The global COVID-19 pandemic has made nearly every element of our lives uncertain. The reality we once knew is now confined to the dimensions of our living quarters and the route to the supermarket. There are no bar tops to plant our elbows on, no concerts to attend, none of our favourite sports teams suiting up.
What does still exist during the coronavirus era, however, is professional wrestling.
As of the time of writing, North America’s two biggest wrestling entities, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and All Elite Wrestling (AEW), are still airing weekly programs, all of them on national television. WWE has even decided to push forward with its biggest annual event, WrestleMania, which will be taped and aired on April 4 and 5. All of these events are being filmed in empty venues, with only a skeleton production crew and no spectators allowed. Music still plays and pyrotechnics still fire off when the wrestlers enter the venue, but rather than soak in cheers or try to rile up the crowd, the performers are now just gesturing at empty seats.
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the depths of pro wrestling’s sordid opportunism, preying on the instability of its workers to capitalize on a drained market for live television. In the most challenging of times, it has shined a light on the industry’s ills, and forced viewers to ask themselves some challenging moral questions about tuning in and how best to care for the welfare of the performers they love.
These shows should not be happening. Full stop. You don’t have to fully understand the exponential calculus of coronavirus infection to appreciate that doing shows involving dozens of people travelling to a venue where they stand around together before grappling is extremely dangerous for the wrestlers and the public at large. This was made abundantly clear when Pro Wrestling Sheet editor and WWE Backstage correspondent Ryan Satin reported that WWE and AEW were only performing checks to ensure performers were in “good health” before entering the venue, and was highlighted and underlined when two WWE performers, Rey Mysterio and Dana Brooke, were pulled off WrestleMania two weeks before the show because they were going into quarantine.
Things became especially alarming when, on March 26, top WWE star Roman Reigns was removed from the main event of WrestleMania. Reigns, as a leukemia survivor, is immunocompromised, and according to Satin, told WWE that he no longer felt comfortable working and the company “honoured his request.” It is unconscionable that a performer with leukemia in remission was scheduled for the event in the first place.
VICE reached out to the WWE for comment and they responded by saying: "Stephanie McMahon covered this topic extensively discussing the variety of precautionary measures that WWE is taking to protect performers and staff along with the desire to provide entertainment during this trying time while attaining our mission of putting smiles on people’s faces," and sent us a link to an article in Variety.
“Working with our doctors, you have your temperature taken,” McMahon, the company’s chief brand officer, said of one of the precautions they are taking. “If you have a temperature over 100.4 F, you are automatically asked to leave.”
Indie circuit hurting
Pro wrestling’s independent circuit remained active right up until roughly March 20, with two major empty venue shows that week: No Fans Monday produced by WrestleTalk TV and organized by New Japan Pro Wrestling star Will Ospreay, and Game Changer Wrestling (GCW)’s two-night Acid Cup. Both shows were livestreamed for free, with fans given the option to donate to the performers via crowdfunding sites.
WrestleMania will go ahead from an empty WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, this weekend. But that doesn’t help the independent wrestlers. In a typical year, most independent wrestlers perform in the week leading up to WrestleMania. The fan frenzy around WrestleMania fuels enthusiasm for the independent circuit, and a festival-like wealth of wrestling unfolds over the week. For independent professional wrestlers, WrestleMania week is their highest earning week of the year, and for some, it even constitutes most of their annual income from wrestling. Now those shows are gone. It’s a crushing setback professionally and financially. And there is no safety net for indie wrestlers.
“Even if I didn't want to wrestle, I still (had) to wrestle. Otherwise I'm not going to have a place to live, I'm not going to be able to eat, I'm not going to be able to pay my car insurance,” said Jordan Oliver, who wrestled both nights of GCW’s Acid Cup. “It felt really weird. Nobody knows when this thing is gonna be over, so it feels like that's going to be the last GCW show for a very long time. It was kinda super depressing.”
There is a meaningful distinction between a billion-dollar corporation forcing or strongly encouraging its de facto salaried employees (who get no health benefits thanks to the fact that they are technically still considered “independent contractors”) to work and freelance pro wrestlers putting on shows with the hopes of donations. That said, the wrestlers all share the commonality of being victims of institutional failure: One group by its predatory employer, the other by a government not set up to protect gig workers and those precariously employed in the best of times, let alone a pandemic.
“A lot of us are completely out of income. The government doesn’t do its job that it should be doing in terms of freezing payments, so we have to figure out ways to make money,” said David Starr, who wrestled on the No Fans Monday event. “We’re not gonna be able to have those kinds of shows anymore. The responsible thing is to go on complete and total lockdown. The faster that happens, the faster we can get through this. But as long as we aren’t doing that, that gives governments the excuse to charge us, still, to live. So, we have to do something for money.”
That “something” is selling merchandise to a public that is strapped for cash right now. Starr said he is still able to print T-shirts thanks to a nearby couple who runs a shop out of their house, and will need to do so, because he rents and his landlord won’t give him a rent reduction. Oliver, meanwhile, was grateful for the fans’ donations during the Acid Cup, and thanks to those and prior savings thinks he should be good for rent for two months. Beyond that, he too will rely on merchandise sales, but said that shipping items that are not medical supplies in New Jersey is becoming increasingly troublesome.
What should fans do?
Not only has regular pro wrestling programming continued, but there’s probably even more of it on television now, after WWE inked a deal to air reruns of past WrestleManias on ESPN (something it could have easily done in its existing time slots on USA and FOX rather than produce new shows). For the hardcore fans, nearly all Japanese wrestling is back in business and streaming as of this week, including All Japan Pro Wrestling, DDT, and Dragon Gate. With people spending hours upon hours on their couches in front of the television during lockdown, pro wrestling is among the only sports-adjacent programming still in production, and in terms of new content being aired, might be more abundant than anything else period. It’s very easy to watch a lot of professional wrestling during COVID-19.
But should we be watching it? At the best of times, watching WWE is supporting not just a Trump campaign-funding company, but ones with familial ties to the Trump cabinet itself, and an atrocious record when it comes to the treatment of its employees. In a global pandemic, it is potentially exposing its workers to a deadly virus and further compromising public health at large. Though Wrestling Observer has reported that talent has had the option of requesting to not travel during this time, only Reigns, Miz, Mysterio, and Brooke, who are actively in quarantine, have actually been removed from WrestleMania (it should be noted that Reigns’ prominent position has instead been given to Braun Strowman, who two weeks ago went on a tone-deaf “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rant regarding indie wrestlers asking for donations). As viewers, we watch with the uncomfortable knowledge that we are being entertained (safely, for now, in our own homes) by men and women who are potentially making themselves ill before our eyes.
“Even within the consumer there’s a tradeoff. Even if you were purely morally motivated by just caring about the wrestlers, there would already be complexity in what you should do,” said Brendan De Kenessy, assistant professor of philosophy at University of Toronto, who studied at both Harvard and MIT. “I think it’s a sensible mindset to say, look, I know my choosing to watch isn't going to affect the corporate dynamics that led to this situation, but it’s important to me to express my protest to those dynamics by not participating, whether or not that will be something that changes the outcome. That’s a principled moral stance that makes sense too. And I think for each person you have to weigh up what’s really important to me.”
Wrestling's gig economy
The era of COVID-19 is forcing us to confront all of society’s ills, including worker exploitation and the daunting unsteadiness of the gig economy. The structure of professional wrestling as it currently stands, without a union like the one Starr hopes to form through his organization We The Independent, is as such: Be a freelancer in a dangerous physical activity with no economic safety net until you’re lucky enough to get a contract with a company that might guarantee you more money, but still suggests you’re an independent entity to deny you insurance and make you instantly expendable, and also gives you no freedom over your schedule.
None of this is the fault of the wrestlers, independent or otherwise. They are doing something obviously reckless right now. But it makes sense to view them as men and women with few realistic choices rather than perpetrators of frivolous entertainment. In addition to our attachment to the wrestlers as characters, we empathize with the wrestlers as human beings doing their jobs in an unforgiving system and now an extremely hazardous one while trying to avoid financial ruin. We may be watching safely from home, but most of us can relate to job insecurity and being scared about where the next paycheque will come from.
“As far as unionizing wrestling, one of the things we could be doing is collecting money for a strike fund, which could be used as an injury benefit fund, or it could be used in times of crisis like this. This highlights the inequities within the system,” said Starr. “How does the saying go? The last capitalist we hang will be the one who sold us the rope? ’Til their dying breath, they will try to make money, and exploit, every single chance that they get. We have to recognize that it’s ridiculous.”
While wrestling during COVID-19 has been explicitly marketed as “escapism,” if one really thinks about what they’re watching, it’s not an escape at all—it’s a distressing look into the extremes of institutional deficiency and the stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots.
If you can get past that, pro wrestling is here, and most likely will be for as long as this crisis lasts. Good wrestling can indeed be a two-hour escape both from the evils both of its own creation and our frightening new reality, but only if you’re willing and able to allow it to be.
Either way, as Oliver said, “This sucks. There’s no other way to put it but this just fucking sucks.”
Follow Corey Erdman on Twitter.