Al Snow, a current TNA agent and member of the ECW faction which formed on last night’s episode of iMPACT!, recently gave an interview to the New York Times for a piece they published today regarding Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign. The article talks about how WWE and the McMahons do not provide healthcare for their workers and how the schedule for WWE is grueling.
You can read the full article below, though clicking on this link will take you to the New York Times website where there is a picture or two.
In his heyday, Allen Ray Sarven appeared regularly on the World Wrestling Entertainment circuit, flattening opponents with diving leg drops from atop the ropes.
But years of bounding around the ring took a toll, leaving Mr. Sarven with neurological damage that caused numbness on his right side, hearing loss and memory problems.
Eventually, Mr. Sarven, 46, met the fate of other wrestlers considered no longer of use to the W.W.E.: his contract was not renewed and he was eliminated from the company’s wrestling roster — with no health insurance or retirement benefits to show for his years in the ring.
“Everybody believes that, physically, wrestling is fake; that nobody gets harmed,” said Mr. Sarven, who said his experience suggested otherwise.
Over the past quarter century, Vince and Linda E. McMahon have built the W.W.E. from a small regional operation into a $1.2 billion empire operating in 145 countries. But along the way, the McMahons have become known for hard-nosed tactics and have been accused of putting profits ahead of the well-being of the wrestlers who attract millions of fans with their daredevil stunts and cartoonishly sculpted physiques.
With Ms. McMahon all but certain to be the Republican candidate for the United States Senate in Connecticut, the W.W.E., its treatment of its work force and the way it came to dominate the industry are drawing renewed scrutiny.
“It is a very financially successful company,” said Dave Meltzer, the editor of Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which covers the industry. “But, boy, there were a lot of bodies discarded in the building of that company.”
Ms. McMahon defended her record at the company and said she and her husband had always looked out for the health and safety of those who worked for them.
“We of course had a responsibility to our shareholders,” she said. “But every good chief executive understands that in addition to maintaining profitability, companies that hope to be successful in the long term absolutely have to put people first.”
Ms. McMahon, who is making her first bid for public office, highlights her stewardship of W.W.E., saying it gave her the skills needed to create jobs and stimulate the economy.
And in an interview, she described the W.W.E. as her “life’s work,” adding, “One of the things missing today in some of our leaders is real-life experiences.”
Ms. McMahon, 61, has generated excitement among Republicans nationally, with her splashy advertisements and vast wealth. She has already poured more than $20 million of her own money into the race.
There is no question the McMahons showed boldness and shrewdness as they led the W.W.E. during a period of tremendous growth. The cable channel’s highest-rated show draws 5.5 million viewers a week. The company also generates millions from sold-out live shows broadcast on pay-per-view television, and from merchandise that includes action figures and sleeping bags.
The McMahons entered the industry in 1982, after a series of bad investments and a bankruptcy filing. They took over a small wrestling operation from Mr. McMahon’s father, one of many regional outfits that generally stuck to their own territories at the time.
They then shook up the industry by going national, producing events all around the country and engendering bitterness from rivals.
And while their competitors made much of their money through sales of tickets to live events, the McMahons were among the first to seize on new revenue sources: television syndication of wrestling events, followed by closed-circuit and pay-per-view broadcasting, which led them to develop their own cable television programming.
But one of the shrewdest strategies the company pursued was spearheaded by Ms. McMahon, when the W.W.E., in the 1980s, confronted a thicket of regulations from various state athletic commissions, requiring things like physical exams of wrestlers weeks before they would appear, and the stationing of state-approved doctors ringside during matches.
Ms. McMahon told regulators something few in the industry would say openly at the time: wrestling matches were scripted shows and not athletic competitions that required the kind of oversight that, say, boxing required. The strategy worked. Today, the W.W.E. operates in 29 states without the supervision of state athletic boards or commissions, which also frees the company from the licensing fees imposed by some states.
“This was the first public admission by somebody in that business that they were an entertainment and not a sport,” said Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports, who has collaborated on projects with the McMahons. “Her work in this area got them out of a lot of needless sporting regulation.”
But the McMahons’ approach toward its wrestlers has drawn criticism from former wrestlers, government officials and others.
Like many other wrestling promoters, they classify their wrestlers — they have some 140 or 150 under exclusive contract at any one time — as independent contractors, rather than employees, freeing the company from paying health insurance, Social Security and Medicare contributions and unemployment insurance.
That means the wrestlers, many of whom experience injuries and long-term health problems, must find health insurance, and they have no automatic retirement benefits to lean on when they can no longer climb into the ring, according to industry experts.
While big stars in the W.W.E. can land contracts worth more than $1 million annually, others earn less, with base salaries starting at about $35,000 for wrestlers in the developmental program. “Most of them are not wealthy and have relatively short careers,” Mr. Meltzer said. “It’s a hard profession.”
Mr. Sarven, the former wrestler, said: “The health care industry does not really care for wrestlers or athletes because they consider them obviously high risk for injuries. If you’re able to get a company to insure you, the premiums are exorbitant.”
The company has also been accused of looking the other way as wrestlers, feeling pressured to maintain the pumped-up bodies showcased in the W.W.E., turned to steroids.
The most damaging accusations grew out of a Congressional committee investigation in 2007 into professional wrestling, which concluded that steroid use was “pervasive” among wrestlers and that the industry had refused to address the problem.
The findings, from Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, who was then the chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, was especially critical of the W.W.E., describing how, six months after announcing a steroid-testing policy, the company relaxed the rules to let wrestlers suspended for steroid use appear at W.W.E. pay-per-view events.
The company said it did so merely to allow wrestlers to finish story lines that were under way, and later reinstated the policy.
In an interview with the committee’s staff, Ms. McMahon was pressed to explain why the W.W.E. had abandoned another drug testing program in the 1990s. She told them the program was too costly, and few wrestlers were testing positive.
“You are doing this and expending these resources and you are coming back almost all the time to negatives,” she said, according to a transcript. “It really became at that time, O.K., let’s utilize these dollars more in our marketing effort. Let’s build our pay-per-view business. Let’s redirect these dollars, so that the cost-effective aspect of it just didn’t seem to be there.”
The committee staff asked her husband whether there were any known health risks associated with steroids. “I don’t know; I am not a doctor,” Mr. McMahon responded.
Jerry McDevitt, a lawyer for W.W.E., criticized the inquiry, saying Mr. Waxman had already made up his mind about the issues and that the committee staff member who questioned Mr. McMahon was trying to put words in his mouth.
“He’s a blowhard,” he said of Mr. Waxman.
Obstacles to Organizing
Other challenges to the McMahons have come from the wrestlers themselves, some of whom have sought to obtain better conditions for themselves and their colleagues.
But those efforts have made little progress, in part because wrestlers are wary of crossing the couple; the McMahons dominate the business, and require wrestlers to sign exclusive contracts, meaning that those who want a career in the industry have few other options for employment.
In the 1980s, Jesse Ventura, then a W.W.E. wrestler and later the governor of Minnesota, tried to organize his fellow wrestlers in a union, but found it hard to find wrestlers willing to join him.
“It just about cost him his career,” Kevin Nash, a former W.W.E. star known as Big Sexy, said of Mr. Ventura.
Mr. Ventura declined to be interviewed.
Irvin Muchnick, who has written several books on the wrestling industry, said wrestlers had little leverage without a union. Noting that the W.W.E. has a near-monopoly on the industry, he said, “So you don’t have 30 different teams vying for top talent as you do in other sports.”
But wrestling culture is infused with a tough-minded individualism, and some are ambivalent about organizing. Mr. Sarven, the former W.W.E. wrestler, said that while he believed wrestlers needed better benefits and protections, they were willingly taking the risks that went along with this work.
“It would be nice if the promoters were responsible for it, but let me ask you this: Was the promoter responsible for the wrestler becoming a wrestler?” said Mr. Sarven, who worked briefly as a W.W.E. trainer after being dropped from the wrestling roster. He now wrestles for other promoters.
In 2008, a group of former wrestlers filed a suit against the W.W.E., claiming that it had deprived them of benefits by misclassifying them as independent contractors instead of employees. The case was dismissed.
Booker T. Huffman, a W.W.E. veteran, said he left the W.W.E. a few years ago because of the relentless pace.
“I didn’t want to be one of those guys who gets chewed up and spit out,” Mr. Huffman, 45, said in an interview. “Every other sport has off seasons. But with the W.W.E., it’s brutal. It’s taxing, mentally and physically.”
In interviews, W.W.E. officials and the McMahons defended the company and its treatment of wrestlers, saying they had transformed and modernized the industry, offering wrestlers lucrative contracts, merchandising deals, royalty payments and appearance fees unheard of 25 years ago.
Ms. McMahon said that much of the criticism came from people who were simply unaware of how much the industry had changed. And while the company does not provide health coverage to its wrestlers, she said that it did pay for treatment of injuries that they sustained in the ring.
“This particular industry has had a lot of evolution,” she said. “W.W.E. clearly wants to maintain the health and wellness of this particular talent.”
Ms. McMahon also defended the company’s classification of its wrestlers as contractors, noting that they are often represented by agents and should be viewed like singers, golfers or tennis players. It is a longstanding practice in the industry, W.W.E. officials said, adding that the company holds regular seminars to help wrestlers pick appropriate health insurance plans and manage their finances.
The McMahons also point out that they have instituted measures intended to ensure the well-being of its former and current wrestlers. In 2006, W.W.E. established a drug, alcohol and cardiac screening program after one of its biggest stars, Eddie Guerrero, 38, was found dead in his hotel room. An autopsy found that he had heart disease that critics say may have been related to the abuse of steroids and pain medication.
Ms. McMahon, who worked as a legal secretary, a supermarket cashier and a jewelry store manager before joining the wrestling industry, rejects the notion that she was driven by the bottom line at W.W.E., saying the company could not have succeeded had it not looked after its employees. She and her husband own 59 percent of the company’s publicly traded stock.
Aid Efforts Criticized
The company has also pledged to provide treatment for current and former wrestlers struggling with addictions. But some wrestlers and their families deride that effort as window dressing.
In 2008, Chris Klucsarits, a former W.W.E. star, sought help through the assistance program. At the time, Mr. Klucsarits, known as Chris Kanyon in the ring, was suffering from depression, which he had battled for several years after being dropped from the W.W.E. roster because of injuries.
But Mr. Klucsarits never heard back from the company and, in April, was found dead in his Queens apartment alongside a suicide note, according to his brother Ken. “It didn’t seem like they were interested in dealing with him at any level,” his brother said in a recent interview, referring to W.W.E.
Company officials said they did not contact Mr. Klucsarits after his inquiry because at the time, Mr. Klucsarits was involved in the lawsuit against the W.W.E. over the wrestlers’ status as independent contractors. It did reach out to his lawyer, and noted that the rehab program is for substance abuse not mental health issues.
Many current and former wrestlers declined to speak on the record for this article, expressing worry that they would anger the McMahons.
Others said they had given up on the company changing and were trying a different approach.
Dawn Marie Damatta, who was at one time on the W.W.E. roster, recalled attending an event in Chicago a few years ago where retired wrestlers were signing autographs for fans.
There, she spotted a legend of the sport dozing off behind an autograph table before the man’s agent pushed him into the bathroom in a wheelchair.
“I said, ‘This man should be enjoying his life, he should be enjoying the fruits of his labor,’ ” she said. “Instead, he is there signing autographs for $20.”
Ms. Damatta started a charity called Wrestlers Rescue, to help cover health care and other basic needs of retired wrestlers. Still, she wishes that there was some oversight of the industry.
“Who calls this entertainment? Vince McMahon,” she said. “Why? When sports regulators come after W.W.E., he can say we are entertainment. But this is as grueling as football, and it has a huge impact on the brain and body.”