[originally published on the website of Wrestling Observer on November 3, at http://www.f4wonline.com/content/view/18192/]
Road Map to New Government Investigations of Pro Wrestling
by Irvin Muchnick
The average politico is no smarter than the average wrestling fan, and arguably is far dumber because the stakes are greater. So-called smart fans expend more energy in analyzing how they were manipulated than in simply holding onto their wallets. Meanwhile, the chattering classes speculate on whether Linda McMahon, who just finished blowing $50 million on a double-digit Senate loss in a state smaller than California’s Central Valley, will run for the other Senate seat in 2012, or for governor in 2014. This despite the fact that, in a sea of national red on Tuesday night, Linda not only lost her own race but played a major role in keeping her blue home state bluer than ever.
They don’t shoot horses, and they don’t yet shoot Dixie Carter – or Linda McMahon. For me, the more interesting question is what happens to dormant government investigations of the pro wrestling industry that sprang up in the wake of the Chris Benoit double murder/suicide, only to subside per usual until the McMahon family felt it was entitled to be laterally recruited into political power at the top.
Since wrestling fans – again, like politicos – share a deep-seated cynicism only partially grounded in reality, the quick answer is no, nothing will happen because … I don’t know, because nothing ever happens.
I disagree. It is an inevitable and appropriate part of the process for electoral losers – especially pointless, moneyed propaganda attack machines such as that represented by Linda McMahonism – to bear post-election fallout. And this is a good thing, not just because wrestling itself is out of control in terms of occupational health and safety, but also because its cultural influence opens a window on parallel issues in legit sports and public discourse. In the former, the key example is the new spotlight on concussions in contact sports; in the latter, the key example is the limits of self-funded campaigns and negative advertising.
With that in mind, here are three areas of World Wrestling Entertainment business practices that warrant being probed anew.
Independent contractor classification. Anyone of intelligence who has studied WWE’s lockdown talent contract, complete with a death clause, knows that – as a Yale law professor speaking for the Democratic Party put it during the campaign – it is “immoral,” if not illegal. (See “Ventura, Jesse.”) Armed with the best lawyers money can buy, WWE warded off the poorly designed Scott Levy lawsuit a few years ago, but now the company faces an investigation by the state of Connecticut over misclassification. (It’s not yet clear whether this state audit, which grew out of a bipartisan commission’s findings, predates the campaign.) Why fans would be aloof on this one, or quick to buy into the argument that it’s politically motivated, is beyond me. Does someone really think the wrestlers who entertain us are not entitled to health care, vacations, and pensions just because Vince and Linda say so?
Congressional hearings. The infamous January 2009 letter by Congressman Henry Waxman to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy could have legs. Waxman no longer chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, but the House Judiciary Committee might pick up the ball. Judiciary was the body that held scathing public hearings last year on concussions in the National Football League; one of the witnesses was NFL brain injury consultant Dr. Joseph Maroon, who is also WWE’s medical director. One of the committee’s movers and shakers, Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York, is a rising star in the Democratic Party. As Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal said in his final debate with Linda McMahon, “That wellness policy is not working too well…. I would suggest some other policy might be advisable.”
Securities law. This one is a wild card. WWE is hardly the first publicly traded corporation to be totally dominated, a decade-plus after the initial public stock offering, by the same original core family shareholders. But the Linda McMahon campaign took WWE into funky new territory in their overall coordination of company announcements and policy, and in the specific confrontation with the Justice Department over Vince’s aborted plan to hand out WWE merchandise at voting locations. You have to wonder if someone is going to take a closer look at related issues, such as the way corporate public relations sometimes supports carny story lines in ways that could cross boundaries and skew financial markets.
Vince McMahon loves being in the news. In this respect, let’s hope he gets his wish.