Researching Professional Wrestling and Sports Entertainment in the United States by Dr Karen Corteen

In 2003, ex-professional wrestler Jim Wilson wrote: “As a onetime wrestler insider … my objective is to show that pro wrestling industry has more appalling abuses than its predetermined outcomes and more seriously harmed victims than its unsuspecting young fans. Pro wrestling’s most contemptible secret is not its bad acting or predetermined outcomes, but its abuse of the performers” (p. 16)*. He was subsequently blackballed by the sport.

Whilst some professional wrestlers do make a comfortable living this can come at a high personal and professional cost. This includes instances of professional wrestlers dying prematurely – before the age of 65 years, the age of retirement. For those wrestlers who do die prematurely many suffer work-related short, long term and permanent physical injuries, mental pains and personal and familial breakdowns.

Therefore, professional wrestlers, as well as being sports entertainers and sports participants are workers and as such they work in a harmful industry in which they are exploited and they have very few, if any workers rights. They work in a punishing industry that expects workers to work in a different city night after night with no time off and inadequate rest. They can work up to 300 matches a year and thousands of matches during their career with little or no respite. They can also work while injured. Male and female professional wrestlers spend vast amounts of time travelling and staying in cheap hotel rooms away from their families.

My research has entailed qualitative desk-based research of public text. In one instance it also entailed a content analysis of regulatory documentation in various states and email confirmation of the conclusions drawn from my research on the part of relevant regulatory bodies in all states in the United States (US). My first two publications on professional wrestling in the US employed a victimological lens and focused on the victimisation and harm of professional wrestlers as a result of their working practices and occupational cultures. The case was made that professional wrestlers constituted the ‘victimological other’. The ‘victimological other’ is not in keeping with mainstream thinking and the public imagination regarding what is victimisation and who are the victims and perpetrators.

I made the case that whilst professional wrestling events were pre-determined, plans can go awry and accidents can happen and professional wrestlers can be injured. I also highlighted numerous harms that occurred in the industry and ultimately, I asked the question as to whether these workers were actually dying to entertain. In my next publication I also argued that professional wrestling and sports entertainment could be investigated and understood through a critical criminological standpoint. In keeping with a criminological lens, I demonstrated that the harms that occurred in plain sight in this profitable and prolific business, could be explained as a state-corporate crime.

Following on from this I turned the focus onto the regulation of this industry. In 1989 Vince McMahon (Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of WWE, then WWF) deregulated this business in approximately half of the states in which events took place. The deregulation of professional wrestling in many states in the US is often used as an explanation for the harms and exploitation that takes place in this corporate entity. However, I have argued that this is a red herring as whether regulated or not professional wrestling is a business in which the health and wellbeing of a conglomerate and the location of events take precedence over the health and wellbeing of its in-ring workers.

In my next publication I turned my attention explicitly to the not so glamorous world of women’s professional wrestling in the US. I argue that women’s professional wrestling is not as glamorous as it initially appears and that behind the glitz and the glamour is a dark underside. This is not new as professional wrestling has always been a dangerous occupation and business for all its in-ring workers. In keeping with the harmful occupational culture and corporate practices experienced by men, women workers are exposed to these too. They are also impacted on by gendered, sexist and misogynistic occupational cultures which result in the sexualisation and fetishization of women professional wrestlers.

In addition, for women’s professional wrestling we are at a point in history where concerns for women workers are especially pertinent. Prior to the 3 April 2016, female talent were referred to as Divas. When the new Women’s Championship was introduced at WrestleMania 32 in 2016, in keeping with their counterparts, women wrestlers went from being ‘Divas” to ‘Superstars’. Riding on the back of women’s successes in sport, this meant a shift in the representation and treatment of women wrestlers from that of decoration for the men’s matches and for the male gaze, to the Women’s Revolution (2016-present). In the Women’s Revolution women wrestlers could be violently hurt and injured and the corporation glorified this. Thus, the demand for more women’s matches increased as women’s wrestling became cool, popular and more athletic. Subsequently, women wrestlers are able to take part in major events such as Hell in a Cell, Money in the Bank, Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber.

The expectation of violent, risky ‘performances’ are evidenced in the title of the events. For this conglomerate putting women wrestlers on an equal footing maybe good for business but I question whether it is good for women workers in this industry. Women have always been harmed when engaging in their craft. The rebranding, transformation and equalisation of women’s wrestling, will undoubtedly mean that the women in this industry are in danger of being further harmed due to the increased pressure of celebrification and the expected over-the-edge, risky, dangerous and at times violent athletic manoeuvres and performances. The equalisation of women wrestlers is to be encouraged and applauded however, we must be vigilant as to the cost personally and professionally to these workers who are misclassified as independent workers and who have very little, if any, rights.

In all my publications I have demonstrated the woeful neglect of worker safety with professional wrestling in the US and how a dominant monopolistic corporation is able to continue with its recidivist and harmful actions, and wrongdoing in a climate of immunity, impunity and decriminalisation. In my final publication to date I discuss a contemporary example of such negligence with regard to the wellbeing of professional wrestlers in the manner in which Vince McMahon in collaboration with the then President Donald Trump has responded to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

During a life-taking and life-threating pandemic Donald Trump made professional wrestling an ‘essential business’. Classified as an ‘essential business’ this corporation continue to film events in such treacherous times. This enabled, allowed and even coerced male and female professional wrestlers into having physical bodily contact that could put them at risk of contracting the virus. It also put at risk staff who attended the filming of events and all individuals the staff of this corporation encountered when travelling to and from the performance centre in which events were filmed. Shareholders, however, did not meet up face to face but online in order to protect their health and wellbeing. Using qualitative analysis of public text, I analysed a timeline of events regarding COVID-19 and WWE’s response to it.

The timeline begins on 28 February – the date that WWE begin to discuss the coronavirus and its potential impact on WWE events. Given that the pandemic has changed and continues to change the global landscape on a daily basis there had to be a cut-off point. The end of February until the end of June covers a four-month period of the pandemic and the WWEs responses to it. I conclude by stating that the WWE’s response to COVID-19 demonstrates yet further the woeful neglect of worker safety in professional wrestling and sports entertainment in the US and it further highlights how the corporation can continue with their recidivist harmful actions and wrongdoings in a climate of immunity, impunity and decriminalisation. It also demonstrates that such harms and wrongdoings are a state-corporate crime. The state declared that professional wrestling was an ‘essential business’ during the pandemic. State actors facilitated and provided a justification for the WWE corporation to continue to operate in the context of a life threatening and life taking pandemic. WWE was politically enabled to continue with its corporate accumulation of profit whilst the health and wellbeing of its workers were sacrificed.

Whilst WWE continues to be financially buoyant, fear of being taken off the rota and of going from riches to rags and not earning a living, results in male and female professional wrestlers having little option but to continue working and producing dangerous surplus labour during the pandemic. This case study also highlights the glaring inequalities between the disregard and disrespect for the health and wellbeing of workers, especially in-ring athletic labourers without which there would be no profit, and the total regard and respect for the health and wellbeing of shareholders who only had contact with each other online.

My focus on professional wrestling is part of my broader interest in crime, harm, victimisation and resistance. I see my research and publications regarding worker safety and professional wrestling as a small attempt at highlighting and resisting worker injustices in the area of sport, professional wrestling and sports entertainment. It aims to give the ‘view from below’, the less powerful – the worker and it aims to expose and resist harms of the powerful, namely the transgressive state-corporate actions and inactions regarding the safety of male and female workers in this business.

Corteen, K. and Corteen, A. (2012) Dying to Entertain? The Victimization of Professional Wrestlers in the USA. International Perspectives in Victimology, 7(1) pp. 47-53. https://www.academia.edu/4827221/Corteen_K._and_Corteen_A._2012_Dying_to_E ntertain_The_victimisation_of_professional_wrestlers_in_the_USA

Corteen, K. (2016) Professional wrestling, ‘sports entertainment’, harm and victimisation’. In K. Corteen, S. Morley, P. Taylor and J. Turner (eds.) A Companion to Crime, Harm & Victimisation. Bristol, UK: Policy Press. https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/a-companion-to-crime-harm-and-victimisation

Corteen, K. (2018) A critical criminology of professional wrestling and sports entertainment. The Popular Culture Studies Journal. Special Edition – Professional Wrestling. Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 138 – 154. http://mpcaaca.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Volu…

Corteen, K. (2018) In plain sight – Examining the harms of professional wrestling as state-corporate crime. The Journal of Criminological Research, Policy and Practice. Special Edition – Sport, Crime and Deviance. March. Vol 4 Issue 1, pp. 46-59. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCRPP-01-2018-0004

Corteen, K. (2019) Regulating the harmful, injurious and risky business of professional wrestling. In K. Young (ed.) The Suffering Body in Sport: Shifting Thresholds of Risk, Pain and Injury Vol: 12. Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 163- 178. ISBN: 9781787560697 https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/S1476285420190000012012/full/html

Corteen, K. (2021) The not so glamorous world of women’s wrestling. In S. Wagg and A. Pollock (eds.) The Handbook of Sport, Politics and Harm. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 223- 243 https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-030-72826-7_11

Corteen, K. (forthcoming 2022) Grappling in close quarters: COVID-19 and the ‘essential business’ of professional wrestling and sports entertainment in the United States. In D. Silva and L. Kennedy (eds.) Sports, Power, and Crime: Toward a Critical Criminology of Sport. University of British Columbia Press.

* Wilson and Johnson (2003) Chokehold: Pro Wrestling’s Real Mayhem Outside the Ring, 16.