Like any entertainment media, the world of WWE has its fair share of behind-the-scenes knowledge. As the company gets more and more comfortable with its role as an entertainment platform (as opposed to pure athletic competition), we’ve seen them pull back the curtain a bit with things like Breaking Ground on the WWE Network. However, there are still plenty of things that WWE keeps relatively close to the chest, especially concerning legal matters. One of these points that seems to constantly get swept under the rug is the legal employment status of the wrestlers on the payroll; any wrestler who steps in the ring is classified not as an employee, but as an independent contractor.
A while back, I was poking around and I came across a study recently published by the University of Louisville Law Review. By utilizing a 20-point test used by the IRS (the government bureau, not Captain Mike Rotunda), author David Cowley asserts that “WWE has been illegally depriving its wrestlers of millions [of dollars] in benefits for nearly 50 years.” The full version is a fascinating read, but just to summarize, WWE meets traditional employer-employee standards in 16 of the possible 20 different areas, which overwhelmingly indicates that wrestlers are far more than contractors.
After decades of this business model, it becomes hard to fathom how many millions of dollars WWE has saved by not offering the perks of full employment. Just from personal experience, my day job also classifies me as an independent contractor, which means they don’t even consider offering insurance or compensation for my considerable travel costs. So, expand that scenario to the scale of a global entertainment conglomerate, and you can see how things might get complicated. I mean, it’s not a situation that has gone unnoticed. I even saw Wil Wheaton (of all people) say on his Tumblr that he thinks wrestlers should unionize.
But also consider that there are probably some wrestlers who view this as such a status quo thing that it just comes with the landscape of being a pro wrestler in the first place. Between the main roster and developmental talents, there are about 130 independent contractors who carry a multi-million dollar brand on their backs. Either way, it’s a discussion worth having. If nothing else, at least it helped us legally define what a “jobber” is.