WWE wrestlers are paid significantly less than most athletes. In 2017 the highest-paid NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB athletes were paid 7.92%, 9.66%, 7.56%, and 6.48% of their team's revenue, respectively.8 The highest paid WWE wrestler, Brock Lesnar, was paid only 1.65% of WWE revenue.9

The WWE has final say on the often elaborate ring attire, props, and makeup worn by the wrestlers. However, the wrestlers frequently have to pay for these expenses on their own.10 Wrestlers are encouraged to collaborate with the WWE's creative writers on storylines and character gimmicks. However, the final decision is always in the hands of the WWE.11 The WWE has forced wrestlers to go along with gimmicks against the wrestler's objection such as becoming romantically involved with a mop.12

The duration and end result of wrestling matches is pre-determined by the WWE's team of creative writers, who sometimes also dictate certain occurrences that must happen leading up to that end result. But generally, the wrestlers are given a lot of freedom to choreograph the moves in their matches.13 Sometimes these choreography decisions are even made by the wrestlers in the middle of a match using a series of improvisationally communicated instructions, including subtle, verbal "calls" and physically telegraphed movements. Likewise, wrestlers are instructed on what the overall tone and specific points of their promotional videos need to be. But they are generally allowed to come up with their own dialogue as long as it is approved by the WWE first.14 Despite these freedoms, there are other times when it appears wrestlers are being highly micromanaged. During live broadcasts, viewers can sometimes hear someone off camera instructing wrestlers on seemingly mundane aspects like, "Hold up the belt," and "Big smile."

The freedom that wrestlers have inside the ring and during their promotional videos is always limited by the extensive set of WWE's rules. Examples of these rules include no groin strikes without written approval,15 a detailed dress code even when they are just traveling,16 and no sneezing while on camera.17 Additionally, the WWE implemented a speech code that banned the words "belts" or "straps" to refer to the championship.18 The code also barred the words "acrobatics, DQ, feud, war, the business, interesting, me, [and] I. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.