(MintPress) – Throughout parts of the 1980s and 1990s, James Harris was one of the many attractions that filled arenas across the country for the World Wrestling Federation. He performed under the name Kamala and grew into one of the industry’s most recognizable performers of the modern era. But time has not been kind to […]
(MintPress) – Throughout parts of the 1980s and 1990s, James Harris was one of the many attractions that filled arenas across the country for the World Wrestling Federation. He performed under the name Kamala and grew into one of the industry’s most recognizable performers of the modern era. But time has not been kind to Harris. Over the course of two decades, the man who once performed alongside the likes of Hulk Hogan has been reduced to a bed as the result of a double leg amputation – a result of his ongoing battle with diabetes. Without ever having health insurance provided to him by the once-known WWF, Harris now tries to sell merchandise with his likeness to pay his medical bills.
Harris is not an outlier case of someone who has fallen through the cracks of professional wrestling’s dominant company, but rather another example of the gaping chasm missing in the industry: health insurance. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), once known as World Wrestling Federation prior to a lawsuit with the World Wildlife Fund, has been criticized heavily over the decades for failing to provide health care coverage or the option to buy into a company health care pool to its performers.
While it’s not expected of the WWE to pay for the health needs of those who are no longer with the company, past employees have said the business sets them up for unaffordable premiums and rates because they are seen as high-risk to insurance companies due to the physicality of their profession. As long-term injuries and conditions related to the wrestling possibly mount later in a performer’s life, the costs can be unbearable because performers are also not offered retirements benefits.
WWE’s last fiscal report detailed revenues of $604 million, which is actually down over the past decade from its flirtations of being a billion-dollar mogul in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But critics argue that the success of the company is driven at the expense of the very people who generate the profits.
Performers for the WWE operate as independent contractors and not as formal employees to the company. The contracts, however, dictate a majority of the performers’ lives, putting performers through a grueling schedule that oftentimes has them on the road and away from home for nearly 300 days per year. The WWE currently employs 58 male wrestlers and eight female wrestlers on their main roster, who all compete to varying degrees.
At the helm of the WWE is Vince McMahon, a man who rarely escapes controversy with his wrestling empire. In 1993, McMahon was indicted after a steroid scandal tarnished his promotion. Around the same time, a sexual harassment scandal put the business back in the spotlight that resulted in a handful of employees and officials being let go. McMahon’s wife, Linda, has also made headlines in her attempts to run for Congress in the state of Connecticut.
One of McMahon’s biggest stars from the past, and critics to this day, is Jesse Ventura. Ventura, who spent time as mayor of a Minneapolis suburb and governor of Minnesota after his retirement from professional wrestling, denounces McMahon’s business tactics of signing performers to exclusive contracts with non-competition clauses while refusing widespread health coverage and union busting.
“What’s even a bigger importance is the fact that today they are still called independent contractors by the government, which is absurd. They tell you when you wrestle. They tell you who you wrestle. They tell whether you win or lose. They tell you where you’re going to wrestle. They are your boss as much as any job in the universe,” Ventura said. “Yet McMahon is able to get away with calling all the wrestlers – even today when he has them signed to exclusive contracts – he still is allowed to call them independent contractors where they have to pay their own social security and he doesn’t have to pay a penny.”
Ventura has called for a congressional investigation into the WWE on numerous occasions, arguing that 40 years of WWE’s practices would not go without an investigation anywhere else. As independent contractors, the performers are automatically docked a 15 percent self-employment tax, a tax that Ventura believes to be fraudulent because the performers are contractually the exclusive property of the WWE.
Ventura, while on Howard Stern’s radio show, likened WWE contracts to a monopoly and recalled when he was almost fired for attempting to create a union.
“Wrestling, as much as it has advanced, is still in the dark ages,” Ventura has said. “The manner of calling themselves self-employed which is a lie. The fact that they don’t have a union and benefits. Working conditions that a union can bring. Health care benefits, retirement benefits. It’s sad the stranglehold is so powerful on the talent.”
A business bias?
But the WWE has made repeated claims that it pays for all in-ring related injuries and any associated physical therapy needed as a result of the injuries. The claim has been challenged by performers who argue that the company only pays the medical expenses for its performers who bring in the most revenue to the company, which played itself out in the case of Adam Copeland and Charlie Doyle.
In 2003, Copeland, who performed under the ring name Edge, suffered a neck injury in the ring that ultimately resulted in him needing spinal fusion surgery. The WWE covered the cost of the expensive procedure, which allowed Copeland to continue wrestling for almost a decade more before retiring due to lingering neck and nerve issues.
Seven years later, Charles Doyle, who performed in front of fans as Charlie Haas, was accidentally dropped on his upper shoulders and neck while in the ring. The impact temporarily knocked him unconscious and resulted in disc and vertebral damage in his neck. Reports showed that Doyle had a “mild to moderate” herniation of two discs in his neck, which would need “major spinal fusion surgery” to correct.
But in order to qualify for the WWE to cover the costs of his surgery, Doyle had to ship his MRI films from his Dallas home to a neurologist in Pittsburgh that was contracted by the WWE to provide care and medical opinions. Doyle said the neurologist, Joseph Maroon, told him he had a “stinger” – a common nerve irritation after intense impact – and that he was allowed to return to in-ring action. Shortly after Doyle was injured, the company released him from his contract. With a clean bill of health now, Doyle wrestles for Ring of Honor, an independent promotion based out of Chicago.
Pro wrestling journalists speculated that Doyle’s treatment and dismissive diagnosis from WWE was the result of Doyle’s lackluster spot on the talent roster. Whereas Copeland generated high revenues for his appearances and was a main-event talent, Doyle was never a must-see performer for fans and did not bring main-event level profits for the WWE. Because of this, critics say, the WWE did not want to pay for Doyle’s medical expenses because he was not worth the investment, which ultimately led to his release from the company.
A beacon of hope
As it has turned out for those in the wrestling business, it takes a performer to save a performer. Dawn Marie Damatta performed with the WWE from 2002-2005 before her release from the company, for which she reached a settlement for after she said she was wrongfully released after telling the company she was pregnant. Since her settlement, Damatta walked away from the sport, but not from its people.
In 2008, Damatta formed Wrestlers Rescue, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness and money to support the health care needs of professional wrestlers. The organization provides a health care program that can be bought into at a group rate by professional wrestlers to provide coverage for themselves and their family. While the organization is still evolving different plans to choose from, Damatta likens the insurance to that of Fortune 500 companies with similar rates.
“With the health care, there’s no high-risk category; it’s normal category. The thing I think people don’t understand, is that when you work with a major [wrestling] company, we don’t have health insurance,” Damatta said. “We don’t even have anything to purchase into with our own money. And if we do, we’re considered high risk and we can’t even afford it. Not only can we not afford it for ourselves, we can’t afford it for our families.”
The coverage benefits the wrestlers in all aspects of health, including a discount prescription card through NeedyMeds that provides up to a 75 percent discount for medications not covered by the insurance plan.
Damatta told the Wrestler that she hopes she gains the support of all wrestling promotions across the company, despite their business rivalries, to help the wrestlers and their families stay healthy.
“I’d like to think we can all put our personal battles and opinions aside and let this be a project where politics don’t get involved,” she said.