John Oliver is a professional wrestling fan, a fact he gleefully cited on Last Week Tonight. But he’s disgusted by how promoter World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has treated its wrestlers over the years — from intense work schedules to limited health benefits. With WrestleMania, the company’s flagship event, set for April 7th, the comedian devoted the main segment of Sunday’s show to this subject — focusing on the controversial business practices of WWE CEO Vince McMahon.
Oliver opened with a summary of the WWE’s “monopoly” on the wrestling industry, which includes one billion social media followers, two popular cable shows, a streaming network, multiple reality shows, video games and a film studio. In 2018, the company generated $930.2 billion in revenue.
The billionaire McMahon is more than a typical CEO — helping oversee scripts and storylines, and even playing himself as a recurring villain within the WWE universe. As the company’s chief decision-maker, he’s made some offensive choices, Oliver argued — from having female wrestlers strip in the ring to using the “n-word” during a bizarre backstage bit. “While, yes, he is a playing a villain there, there are many other ways that that can be achieved,” Oliver cracked. “Darth Vader was a great villain, and not once did he drop the ‘n-word.’ Meanwhile, R2 said it pretty much nonstop — it’s why he kept getting bleeped.”
The host assured viewers that the real-life McMahon is “also an asshole.” The WWE treats its wrestlers as independent contractors, not employees, meaning they aren’t guaranteed the basic benefits one might expect for a profession in which you’re routinely slammed against a mat and occasionally pummeled with folding chairs.
Oliver argued against the logic of WWE wrestlers being “non-employees” when they sign exclusive contracts and work year-round. One wrestler’s contract included a clause stating, “In the event that WRESTLER is unable to wrestle for six … weeks … including due to an injury,” the company can terminate the agreement. Another released the company “from all liability” resulting in “permanent injury … or in wrestler’s death,” even if caused by the promoter’s “negligence.”
“Wrestlers’ bodies regularly get smashed up and undergo general wear and tear, damage that’s cumulative and can last a lifetime,” Oliver said. “But McMahon doesn’t provide health insurance for his wrestlers for anything other than injuries that occur inside the ring.” The host underscored the health concerns, showing a montage of wrestlers who have died young — including Eddie Guerrero (38), “King Kong” Bundy (61), Randy “Macho Man” Save (58) and Chyna (46).
“Even the NFL, for all its massive faults, now offers players health reimbursement accounts and have established a legacy fund for older players who may be dealing with health issues,” Oliver said. “And when you’ve lost the moral high ground to the fucking NFL, you’re morally subterranean.”
The host noted small “positive steps” the company has taken, like banning chair shots to the head, concussion protocols and cardiovascular and brain testing. And he emphasized that, with the power of fan feedback, the situation could improve — after all, viewers started the the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag, campaigning for women to be featured more prominently, and this year’s WrestleMania will be headlined by a women’s match.
“If fans in that arena want McMahon to help pay for wrestlers’ longterm health care — or just call them ’employees’ — they could, say, choose to make up chants about that,” Oliver said. “The event is live; the crowd is mic’ed — they won’t be able to cut the chants out. I’m not saying that fans should do that, or make signs, or make lots of signs. I’m just saying I really hope they make their voices heard on this because, given that business hulk here is a billionaire on the broken backs of his non-employees, the very least he can do is show the same dedication to wrestlers that they have shown to his company.”
The comedian ended the segment with a fake WrestleMania ad that, instead of riveting steel cage matches, hyped concepts like “retirement account,” “worker’s comp” and “family and medical leave.”